Saturday, July 16, 2011

Immovable Feast

Portland does it different. One of the recent explosions in every major metropolis is the food truck phenomenon. This moveable feast brings creative hand held food to the masses, wherever they might amass. Think of it as a 7-11 hot dog that comes to you, but is freshly made, likely involves organic ingredients, and has a distinctive foodie-est appeal. It’s the taco truck, but not nearly as disgusting.

In LA, food trucks congregate outside new media corporate parks on lunch hour, at cultural events such as museum family days, outside bars at the exact hour you might need something salty and carb-loaded. The trucks are tweeting so you know where they’ve been sighted, which creates exclusivity and hence demand. Korean tacos: For a limited time only!

The way LA does food trucks (and most everything for that matter) is based on transit culture. You’re there at your destination, you’ve parked your car, and here you will hang. Bringing fun food to the music festival, the art fair, the lunch hour  - it works for Angelenos. 

In Portland, however, a huge number of folks are on two wheels. And it rains a lot. So the food truck phenomena here looks a little different.

Food courts have blossomed all around town, in tiny corner lots. The trucks are smaller than the LA version; my friend referred to them as “food carts.” (The size variance says a lot about a lot of things.) The carts circle up like wagons around a center area with tent-covered picnic tables, essential for the riainy pdx cime. Folks stop in to these hot spots for a crepe, a burrito, a shawarma sandwich, on their way to another destination. Or for a quick bite on your way home from work. It’s prefect on a sunny afternoon, a rare gem that I was blessed with on my last visit, when you’re cycling, walking, or in my case, driving by.

Stop and set a while. Enjoy soul food, comfort food, someone's idea of fusion or just have a snack. At heart, the food-cart court fare is similar to what's served up in LA, but the feel of the space is pure PDX.

What’s the sound of your beer?

I celebrated the start of the long 4th of July weekend at the Surly Goat. Walking in the cool of the West Hollywood evening I anticipated the treasures on tap. Always, tap one: Pliny the Elder.*

Annette was dominating Pacman in the back when I arrived at 8. The barstools were occupied and a cluster of folks sat at the outside tables, enjoying the waning light and the pleasant cool. I’d suggested meeting early since I know how crowded the goat can get but the place was relatively quiet.  

We grabbed seats at one of the long wooden tables. After a brief briefing on beers of note I went to the bar to order the first round. Annette counts Sierra Nevada her favorite beer, so I knew I was dealing with an IPA girl. I told her with loving and lavish details about Russian River, and how they’d won first place, again, in the American home Brewer’s Aassociation top 50 best beers.*

I asked the pigtailed bartender for a sip of the Dogfish Festina Peche, fully expecting not to like it. I really don’t care for fruit in my beer, unless I'm toasting matriculation, marriage or new motherhood with Lambic instead of champagne, the latter which gives me a headache even if we’re just in the same room. But I had to try. Tart and fruity, I couldn’t imagine a whole pint of it. But then, as I lingered at the bar thought how the bright, crisp acidity made it a great candidate for a late afternoon out of doors. Say, at a 4th of July beach BBQ.   

For now, it was Pliny for Annette, and a Maharaja for me. I sat a pint and a half on the table and we sat and sipped and chatted. Classic soul and rock were pleasantly distracting: I occassionaly slipped out of the conversation to sing along to little Stevie Wonder affirming that everything is all right.  

And everything was. I realized I was in fact enjoying the king of beers. No pretender to the throne, Maharaja is hoppy, smooth and deep. Beer Advocate throws around descriptors like pine, grapefruit, oranges and caramel. (Annette was right on when she tasted apricot).  And the music just kept getting better as the brew flowed into my blood.  

Stacy joined us around 10. The place was filling up. I overheard a couple beside me at the bar debating the menu. 

“The Maharaja’s amazing” I offered. 

“An Imperial IPA, from Avery,” the young man qualified for his girlfriend, and proceeded to elaborate the characteristics of an IPA and the specific inflection Avery brings to their IPA, as compared to Deschutes, Kern and Helles. I realized the place was full of hipster beer snobs, and though arguably less hip, I felt in good company.   

We ordered another round and my friends updated me on a month's worth of missed You Tube fads and NPR stories.

Then, someone swapped a dance cd into the music mix. Soul classics were now being interrupted by club beats. "Mazatlan!" Stacy croaked. It is West Hollywood, after all, and dance music is unavoidable.   

But all of a sudden the beer didn’t taste the same. I couldn’t hear the subtle, malty caramel whispering over the insistent bass. I should be drinking rum, or tequila. Big frosted glasses, chunks of fruit, umbrellas, and I'm up dancing on the table in a sarong draping the day’s tan lines. All this dark wood and black leather feels too small. The vintage beer ads don’t look right.   

There is a soundtrack for every drink. It’s not that I don’t ever want to dance on the tables in my sand-crusted flip flops with the glare of a purple light grazing off the disco ball to blind my sun-tired eyes. But good beer demands a more vested music. Good beer is serious. It deserves music that’s stood the test of time, aged well, and maintained it’s effervescence. Craft brews are classic. They speak soul, and they have wisdom. It could be the musician in the room with you, singing his heart’s truth, or Jimi, Jerry or Bob Dylan telling you what you know, but you maybe forgot. It could be the verities of Stevie or Aretha, which hardly need words to carry the tenor of how it is. 

You’ve heard it a hundred times, and it’s still exactly right and true. Beer is art, art is truth in beauty. Call it snobbery, but I just want a properly reverent mood in which to enjoy my pint. The maharaja would surely agree.
*A friend of mine recently tipped me off to what, in any other industry, might seem a nefarious marketing plan. Russian River requires their distributors to dedicate two taps to their brews. You can't just get the cult fave Pliny. "Keep an eye out" my friend said. Sure enough, Damnation is right next to Pliny this week at the Goat. Well, I guess everybody wins.