Portland Feast Festival 2015: Pacific northwest wows with its gastronomy

Portland's Feast Festival leaves little doubt that the USA has left their burger-and-fry legacy long behind.

There's a lot drawing travellers to the US, but cuisine is a hot contender. And the best showcase for this is at one of their enormous food festivals such as Portland's Feast, now in its fourth year and currently North America's biggest and –?dare I say –?coolest food festival.

I'm prepped and ready to beat the queues, wearing stretchy pants and running shoes, when the doors swing open for the Sandwich Invitational, the festival's opening event. There's a throng of people queuing behind me, and Portland's Pioneer Square is abuzz with photographers, journalists, bloggers and greedy buggers such as I, eager to get my hands on as many sandwiches as my sizeable fingers can carry.

Inside, chefs you've probably seen on television are prepping "sandwiches"?as long as your arm, filled with twisted Americana such as crawfish sausages, fried bologna or pork pastrami. There are?many influences at play here as well;?think Korean, Spanish and Chinese, and sometimes it's all three –?such as the "soy braised pork belly fry bread taco". One thing is for certain, that this is no place for the humble hamburger or hot dog, leaving little doubt that the US has left their burger-and-fry legacy long behind.

Whatever the case, it's a tough night to be vegetarian –?especially at a pork-sponsored festival.

Culinary stars like Aaron Franklin, of Franklin's barbecue in Austin, Texas, has said?this is the only food festival he'll accept an invitation to –?an insight into the city's uber-cool culinary scene –?and he's deadly serious, shipping an entire kitchen up here from Austin for the event.

The line for his "Gramma's open face meat sandwich"?quickly snakes around Portland's central Pioneer Square. His sandwich –?and it's more mountainous than mouthful –?is a "spit-roasted cow head and shoulder clod, with gravy, pickled fennel, and mustard seeds, served on miniature King's Hawaiian sweet rolls", a play on a "grandma pot roasty garlic gravy Southern food kind of thing", he explains, somewhat clumsily, to Eater magazine.

His sandwiches ain't the only ones patrons are fighting for. It's a long wait for a sanga from Portland's Gregory Gourdet of Departure, a new hot restaurant across the road from the Square, a Chinese crepe filled with pork pastrami, pickled turnip and hoisin with a peanut butter ice cream sandwich with banana brittle for dessert.

The lines for LA's infamous Eggslut grow longer than the queues on a Sunday morning in Downtown's Grand Central Market, where chef Alvin Cailan is whipping up slow-roasted pork shoulder, whites and herbs in a warm baguette, served with an egg-yolk dipping sauce. I've never braved the queues for his sandwiches in LA, but here I finally get my chance. I never knew sandwiches could taste so damn good.

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"Pace yourself," a veteran fellow Feaster warns, and they're not referring to alcohol –?even though there's plenty of that, too, with wineries, breweries, cideries and distilleries are all well-represented, and cocktails are being served at a pace of 1500 an hour.

Four or five of these sandwiches are almost enough but we gather our strength and solidarity and press on through the lamb gyros, the cabrito sliders and finally the ice-cream sandwiches from Tillamook –?a meal on their own.

There's a competition under?way tonight and the critics vote the aforementioned soy-braised pork belly fry-bread taco by local chef Vitaly Paley as the winner. The public also have their say –?and it's Gregory Gourdet's pork-filled Chinese crepe. I'm sensing a Portland bias here, but clearly outnumbered, I keep it to myself.

Over the four-day feast you can participate in margarita and cotton candy masterclasses, learn how to transform your farmers' market haul into syrups, shrubs and juices, learn basic pig butchery or how to shuck oysters. If you're feeling less hands-on, you can attend one of the dinners hosted by beloved local chefs such as Andy Ricker, from Thai chain Pok Pok, who's hosting with equally popular Austin?chef Paul Qui?of acclaimed restaurant East Side King.

However, the next morning I have a breakfast to attend hosted by last night's winner Vitaly Paley at the Imperial Hotel. It's one of the best breakfasts I've ever had, featuring dishes inspired from his home town of Kiev, and the "pace yourself"?mantra needs to be repeated before I head to the Grand Tasting; a daily, four-hour-long grazing event featuring a smorgasbord of artisan charcuterie, chocolates and cheeses, decadent pastries from independent bakers, and fancy nut butters such as harissa cashew.

I Love Annie pies at the daily Grand Tasting.

Annie Pies at the daily Grand Tasting. Photo: Kylie McLaughlin

The feasting continues into the evening at event favourite Night Market, with a whole new set of chefs cooking dishes that mimic the open-air hawker markets in south-east Asia while the Pacific Northwest puts on a spectacular sky show at sunset that's reflected brilliantly in the Willamette River.

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Could we hit repeat to @usapears #NightMarket at @zidellyards? Mad props to @brookebasspdx for this epic shot! #FeastPDX

A photo posted by Feast Portland (@feastportland) on

On Saturday night we're swiftly escorted back to the USA?from Asia for a backyard barbie-themed event called Smoked! Andy Ricker's crew are sweating over smoked pig, Nong of Khao Man Gai is grilling her infamous chicken with a zesty Thai mushroom salad. Elsewhere, guests devour ribs the size of a baby dinosaur's or you can toast your own s'mores over a campfire.

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#omgsmoked @pokpokpdx pig parts= YUM! #feastpdx

A photo posted by @tiffanyjcohen on

It's hard to believe we return to Pioneer Square again on Sunday for another festival favourite, Brunch Village. I devour flaky chocolate croissants, warm out of the oven, and people are fighting over incredible dishes such as Turkish eggs from New York's Michelin-starred chef Brad Farmerie of Saxon and Parole, slow-poached in a pool of cheese, chilli oil and herbs.

Suddenly I'm longing for the humble vegetable, so it's a good thing I'm attending a five-course pescetarian dinner on the festival's final evening, which is a far more civilised affair; in a quiet end of the CBD on a Sunday night.

Crucifery features four of the best chefs from vegetarian restaurants in the US, whose aim is to change the way you think about vegetables, with every mouthful being blissfully fresh and flavoursome. The meal concludes, and as the chefs take a bow that's met by resounding applause, it struck me that here in Portland, and possibly right around the universe, that chefs really are the new rock stars.

I think Anthony Bourdain would approve.

Trip Notes

More information

feastportland.com

Festival dates:?September 15-16, 2016. Tickets go on sale Friday, 20 May.

Getting there

Qantas flies to Portland via Sydney and Los Angeles or San Francisco, qantas.com

United Airlines fly to Portland via Sydney and San Francisco, united.com

The writer was a guest of Feast Portland and Travel Oregon

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