Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Is This Thing On?


This post is dedicated to our dear friend Yates who left us suddenly last week. Wherever he is, he's probably throwing shade at us for being so dramatic, and is surely the life of the party. Safe travels, friend.

"Personally, I'm glad to see this instead of another one of those stupid pink boxes."

The bartender, a bespectacled mid-40s gentleman in denim and flannel with fading tattoos on muscular forearms was referring to my white and blue cardboard box from Blue Star Donuts.

"Voodoo Doughnuts are just too sweet," I remarked.

We discussed the fad popularity of the now infamous Portland donut franchise which has been featured in numerous travelogue and "cookologue" format shows, everyone from Bourdain to the mayor of FlavorTown™ himself.

Both the bartender and I admit to not being immune to Voodoo's charms especially when alcohol is a major factor.

[ Editor's note: be careful one doesn't over-appropriate from other cultures, ahem - "voodoo", "charms"?; Writer's note: keep reading, jerk. ]

"Oh yeah, that's their whole schtick... that's why they stay open late," the bartender observes.

"Yeah, and really... As worn out bacon and desert is as a trope, who can resist donuts, maple and bacon? Especially if you're drunk."

Filled with a perhaps unearned sense of confidence now that the bartender and I had established a rapport over donut preferences, I made a declaration:

"Voodoo Doughnuts is the Sizzle Pie of donuts," I say, referring to another Portland-based franchise that we have reviewed here at length, "and Blue Star is the Apizza Scholls of donuts."

"Nailed it," says the bartender, nodding, before pouring a few tastes of disappointingly thin Willamette Valley pinots noir that I might select to pair with my dinner.

Dinner was braised beef short ribs with rapini and an herbed polenta dumpling therefore I was going to need something with a bit more backbone than the pinots I tasted.

The bartender produced a suitable blend, again from the Willamette Valley, with a much more sturdy backbone.

Where did this transpire, you ask?

Surely some new trendy farm-to-table affair?

Well yes, technically.

The bartender deftly and knowledgeably guides several patrons through the minefield of choosing from several local microbrews on tap or in bottles, and does so without sounding like a snob.

More importantly he seems to actually care about providing excellent service...

...At an airport bar inside Portland International Airport.

Farm to airport terminal.

You can find The Country Cat in Terminal E at PDX. I highly recommend the braised beef with a sturdy local blended red.


--

Portland is a city full of surprises, culinary and otherwise.

I've visited the Rose City at least two times since last I wrote about her.

To be honest, confronted with the prospect of writing about yet another Pacific Northwest food tourism junket filled me with something akin to existential ennui. Portland? Again?

Yawn.

But things were changing, and more importantly I had new ideas about what to say about it.

There are many additions to the list of restaurants and bars I visited, as well as some deletions (gone is the diner that sits across from the Campus Inn hotel in Eugene, and the Woodsman Deli in Portland– shining citadel of excellent sandwiches and grown men with waxed mustaches).

We went to a ishikawa called Biwa in southeast Portland where they served house pickled kimchee, tsukemono and umebushi, had sashimi morewasi and omekasi and a very impressive sake list. I scanned the open kitchen and the staff for anyone who appeared to be even slightly Asian and I came up blank.

Is this cultural appropriation?


The subject of appropriation seems to be a topic that has gained more attention lately, and I'm afraid of weighing in too heavily on the subject lest I be accused of overstepping some invisible line of demarcation.

"He's mansplaining."

"He's an apologist."

As a member of every conceivable privileged class one can imagine (caucasian, male, CIS gender, heterosexual, upper-middle class, "white" collar and born a United States citizen) I at least try to remain sensitive to such things and tread lightly so as to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Biwa owners, so-called "power couple" Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz are not ethnically Asian, but the spirit of their food is enthusiastically Asian-inspired: specifically by the very popular "ishikawa" cuisine of Japan featuring small plates of usually wood fire grilled foods as well by the spreading and now nearly ubiquitous ramen craze.

Still, the food at Biwa is really, really good.

Cultural appropriation gone wrong is usually easy for most reasonable people to spot: Washington Redskins, Chief Wahoo, blackface and, not to pick on Fieri too much but, well, I just can't help it, Tex Wasabi.

(Personally I find the declaration by Eric Clapton that he "saved the blues" for the United States to be both utterly out of turn and tone deaf. Excuse me, what?)

Then there is homage, which is the category to which I believe Biwa belongs.


Beethoven stole from Mozart who stole from Salieri and on and on.

Dvořák stole from Czech folk music and, as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City, stole from African-Americans and the First Nations giving us the first great "American" symphony, "From The New World" (Symphony number 9 in E minor).

Elvis, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and, hell, even Bonnie Raitt owe their careers to Rhythm and Blues (which in a different era was called "race music"). For every fatuous gas bag like Clapton there's a Beastie Boys around the corner – and I dare anyone to argue that "Paul's Boutique" is not one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all times in spite of, or perhaps because it was penned by three Jewish kids from New York City.

The Japanese in this day and age would not be seen as an oppressed community; however, we took it upon ourselves as a nation to corral Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II, which ended only after we destroyed not one but two mid-sized Japanese cities with the only nuclear weapons used on a population during war (or at any time).

The Allied forces Dresden bombing raids, and the London bombings they were a response to, targeted civilian populations without remorse.

Americans who are unafraid of confronting the scope of our own misdeeds must soberly reflect on the reality of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the internment of Japanese Americans, slavery, the genocide against First Nations and a laundry list of questionable if not outright immoral acts perpetrated in the name of national security, not just in the past, but in the present.

That's a lot to process.

Perhaps Public Enemy was overly harsh when they wrote "Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me," a more nuanced look at the relationship between Elvis and "race music" reveals a more complicated story than the wholesale misappropriation of African-American music by whites.

Even Clapton, I believe, is driven by a genuine love and respect for the music he has adopted, co-opted, appropriated.

Biwa, I believe, belongs in that class of restaurants that may not be entirely authentic but give due respect to the cuisines and cultures they strive to mimic.

Biwa was great, and I'd eat there again and again.

I might even order another cocktail featuring the strange combination of tequila and yellow Chartreuse – a cocktail you're probably as likely to see in modern Tokyo, San Francisco, or anywhere else where the mores of food culture are in a state of constant flux.

On the Biwa cocktail menu the aforementioned drink is called the "wtf." (It's pretty good. Wtf?)

--


What can we write about Voodoo Doughnuts that hasn't been said before? By that I am including, literally, what I wrote above.

"Quality Over Quantity" is Blue Star Donuts' motto, a claim made without a whiff of modesty on the company website.

It is also a claim which is supported by the incredible donuts the company produces in, yes, small batches. As I declared at the airport bar to a bemused bartender, they are to donuts as Apizza Scholls is to pizza: a focus on creating the best product possible as opposed to selling the most product possible.

When Blue Star Donuts runs out of donuts the day is done.

Sometimes they sell out as early as noon.

Each day just enough batter or dough is created to produce a finite amount of donuts and not more.

A friend of mine and I make a round-about, zig-zag route from my hotel to Blue Star.

I'm playing Ingress again, trying to bolster some obscure in-game statistic to hasten achieving the next level.

I'm close, and my friend is patient with me while I explain the esoteric ins- and outs of game play at a basic and advanced level.

It is dumb luck that I happen to look up from my phone long enough to spot a familiar figure dozens of yards away dressed in a snuggly fitted jogging suit, brightly colored running shoes and a matching wind-breaker, sporting bleached blond hair and what look to be the outlines of familiar tattooes.

She's pushing a toddler in a stroller.

"Tasia!"

Still I wasn't 100% positive that it was her until I shouted her name and she looked my way.

My friend and I crossed the street to chat with her.

"Chris! How are you? What are you doing in town?" she said.

"Well, you know, it's the Super Bowl, so, what better time to not be anywhere near San Francisco?"

She smiled and introduced us to her daughter.

Tasia is a lovely woman, I am not ashamed to say.

Actually, what I mean to say is Tasia is sexy as hell, and not just because she is outwardly beautiful: she's really quite sweet and sharp as a whip.

Her tattoos are an external reflection of her geekier leanings, rife with literary references:

Used by permission, thanks Tasia you're #1.
"Hey honey what's your name?" I am addressing her cute as a button daughter.

We go through the standard toddler greeting: "How old are you? Can you give me a high five?"

She can, and does, and Tasia proceeds to show off her daughter's other skills.

Not only does she high five, but she fist bumps, and she can blow it up and then drop the mic.

Smart kid.

"Where are you two headed," Tasia asks.

"Well... I'm a bit ashamed to admit it given the fact that you are a personal trainer, but I am headed to Blue Star."

"Oooh, those donuts are the bomb!"

There you have it: a personal trainer's endorsement of donuts. Will wonders ever cease?

"Oh well you know, I've been walking around a lot and you... uh... you know..." I fumble around, feeling a pang of guilt standing in front of a woman whose life work is to improve her physical fitness while I have neglected mine for decades.

"It's even worse, I'm going to have half a donut then we're going to drink some beers," I confess.

"Awesome! Great to hear you're getting your walking in, keep it up. I'm so happy I ran into you!"

I forget being ashamed.

Tasia is gracious as always, and I bask in the warm feeling of running into an old friend instead of feeling self-conscious.

We hug, I kiss her cheek, and then I head off to get a donut to split with my companion and a dozen to transport home.

There is when my "planes, trains and automobiles" odyssey begins.

--

Forget about farm to terminal, try donut to office.

It is not a task for the weak at heart, and you will face extra scrutiny from every airport employee you encounter: pilots, gate agents, flight attendants and especially the fine folks of the Transportation Safety Authority.

"Sir," the gate agent asked as I scanned my phone (technology!) and shuffled things around so I could lift the cartoonishly large box of donuts, "are you planning on consuming those on board."

"Oh, no, I'm taking these to the office tomorrow morning."

"Sir I'm afraid we're going to have to test those here at the gate."

I scan her eyes for hints of jest, and for a tense moment she maintains her deadpan.

"I'm sorry... what?" I start to ask when I see just the slightest hint that the pressure to maintain her faux icy gaze has become unbearable.

I laugh, and nudge her in the arm jokingly like my mom would (mom would, and still does, adding "you stinker!").

Everyone lets out a chuckle then I'm on my way down the jet bridge.

A small bit of levity in the age of our Security Kabuki Theatre state.