BAGEL vs. DOUGHNUT
Our subjects: the bagel and the doughnut, two of America's favorite breakfast foods—alike in shape, but oh so different.
First up, the bagel. Kettleman Bagels (2235 SE 11th) serves authentic, boiled, New York-style bagels, with your choice of what must be hundreds of possible combinations—around 15 varieties of bagel and at least as many cream cheese flavors. Add to that a good selection of other toppings ranging from PB&J to pastrami, and you've got a dizzying array of options. I sampled a plain bagel with a "local strawberry" cream cheese. It was perfectly cooked with a chewy crust and not-too-dense interior, complemented by a nicely whipped cream cheese full of strawberry flavor. While many coffee shops and restaurants that use store-bought bagels rely on toasting to make them palatable, toasting is completely unnecessary with bagels as fresh as these—in fact, it may be a disservice (though the option is available).
On to doughnuts: Choosing to avoid the usual suspects (Voodoo, Annie's, etc.), I discovered that Staccato Gelato (232 NE 28th) makes fresh doughnuts Friday through Sunday. Known for 80-some flavors of mouthwatering Italian-style ice cream, I figured their doughnuts would be a treat as well—and I was right. They fry up homemade cake doughnuts in an array of flavors, from the relatively common honey glazed to the unique Guinness stout. The doughnuts were delicious, with a slightly crunchy exterior and a smooth (but not gummy) interior. Never much of a cake doughnut fan, these little gems have changed my tune. Now I can't wait for Friday.
Choosing between the two is difficult, but I'm going to have to go with the bagel. While doughnuts are a real treat once in a while, the bagel offers more diversity. Who ever heard of a doughnut sandwich? BRAD BUCKNER
CHICKEN AND WAFFLES vs. BISCUITS AND GRAVY
This is more of a brunch challenge than a breakfast one, as these dishes are best reserved for weekend consumption. Both are regional specialties, imported from the South, where people are fatter, and sweat more. The meals share one other important quality: Despite cropping up most frequently on breakfast menus, they really should not be consumed first thing in the morning. They will fuck you up. A huge plate of fat and starch demands an accompanying Bloody Mary, to, uh, cut the grease; and after such a meal (plus an accompanying dose of vodka), it's physically impossible to do anything other than crawl back to your couch, click on the television, and fall asleep watching Weeds. Seriously, try to do something else. You can't.
While the chicken and waffles at Simpatica's Sunday brunch (828 SE Ash) have built a deserved local following, I can't always drag myself out of bed in time to beat the line, which can be formidable. I did make it to the Screen Door (2337 E Burnside) on Saturday, though, for a dish that was near irreproachable: a heap of battered chicken breast, crunchy exterior, moist interior, atop a fluffy sweet potato waffle. Throw some syrup on that, and the sweet/salty/fatty trifecta is harmoniously attained. Awesome.
The biscuits and gravy at the Doug Fir (830 E Burnside) were pretty decent—great, flaky biscuit, gravy on the thin side, but enough sausage to keep the consistency interesting. A warm and fuzzy little breakfast, basically the food equivalent of the Snuggle Bear. The deciding factor here is which makes better leftovers. Cold chicken or soggy biscuit? It's a no-brainer: Chicken and waffles it is. ALISON HALLETT
HOT DOGS vs. HAMBURGERS
If a hot dog and a hamburger got into a fight, I think the hamburger would win, because of the lower center of gravity. Maybe not, though—I bet hot dogs are scrappy. And hamburgers have gotten soft lately, with $20 fancy versions popping up all over the place (chipotle gorgonzola pepper-bacon burger on a ciabatta roll, anyone?). Hot dogs are still keeping it real at food carts and ballparks, while hamburgers are busy trying to ingratiate themselves into the upper echelons of the foodosphere. According to the internet, the world's most expensive hot dog costs $19. The most expensive hamburger clocks in at $125, if Google is to be believed. Zach's Shack (4611 SE Hawthorne) has pinball and beer and hot dogs (turkey, veggie, or beef). The hot dogs are small, so you can eat more of them, permitting more variety (please, sir, I would like a Coney Island AND Chicago style), and the atmosphere is funky and comfortable.
This is not to say that the $11 burger at Café Castagna (1752 SE Hawthorne) is not delicious. It is, in fact, pretty fucking fantastic. Despite the fact that I generally enjoy eating hamburgers more than hot dogs, from a philosophical standpoint I must align myself with the food that has remained closest to its populist roots. Hot dogs triumph. AH
BURRITO vs. WRAP
Food Cart Alley, AKA the bus mall on SW 5th, offers a diversity of cuisines rivaled only by the mall food court. Indian, hippie, Thai, Mexican, and sausages. All good and cheap, not to mention highly portable, and a total lifesaver for anyone who's ever gotten stuck on the goddamn #12 bus and been late for work and just needed some fast hot calories before an eight-hour serving shift (i.e., me). In addition to food meant to be eaten with a plastic knife and fork, there are several options for those who like their food in bundles.
King Burrito is a tall cart on the corner that dishes out enormous breakfast and lunch burritos. The carnitas burrito is $4, and has the heft of a small puppy. It's full of beans and rice and pork. It requires two hands to hold, and be careful, because although it is delicious, it's dripping in grease, and not worth staining your favorite skirt over. It is warm and slightly yielding—again, like a puppy. In order to get a decent bite, you just kind of have to shove your face in it.
A veggie wrap from Spoon Soup Co. costs $5 and does not inspire comparisons to baby animals. It's made of lettuce and cucumbers and tomatoes and feta cheese, tucked away in a thin, crunchy shell, more like a sandwich with an identity crisis, or a salad that's ashamed of itself. The wrap isn't bad, but it is reminiscent of California—and unlike the burrito, the wrap is one of those diet foods that when you see people eating it makes you automatically more conscious of their weight. Burritos require more napkins but win the day. AH
SOUP vs. SALAD
When I was a kid, one of the malls in my Midwestern hometown had a restaurant with the truly retardo name of Soupersalad Alley. It was awesome, though, because you got your choice of soups and the run of the abundant salad bar. The perfect lunch combo. These days if you want a choice of decent soups and decent salad bar at the same time, you pretty much have to go to two different places.
If you haven't tried No Fish! Go Fish!'s (3962 SE Hawthorne) little fish-shaped sandwiches yet, you don't know what you're missing—but enough about that, I'm here to talk about the soup. Dubbed the Soup of the Gods (soon to be available in retail stores), they offer a daily choice of four soups (three at the downtown lunch cart at SW 5th and Yamhill) out of a repertoire of well over 150. Upon multiple visits, you may not actually encounter the same soup twice. Most of the selection is vegetarian, and I have yet to tray one I didn't like. (I've sampled at least 20. What can I say, I love me some soup.)
As far as salad goes, many restaurants offer really good prepared salads, but the venerable salad bar is a rare find. The salad bar at New Seasons (multiple locations, see newseasonsmarket.com) is affordable at $5.99 a pound. They offer plentiful, fresh ingredients, some organic, and no stupid Jell-O! As impressive as the New Seasons salad bar is, you can still easily make a salad at home, fast and on the cheap. Soup from scratch is another story—it's time consuming, and doesn't always turn out the way you hope. So I pronounce the winner: Soup of the Gods, hands down! BB
STEAK vs. MEATLOAF
Two quintessential American dinners—meatloaf and steak—both brought to us by the noble cow. Both have historically occupied an important place on the American table: the steak as a pinkly gleaming, marbled symbol of affluence; the humble meatloaf, synonymous with the comforts of Mom's home cooking. There's something to be said for the directness of steak—it's a cut that's got nothing to hide, just a hunk of animal, cooked to whatever color you prefer. It's on the up and up—unlike meatloaf, which always seems a little shifty to me. You never quite know what all's mixed up in there: hamburger meat that's been sitting in the back of the fridge for weeks? Leftover bits of pig? Wheaties? And "meatloaf," if you want to get particular about it, is right up there with "meat juice" in the gross-food-phrase lexicon.
Obviously, I have some ingrained prejudices against meatloaf, but I put them aside to try out what Mother's Bistro (212 SW Stark) had to offer. Mother's is clearly the ultimate destination for home-cooked-style comfort food (with a menu that features recipes from an honorary "Mother of the Month"). And I can't deny that when I took a bit of meatloaf, some gravy, and some mashed potatoes, and smooshed them all together to form a uniform consistency, it was pretty damn delicious, albeit in a geriatric, "I'm not using my teeth" kind of way.
Steak, though, you need your teeth for, whether you're ripping into a $65, 24-ounce porterhouse at El Gaucho (319 SW Broadway), or a $4 steak at the Acropolis (8325 SE McLoughlin). I think it boils down to this: Sometimes it's fun to be a ravenous carnivore exercising those canines on chunks of bloody animal flesh, and sometimes it's nicer to gum your way through a warm plate of good old-fashioned comfort food. TIE. AH
ICE CREAM vs. GELATO
Now that summer's over, this discussion might seem a little moot—but given the inevitability of global climate change, I suggest that it might be wise to sever outdated and nostalgic connections between certain foods and the soon-to-be obsolete seasons. Practice by eating ice cream and gelato through the fall and winter months. Gelato (which is technically just Italian ice cream, differentiated primarily by the amount of air in the product and the temperature at which it is served) has established quite a toehold as Portland's favorite frozen treat—from Mio to Staccato to Alotto, you can get innovative flavors made with seasonal ingredients in just about every quadrant of the city. It's easy to understand why gelato has such a following—sure, it's expensive, and you have to eat it with teeny tiny spoons, but Mio Gelato's recent blackberry gelato was a stunning color and somehow tasted fresher than any of the actual blackberries I've eaten this year. (This is a sophomoric observation, but Mio also boasts ice cream cone design which allows two scoops of ice cream to rest next to each other. It is the most phallic thing I've seen since... well, the last time I saw an actual penis.)
The tide may be shifting, though, with a slew of new additions to the ice cream scene. Rose's Ice Cream (5011 NE 42nd) recently opened on the Eastside; downtown soda fountain Blueplate (308 SW Washington) has been charming folks with old-fashioned milkshakes and floats since they opened; Cool Moon Ice Cream Company is soon to open in the Pearl (you might recognize the name from a little skywriting PR stunt a few months back), promising premium, house-made ice cream with all kinds of fancy ingredients. Don't even get me started on the fro-yo. It would seem that gelato's reign of terror has come to and end; it's time to return ice cream to its rightful position as favorite frozen treat of the masses. AH
CAKE vs. CUPCAKES
If this were a simple contest between cake and cupcakes, the cupcake would win on a practical level. It's a matter of convenience—have you ever tried to walk down the street while enjoying a slice of cake? Nearly impossible. Cake requires implements—a knife for slicing, a fork for eating, a plate—while cupcakes get around all that with a brilliantly simple paper wrapper. Cupcakes have another point in their favor: In an era where people are no longer "fat," they're "part of the obesity epidemic," a cupcake offers what no cake can—portion control. You can't cut yourself a gigantic are-you-really-going-to-eat-all-that slice of cupcake.
Moreover, cupcakes are just plain cute (please don't groan). Portland has two whimsical cupcake shops in town—Saint Cupcake (407 NW 17th; 3300 SE Belmont) and Cupcake Jones (307 NW 10th)—cranking out mini cakes topped with things like glitter, sprinkles, butter cream, and chocolate. Who can hate a treat topped with sprinkles? (Answer: Radar magazine, which just declared cupcakes the #2 most over-hyped thing around, complaining that the sweets are infantilizing.)
But forget everything I've just said. Set down your adorable and delicious hot fudge Saint Cupcake (a basic vanilla or chocolate cake topped with a gooey, fudgey Scharffen Berger chocolate icing), and dash to NE Broadway. There, in an old-school bakery that's graced Portland for over 80 years (motto on the sides of their delivery vans: "Baking dreams come true since 1924"), Helen Bernhard Bakery (1717 NE Broadway) knows how to make cake that tops any cutesy cupcake. This is cake like your grandma used to make—not too sweet, glitter-free, grab-your-plate-and-fork multi-layer concoctions. Better yet, the bakery makes a rare pink champagne cake, a subtly fancy version of simple white cake that doesn't need gimmicky frosting or adornments to be amazing. Cake wins! AMY J. RUIZ