"This is the driest, blandest pile of poorly held-together crumbs I've ever tasted," I reported to my girlfriend with a sideways glance. "Really?" she half-said, half-asked, with the kind of disbelief only a Le Cordon Bleu student could offer. To her, I knew nothing about "texture" or "crumb." Maybe so, but what I knew everything about was "awesome." She reached for a bite. "Oh...ew! Agreed," she mumbled.
We left vegan Sweetpea Baking Co. (1205 SE Stark St., 477-5916, sweetpeabaking.com) with our half-eaten cupcakes ($2.50 each) left on the table, which is kind of like leaving a half-finished beer: major party foul. Bumping into an acquaintance outside, I noticed the same dry, bland, un-awesome cupcake being forced upon her poor kid. I wanted to scream, "Child abuse!" But instead, when said friend asked if we enjoyed our cupcakes, I squealed, "Omigawd, isn't the chocolate raspberry to die for?!"
"Puss," my girlfriend sneered as we walked away. But I knew better than to tell a vegan in Portland—America's Veganopolis—that their food tastes like cow shit. At least, not to their face.
Now, cupcakes are perfectly reflective culinary symbols of America's individualistic, convenience-driven culture. They're the one dessert that's quick to grab and convenient to eat, and you aren't obliged to share. And they're supposed to be extraordinary.
STICKY FINGERS: Taste testers Izzi and Cobi chow on Back to Eden Bakery Boutique's excellent strawberry-almond cupcakes. IMAGE: Ashley Bedford
New to town, I began surveying the cupcake scene, which soon turned into a diligent quest for the best. Because of Portland's vegan-baking boom, I knew I would be eating my fair share of "alternative" pastries, and I wasn't excited about it. However, onward I went, in an attempt to unearth Portland's crème de la cupcake for myself. Ideally, I was looking for a not-too-sweet, flavor-rich, original cupcake—one you needed to have more than one of.
This discovering business continued to be more of a burden than a pleasure, though, because 1) there are a lot of shitty cupcakes out there and 2) I effectively grew another chin. But in the name of finding the truth, the arduous quest was worth it—gag-me experiences and all. Below, a synopsis of my findings: the worst and the best of Portland's cupcake culture.
307 NW 10th Ave., 222-4404, cupcakejones.net.
Long ago I learned the trick to distinguishing the word desert from dessert: there's an extra "S" in dessert simply because you want more of it. Well, I tried numerous cupcakes ($3.25 each) from the Pearl's (cough, yuppie) hotspot, Cupcake Jones, and let me assure you, these were all desert cakes of which I did not want more. Dry as Phoenix. I expected much from this cupcakery considering I read they are anti-vegan, proudly using heaps of butter and eggs. But, uh, where do these heaps go, Jones?
2728 SE Ankeny St., 234-0206, cremabakery.com.
Along the way, I opted to hire an expert consultant team—Izzi, 6, and Cobi, 9—for the kind of candid honesty only kids and the elderly can offer. What I learned: If a child spits out a cupcake, the bake shop has failed. Which is exactly what happened at Crema. "Ick!" Cobi squawked after putting the house-baked chocolate-chunk raspberry cupcake ($3-$4) in his mouth. And Izzi? "This hard thing is not good." (The hard thing being the frosting.) And me? I likened it to biting into a wax hand. We also tried a red velvet cupcake, which offered slightly better yet still deplorable results; the frosting's consistency was better but the taste still, unfortunately, was not.
Ja' Das Desserts
Info at 351-9769.
We sifted through too many regrettable cupcakes to mention, but there were also some diamonds in the rough; Ja' Das Desserts is one of them. Three words: Sweet. Potato. Cupcake ($3.50). Owner Jamie Savage surprised me when I requested her best cupcake—secretly eyeing the German chocolate variety—and she confidently handed me a sweet potato cupcake. "Seriously?" I asked. "Yes," she laughed boisterously. "Seriously!" If my girlfriend's jealous face was any indicator, I made sweet potato love to the thing. It tasted as if a moist carrot cake and a luscious gingerbread cake hooked up and made the perfect, mouthwatering love child. Until a storefront materializes, find Ja' Das at the Saturday Market and the Canvas Art Bar and Bistro.
MAKE MINE WHEATLESS: A tasty gluten free chocolate cupcake from New Cascadia Traditional.
New Cascadia Traditional
1700 SE 6th Ave., 546-4901, newcascadiatraditional.com.
Now you know I love gluten, but gluten-free artisan baker New Cascadia's gluten-free chocolate cupcake with vanilla frosting ($3.50) is moist, not too sweet, and made with rich Ghirardelli chocolate—that's to say, flirting with perfection. Apparently gluten isn't a required ingredient for superb cupcakes. Who knew!
Back to Eden Bakery Boutique
2217 NE Alberta St., 477-5022, backtoedenbakery.com.
This cute Alberta bakery was the greatest anomaly on the journey: Its strawberry-almond cupcake ($2.75) was gluten-free and vegan and marvelous (and my consultants' top pick). How is this possible? "We whip fresh, organic strawberries right into the frosting," one of the bakers explained. And for an egg replacer they use good ol' applesauce. It was the only vegan cupcake I found that matched the greatness of its traditional counterparts perfectly, if not better.
407 NW 17th Ave., 473-8760, saintcupcake.com.
"Now this is a fucking cupcake!" I said with frosting oozing from the hinges of my lips, after biting into a toasted coconut cream cupcake ($2.50). Having tasted most of the shop's selections, I admit Saint Cupcake really is as sublime as everyone guaranteed (except for the "Fat Elvis" peanut-butter banana cupcake—yikes.) And beside the fact that the interior of the shop looks like Barbie's playland, I have nothing but praise for this Portland legend. The frostings are rich but not overpoweringly so; the cakes are moist with a flawless consistency, peel effortlessly from the wrapper and look adorable. In fact, I was beginning to give in to the idea that it was truly the bee's knees, when, without warning, I found an underdog that kicks Saint Cupcake's wonderful ass.
The Sugar Cube
4237 N Mississippi Ave., 890-2825, thesugarcubepdx.com. Open noon-5 pm Friday-Sunday.
As the cliché goes, as soon as you stop looking, you'll find it. I momentarily paused the search for cupcakes to drink a beer at German pub Prost! on North Mississippi Avenue, when out of nowhere, a breathtaking cupcake sauntered past my line of vision with potato chips protruding from the frosting like a Ruffles city skyline. Looking around frantically to see where such a phenomenal thing might've come from, I spotted a bustling pink food cart across the parking lot from Prost! and bee-lined it.
"What the hell is that cupcake?!" I ask the tattooed baker. Kir Jensen—owner of the Sugar Cube and resident badass of the Mississippi food-cart pod—laughs and whips me up a "chocolate caramel potato chip" cupcake ($3.50); a process that involves dipping a dark, moist chocolate cupcake into a "sexy bittersweet chocolate ganache," stuffing ample Ruffles on top, then dousing it all with a boatload of housemade caramel. In effect, you end up with a salted caramel chocolate cupcake with a welcome crunch.
When the first bite hit my taste buds, my mind broke out in song: "I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more!" Finally, a worth-traveling-across-town-for cupcake. "Is it vegan?" I ask Jensen after my tasting. "Fuck no, it's not vegan! I am an all-butter, all-eggs, sugar, flour, yum-yum goodness, full-of-fat kind of bakery," she retorted. Thought so.
Perhaps it's an adult cupcake, as my child consultants concluded they "weren't too sure about this one," but I'm overriding them and hereby declaring this cupcake the best in Portland. Honestly to die for—and I ain't sharing a bite.
Krista Houstoun is obsessed with food but burns most everything she puts in the oven. She is a Portland-based freelance writer and a columnist for