PORTLAND, Ore. — Once, as a tourist some dozen years or so ago, I took a wrong turn from downtown and crossed over a bridge to the east side of town. Let me tell you, it didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t in the posh Pearl District anymore.
With boarded-up windows and rundown warehouses, the Central Eastside Industrial District looked soulless. The only dude I encountered that night signaled for me to roll down my car window and inquired if I needed drugs.
Now, that drive east over the Willamette River is very much my intention, and that industrial area very much my destination.
Look at it. Warehouses all gussied up and looking like Tribeca. Restaurants and cocktail dens all shiny and new.
East of the river is where one of the city’s best cocktail bars (Rum Club), sits next to one of the city’s best dives (The Slammer Tavern), which sits next to a tofu house, which all sound so “Portlandia.”
A WHOLE NEW MIX
This warehouse district is reinventing itself as the hotbed for new and ambitious Asian cooking, with fusion cuisine from restaurants such as Taylor Railworks, whose pedigree comes from Le Pigeon, one of the city’s best restaurants (also on the Eastside), and such as Revelry, from Seattle’s James Beard-nominated chefs Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi.
Yang and Chirchi’s restaurant sits along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, across from a boarded-up Salvation Army warehouse and an adult video store.
But Revelry is all slick and sexy, with music pulsatingly loud and food all fussy. That kind of hubris might have gotten their windows busted 15 years ago.
Instead, it’s just one of a dozen new kids on the block, anchoring dreary drags or taking shelter in old warehouses or buildings on the historic registry.
“Portland is rapidly changing, just like Seattle, but their waterfront industrial area is seeing one of the most exciting developments,” said Yang, who owns Revel, Joule and Trove restaurants in Seattle.
There are parallels to Seattle’s Sodo, but Portland’s industrial area is “surrounded by everything instead of being at the tip of everything like Seattle’s,” Yang said.
Cross the Morrison Bridge from downtown. You’re at a thriving drink scene, two square blocks (bordered by Southeast Grand and Morrison streets) — from Trifecta Tavern for craft cocktails to Bit House Saloon, whose back shelves are studded with cult whiskeys such as Yamazaki Sherry Cask, Pappy 23-year and Booker’s Rye.
Got the munchies after barhopping? Many new spots stay open until 2 to 2:30 a.m. on weekends, including Bit House Saloon, Revelry, Parasol, Lantern, Noraneko and Danwei Canting.
The Central Eastside Industrial District encompasses roughly 670 blocks along the river bank and railroad tracks, taking in both homeless encampments and Distillery Row. Northward to Interstate 84, old buildings shoulder new ramen houses.
On a secondary street flanking the interstate, the potholed road is littered with shards from booze bottles. Beggars dig through trash bins. But next to them is the new home of Wayfinder Beer, with a roaring fire pit and a sleek Western-red-cedar facade. And there, as you walk through the brewery, you can hear Nina Simone piped overhead: “It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day.”
This is an enclave spruced up but still rough around the edges, transitioning before our eyes. The Willamette River splits this ‘hood from the west side of town, but the city, slowly, is making it more accessible, notably in 2015 with the advent of light rail running from downtown using the country’s “largest car-free bridge,” Tilikum Crossing, for bikers, transit and pedestrians. Streets now have lights and crosswalks where there were none; speed limits have been reduced.
More lodging is on the way. Jupiter Hotel, with its Warhol-esque aesthetic, will expand next year with a second east-of-the-river hotel, a six-story building with 67 rooms and a “secret garden.” Nearby, on a commercial drag, another hotel (165 to190 rooms) is slated to open in late 2018.
GENESIS OF THE MAKEOVER
Talk to a dozen chefs and barkeepers and they will tell you two establishments have done much to lift this area.
In 2003, Clarklewis, a cutting-edge fine-dining joint, created buzz when it plopped down near the river bank, putting this industrial area on the culinary map.
In 2011, the bar Dig A Pony made this sketchy stretch cool to hang out in after dark. It spins soul and has the soul of old Portland.
And the hits kept coming. Six weeks after opening on Southeast Main Street, Renata was anointed 2015 Restaurant of the Year by The Oregonian newspaper. Kachka, a half-mile north, was crowned the 2014 Restaurant of the Year by Willamette Week. Considered the apex of Russian cooking in the region, it’s opening a second restaurant east of the Willamette this summer.
WHAT’S HOT ON PORTLAND’S EASTSIDE
So many restaurants. So many bars. Here are seven big openings from the last six months alone:
REVELRY: It is the party-hardy younger sibling of the restaurant Revel in Seattle’s Fremont district. Rakim raps over the dining room, and after 10 p.m. a DJ takes over.
But at its heart, this is a Chang and Chirchi production. Their signature pork-belly kimchi pancake from Seattle is here. But most talked about in Portland is their sticky, spicy, boneless Korean fried chicken. Even better: the sope, corn cake topped with grilled kale and poached shrimp, brightened with coconut and fiery spices — a mingling of Thai and Mexican flavors. Fusion also crosses over to cocktails, from negroni with pho vinegar to south-of-the-border takes such as kimchi Paloma and a tequila version of a Perfect Manhattan.
BIWA/PARASOL: Last October, Biwa relocated down the hall but kept its old space to open a late-night bar, Parasol. The Japanese comfort food that was once a Biwa staple is now at Parasol. Biwa now takes on more ambitious fare such as its $55 omakase, a 14-course chef’s-choice menu that featured a deconstructed clam chowder and pork-and-shrimp dumplings bathed in an XO-kimchi sauce, an umami-filled feast that was one of the best meals and deals I had on the Eastside.
The owners of these two places also own the stellar Noraneko, nearby.
DANWEI CANTING: Opened in January, it’s a mishmash of different Chinese street food under one roof. The “loawai,” white guy, schmoozing in Mandarin with all the Chinese diners is owner James Kyle, who spent 13 years in Beijing and brought his favorite cart food back to the Rose City — from pillowy lamb dumplings to the addicting, cumin-scented wok-fried shoestring potatoes, all best washed down with a cheap beer.
BAR CASA VALE: Like background music, the fragrant, smoky aroma permeating the dining room soothes and sets the mood. Everything gets cooked over a maple, alder and white-oak wood fire. Charred, ashy octopus to start; tender cider-braised pork cheeks to follow. The bar is shelved with 100 sherries, and the bites are inspired from San Sebastian.
I’ve heard the tapas of black rice, chorizo, squid, shrimp and Iberico broth and the crispy pig snout are to die for but sold out so often that I think it’s all an urban legend. But the bartender swears, “Come back. We’ll have it next time.”
AFURI: When this acclaimed ramen chain in Japan decided to open its first outpost in North America last year, it shunned the bright lights of New York City and picked — what do you know — Portland’s Central Eastside Industrial District, claiming the “soft water” and the Mount Hood ecosystem mimic the terroir of its homeland.
The wait was up to two hours when Afuri debuted in October. People come for the Yuzu Shio Ramen, a broth tasting of the ocean — salty, seaweed-y and funky from dried seafood but smoothed out with a citrusy undertone — one of the most complex, umami-packed and nuanced soups I’ve tasted in the Northwest.
WAYFINDER BEER: This is the most buzz I’ve heard over a brewery in East Portland since Hair of the Dog Brewing Company, which is one of best beers in the Northwest. The former co-founder of Hood River-based Double Mountain Brewery partnered with other restaurateurs to make German and Czech-style pilsners, one of the most difficult styles to craft. The brewery is as grand as its ambition, with a kitchen that puts out an eclectic food menu larger than what you’ll find at 90 percent of the breweries in Seattle.
IF YOU GO
Jupiter Hotel is a popular lodging option on this side of town, with free parking on secondary streets, unlike touristy downtown. 800 E. Burnside St., jupiterhotel.com.
Dining deals now
March is Portland Dining Month, when 120 restaurants, including many on the Eastside, offer $29 three-course meals. Details at travelportland.com/dining-month.
See the Travel Portland website: travelportland.com