I love pickles for several reasons: Firstly, the way they taste, and the way acid hits your tongue with cold electricity and fires up your salivary glands. Some people dislike this sensation, but I think it rules. Secondly, the science behind the culinary art of pickling is wild. Cucumbers—which typically decay within a few days—are sealed in a container with either vinegar or saltwater brine, and then lactic acid bacteria battles to colonize the vegetable’s flesh before it can rot, resulting in all kinds of wacky stuff, like fermentation and fluctuating pH levels.
Anyway, the result is a beautiful pickle, which is essentially a time-travelling cucumber. That means that on a philosophical level, pickles are sort of immortal. (Well, they usually go bad a few years after the listed expiration date, but still.) The way I feel about pickles is the way wine people probably feel about wine: I’m consuming something anachronistic, removed from its original timeline. I am participating in a system that has effectively halted the process of decomposition and therefore conquered death. My love of pickles is likely laced with my fear of dying, but that’s another story. The short version: I respect the power and wisdom pickles possess.
Portland—home of baseball heroes the Portland Pickles—is the ultimate pickle city. I’d like to take a moment to shout out the local pickle-sphere’s MVPs: Mama Lil’s spicy pickled peppers, the bad boys of Portland cuisine (try the Mama Lil’s schmear at Bernstein Bagels in St. Johns, or let those untamed flavors dance with salami, goat cheese, and honey on one of the specialty pies at Life of Pie Pizza); the saucer of colorful pickled veggies that accompanies entrées at Broder; the fragrant pickled red onions atop the tortas at Güero; the delicately tart house-made pickles that crown the Bloody Marys at P’s & Q’s Market; and the New Seasons olive bar, where you’ll find cornichons, pickled Brussels sprouts, pickled artichoke hearts, and a glorious mountain of capers, among other fermented and vinegary delights. Plus, you can always go the traditional route and grab a dill pickle straight out of the jar from classic delis like Kenny and Zuke’s.
But when that autumnal chill sets in, nothing beats deep-fried pickles. They’re often found in dive bars—so don’t expect a fine dining experience—and typically come as chips or spears served with ranch or chipotle dipping sauce. I prefer chips, because sometimes frying the spears clogs them with hot juices, which I find deeply unappetizing. I usually dip mine in mustard, but I’m a monster. The best deep-fried pickles I’ve ever had were at Lulu’s, the Gulf Shores, Alabama, restaurant owned by Lucy Buffett (sister of Jimmy Buffett). Portland might never reach the great heights of the Buffett clan, but there are a few establishments worth visiting regardless.
Adjacent to Mississippi Studios, Bar Bar offers my favorite fried pickle chips ($3.75) in town. They’re little medallions of succulent goodness that, for whatever reason, sometimes make my mouth hurt. (You know how your mouth feels when you drink too much pink lemonade? That’s just me? Okay.) I think they might just be super sour, but that hasn’t stopped me—no way. Also, for these I usually forgo the mustard because their chipotle dipping sauce is both heavenly and addictive.
Fire on the Mountain
I’m going to be honest: Fire on the Mountain is not my vibe. I like chicken wings and the Grateful Dead, but it’s frequently packed with screaming babies and dudes who look like they’d scramble for the chance to lecture me about IPAs if I dared to make eye contact. But the restaurant’s homemade fried pickles with chipotle mayo ($6.25) are great, and although they’re spherical, they successfully avoid the hot juice conundrum. Bonus: For an extra 50 cents you can “cajunize” your fried pickles with additional seasoning.
It’s with great sadness that I and other loyal Mike’s Drive-In patrons bid adieu to the eatery’s Sellwood location in 2016. Thankfully, the old-school burger joint still has outposts in Milwaukie and Oregon City, and both have the fried pickles I have grown to love over my years in Portland. Mike’s is perhaps the most basic fried pickle in the local market—five unadorned spears served with ranch dressing—but it’s also the most consistently satisfying.
Mock Crest Tavern
There are dozens of dive bars in Portland, but Mock Crest Tavern is among the friendliest and coziest, and more importantly, they serve fried pickles. Please note: These are not fancy. If you’re sitting at the bar, you can watch them being taken out of the freezer and dumped into the deep-fryer. I wouldn’t recommend eating the accompanying dip—I think it’s ranch or maybe even blue cheese, but either way, it’s best left untouched. Nevertheless, these fried pickle spheres have a place in my heart, especially because they’re coated with cute little flecks of dill.