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Debate: Best Food City in the West?

Portland has this year’s rising star chef. San Francisco has Michelin stars. Both have great food. Two local gourmands dish on behalf of their cities.

Steamed dumplings from Benu restaurant in San Francisco, image
Photo caption
Benu restaurant in San Francisco offers succulent steamed dumplings on its tasting menu.

The coolest food city in the West⎯Portland? Why, of course it is. Consider that Portland, near the juncture of two massive rivers, has more fresh salmon, steelhead, and sturgeon available for immediate catching and eating than Sans Pantsisco. And more fresh local elk on the menu. And Portland’s famous urban-growth boundary makes for vast fields of fresh produce practically adjacent to city kitchens—less trucking from faraway fields. And Portland yields the world’s greatest diversity of such savory Cascadian treasures as huckleberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, and salal berries. And Oregon is the greatest producer of hazelnuts in the country, and hazelnuts are delicious, and Portland is in Oregon, and San Francisco is not. And I claim here boldly, having done my research, that Oregon pinot noirs are better than California pinot noirs, and what goes best with elk and berries and hazelnuts? Exactly: pinot noir!

Besides, the James Beard Foundation’s award for rising star chef of 2011 went to Portland’s Gabriel Rucker, from Le Pigeon. And the cost of an entrée at Le Pigeon—or, for that matter, at other local favorites such as Higgins (delicious locavore) or Wildwood (obsessive Pacific Northwest), or small plates at Pok Pok (alt-Thai food) or Toro Bravo (tapas and roaring youth)—is about the same as the price of some appetizers at Boulevard in San Francisco.

Hmm, a city where you can get unbelievably fresh, perfectly cooked, unusual local foods and wines for half the price of famous meals elsewhere . . . that sounds like the best food city in the West.

In Portland I can get the savory meats of Denver, the Asian nuances of Los Angeles, the Latino flavors of the Southwest, the wild array of fresh-caught fish of Seattle and Vancouver, cooked by terrific chefs, served with world-famous local wines, for less money, with less trucking time, and probably less waiting time as well, considering the cities’ respective foodie-to-restaurant ratios. Plus our pro basketball team’s better than the Golden State’s.

I rest my case. —Brian Doyle

san francisco
One way to measure the dining scene in San Francisco against that of Portland is to thumb through your handy-dandy Michelin Guide. The guide for the San Francisco Bay Area presents a constellation of more than 40 Michelin-starred restaurants (17 of them in the city proper), plus hundreds of others deemed worthy of mention. The guide for Portland, um, doesn’t exist.

The French aren’t without flaws, but I think we can agree that they know from food. So it also merits mention that when the Gallic arbiters of culinary taste opted to survey U.S. cities, San Francisco was their first West Coast port of call.

Not that anyone should have been surprised.

Like heirloom tomatoes, restaurants flourish where the conditions are richest. You’d be hard pressed to find an American city that provides more fertile ground than San Francisco, which sits in a kind of culinary Eden, ringed by renowned wineries, fisheries, and family farms. Name your favorite edible—goat cheese, prosciutto, huckleberry preserves—you can hardly swing a parsnip without knocking into an artisan producer. Farmers’ markets, a fairly recent fashion in many urban centers, have furnished San Franciscans with fresh goods since the 1940s. (The city’s oldest, on Alemany Boulevard, has been operating continuously for 68 years.) The Ferry Building, an unparalleled emporium of all things local, seasonal, and organic, stands as a monument to the city’s interests: Progressive food currents have long coursed through San Francisco’s mainstream.

Given the breadth and depth of our culinary culture, it’s no wonder that so many top chefs regard San Francisco as the place to be, from established stars (the Food Network’s Tyler Florence launched Wayfare Tavern in the Financial District in June 2010) to precocious talents like 33-year-old Corey Lee. The former chef de cuisine at the French Laundry in Yountville (widely viewed as among the world’s finest restaurants), Lee opened Benu in San Francisco’s South of Market district in August 2010. The restaurant’s black truffle custard with faux shark fin soup is just one example of the region’s pristine bounty subjected to a chef’s distinctive alchemy.

Benu is haute cuisine, but the city can do humble, too, in varieties to rival a United Nations potluck: Japanese yakitoris, Turkish kebabs, Salvadoran pupusas. The list goes on, like ingredients in a treasured recipe. Blend them all, and you’ve got the makings of the West Coast’s most vital restaurant culture. You can take my word for it, or find confirmation in one of the world’s most respected culinary guides. —Josh Sens

Check out the rest of our food getaways package:
The West’s Best Chocolate
Vegetables Star at 10 Restaurants
Our Pizza Obsession
Peter Merriman: The Aloha Chef

Photography by Ai Sugano

This article was first published in October 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.