Portland on the Cheap: A Day of Fun in the Big City

Patacon from La Arepa. Photo by Jesse Tomaino.

I moved to Portland about a year ago but I have kept one foot in Corvallis, coming down on weekends to tend bar and to see all of my friends here in town. Commuting has taught me that it’s not such a long trip, but I still have trouble convincing my Corvallis buddies to come to the city to hang out. One big excuse is how expensive it is to go out in Portland, so I’ve come up with some ideas for cheap, easy trips. I figured at the least I’ll get to explore my new home and hopefully some of you will come join me next time!

I live in SE, and it seems like good-deal central. Hiking to the top of Mt. Tabor is completely free, right in the middle of the city, and a good way to start an afternoon where the plan includes beer, visits to multiple food carts, and possibly evening revelry. After strapping on our hiking shoes we parked at 59th and Hawthorne and took the stairs from the street up into the park. Mt. Tabor is home to Portland’s drinking water in three reservoirs which you pass as you hike up the hill. No worries, it’s a pretty easy hike, with concrete paths or stairs just about the whole way up. The reservoirs themselves boast crenellated water towers perched on the edge and an array of congregating bird life. I’m not an expert birdwatcher, but my ladyfriend insisted that we saw baby puffins in addition to ducks, gulls, crows, and robins. My buddy Butler the Bird Guy has since identified them as bufflehead ducks but I won’t be the one to tell her she was wrong. At the top of the hill there are benches with amazing views of downtown, a statue of former Oregonian editor Harvey Scott, and dozens of trails to choose from if you’re inclined to explore the park further.

Ready to explore lunch, we headed down the hill and drove the 20 blocks to the food carts at Division and 50th. Officially A La Carts Food Pavilion, it’s one of my favorite places to get lunch. With a dozen separate carts representing a wide range of cuisines you can put together an interesting, varied meal. After doing a couple of laps, we decided on a Kalamata Mama burger from Burger Guild ($7.50), Green Papaya Salad from Dolicious ($5), and a Patacon, or Venezuelan chicken and plantain sandwich from La Arepa ($7). We weren’t sure how they were going to pull off a chicken sandwich using plantains as bread, but I’m glad we gave it a try. The plantains were perfectly butterflied to create enough surface area for a good-sized sandwich, fried until crunchy on the outside and creamy and starchy on the inside, yet they still had enough structural integrity to hold together a sandwich of braised chicken, cabbage slaw, cotija cheese, and a spicy ketchup-based sauce. La Arepa may have perfected the science of the plantain; my ladyfriend went so far as to say, “I’m never using bread again now that I know fried banana is an option.”

Mt. Tabor's middle reservoir. Photo by Jesse Tomaino.

Burger Guild not only has non-traditional deliciousness on its burgers, like the feta, olives, and peppers of the Kalamata Mama, they actually stuff them inside the burger patty. A molten pocket of feta cheese is a wonderful thing to find when biting into a burger, and when you put that burger on a fresh, locally made bun you’re onto something.

I’ve had the Papaya Salad at Dolicious before; it’s much like every other Thai green papaya salad, except they put shredded, dried, seemingly candied beef on it—which creates an amazing balance of sweet, salty, spicy, crunchy, and chewy.

There is no beer at the food cart pod, and that meal certainly called for a pint of hoppy Oregon nectar. Luckily HUB (Hopworks Urban Brewery) is just a few blocks away and they have happy hour from 3 to 6 p.m. every day. We got a pint for $3.75, saw a bunch of tasty food deals on their menu that we weren’t even remotely interested in after our food cart feast, and grabbed a 22 oz. ($4.70) of special-release unfiltered lager to go. If you’re headed back to Corvallis, save that bomber for home. If you can stay in the city for the night, public transportation is easy and you can stick around HUB for a couple more beers before you hit the town.

If you’re going to make a night of it, there will be time to investigate some Portlandia quirkiness—salt therapy at the Salt Grotto, sensory deprivation at Deep Haven flotation tank center, or Ping Pong’s Pint Size Puppet Museum. Seriously, I need someone to go with me to the puppet museum; homegirl thinks it looks creepy. We can hit a show, too; the live music scene in Corvallis has some great things going on, but there are dozens of bands playing in Portland every night. Just this week I went to the Aladdin and Hawthorne theaters to see outstanding shows (Eels and Corvallis’ own 30# Test, respectively). We’ll talk soon and figure out the details, but I have a couch with your name on it if you’re picking up the beers at HUB.

by Jesse Tomaino