I thought I was an expert on all things Portland until I met a fast-talking New Yorker one Friday in Pioneer Courthouse Square. In four hours, David Schargel told me things I never knew, like how to tell which Benson Bubblers are original and that Portland now boasts more breweries than any city in the world.
OK, I already knew the brewery factoid, but the 11 other tour members, who hailed from places like Wisconsin and Mississippi, were delighted by the arsenal of local food trivia dispensed during Portland Walking Tours' Epicurean Excursion, a 1.3-mile tour punctuated by streetcar rides and 30 tastings. The tourists oohed over Schargel's sustainability-centric mobile brunch, and I saw my city through the eyes of out-of-towners. "We like Portland better than San Francisco," exclaimed a Californian.
The classic tomato-orange soup we sampled at 10 am at Flying Elephants Deli was a nice respite on a cool day as the tourists learned what Schargel meant by "umami" and "mouth feel," and that citrus is detected by the 14,000 taste sensors that live in your nose.
We donned hairnets at Pearl Bakery to tug at rubbery sourdough starter and learn that pumpernickel was named after Napoleon's horse (often debated), and gather around a rustic baking table to sample crunchy baguettes, tart pain au levain and those flawless croissants.
Before that morning, I didn't know that the ovens at Hot Lips Pizza supplied heat to the Ecotrust building, that pear trees grew in the Pearl District and that I walk by a tea plant every day of my life.
Schargel, 43, is an amateur historian and high-tech refugee who fled a cush job as president of a software company in his early 30s to take a walkabout in Australia. He fell in love with Melbourne and moved to Portland in 1996 because it reminded him of Australia's famously livable second city. Enamored by the traveler's lifestyle, he'd give free tours to visitors at Portland's youth hostels. When his wife suggested he charge, Portland Walking Tours was born in 2000. The company now leads five different PDX tours that range from $17 for the Best of Portland tour to $59 for the Epicurean Excursion.
A skeptic, I wondered why a culinary tour of downtown wouldn't include lesser-known finds like macchiatos at Acorn Cafe or hot chocolate at Sahagún, but Schargel says his route never veers more than a block from the streetcar or MAX lines. His enthusiasm is contagious and his guides knowledgeable. He says his company has a mantra: "If I ever hear an employee say, 'I don't know,' I will kick their ass."
I would never have thought to tour my own city, but I'm glad I did. We often take for granted our food, our transit and our sustainable leanings, but the accolades of out-of-towners are nice reminders why we call Portland home in the first place.