The Best Surprises Involve Sand Between the Toes

Saturday morning I woke up and Tara was standing by the side of the bed, yanking the covers off me.

“Get up,” she said. “We’re going to the beach.”

“No, we’re not,” I mumbled sleepily, confused by my wife’s declaration. She was going into the office to get some work done. We had no plans. “You’re going into the office to get some work done,” I reminded her. “We have no plans.”

“I lied. It’s Father’s Day weekend. Work can wait.”

Turns out, she had planned a surprise trip to Cannon Beach behind my back. Complete with a picnic lunch and new kites to fly. It was pretty awesome, I have to admit. We hadn’t been to Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast in two years. I’m not sure how that happened, but considering how much I love the place, that’s a crime. So an hour later I was showered and dressed and we were eating breakfast before heading west. Audrey was in on the secret, too. I’m impressed they pulled it off. As we drove over the Coast Range the clouds pressed down ominously, giving way to spates of rain and worrying me that our trip would be a washout. But the coast was dry and mild, and by the time we were walking across the sand at Cannon Beach, skies were blue and the sun was shining brightly. For about ninety minutes, anyway; just long enough to get a nice little sunburn going. We had a picnic lunch, flew kites, walked down to Haystack Rock and back, and just enjoyed the sights, sounds, and smells of the crashing surf. The ocean always takes away my stress and makes me happy. We stayed until a little after 5 PM, then made the journey back home, stopping into the Helvetia Tavern for burgers and a cold one (well, root beer for me) on the way. Got back around 8 PM, tired after a long but fun day on the go.

Sunday was considerably more relaxing. And also considerably wetter, so it’s a good thing we hit the beach on Saturday. Perhaps because it was Father’s Day, I found myself immersed in old home movies from when the kids were little. I used to tote around a camcorder like a modern day Scorsese, filming nearly every moment of Rusty’s and Audrey’s childhoods. The impromptu viewing triggered a bit of nostalgia, as I watched memories from a completely different life reveal themselves in brightly colored pixels before my eyes. Tara observed that I led a very “yuppie life” back then, and – between the house in the suburbs, the two children, the birthday parties and Easter egg hunts and ballet rehearsals and karate lessons, the freshly mowed lawn, the 4th of July fireworks, and the mountain of gaily wrapped gifts beneath the tree on Christmas morning – I can’t really argue with that. The only thing missing was the white picket fence, and that’s only because our HOA would have fined us for disrupting the neighborhood aesthetic if we’d dared to put one up. It just amazes me how incredibly different my life was a dozen short years ago. That’s a blink of an eye, really. And yet it feels like it was the Ice Age. One obvious takeaway from the home movies: I loved having little kids. I was in my element then, in a way that my ex never was…and that is also obvious from the videos. She often told me, as things were unraveling, that she only had kids because I wanted kids. I never really believed her then, but I think I do now. After all, the camera never lies.

Having teenagers is just so completely different. Especially when one doesn’t even live with you, and hardly ever comes around. I miss those days more than I ever imagined I would. At the same time, I’m thankful I got to experience them.

Here are a few pics from the weekend. Click on any to enlarge.


Keep Portland Weird

Portland’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird,” and that’s a reputation the city proudly strives to live up to. Between the chicory-pilfering sous chefs and the battle between the machete-wielding stepdad and the kid who defended himself with a garden rake, there’s plenty of weird to go around. But even I was unprepared for this particular sight a few days ago.

RIP Bigfoot

We were driving through one of Portland’s nicer neighborhoods last Saturday on our way to lunch. This area of tree-lined streets and beautiful big houses is called Ladd’s Addition, and is just south of Hawthorne Boulevard, a favorite hangout. I would love to live there. I would also need to have quite a bit of money to live there, so for now it’s a distant dream. Anyway, when we came upon the above sight, we all did double takes. And then parked the car to take pictures.

Now, I’m sure there’s not really a body beneath that dirt piled next to the curb in front of somebody’s house. The owners probably had topsoil delivered for a gardening project, and thought it would be funny to stick a couple of crosses in the dirt.

I’m about 85% sure, anyway. If this were any other city, I’d be positive. But it’s Portland, so you never really know.

This got me thinking about all the weird sights I have seen around town. Fortunately, I have photographic evidence of many of them. So, without further ado, enjoy!

Is your city weird, too? Do you have photographic evidence? And what do you think of the first photo: topsoil for the garden, or a homeowner taking revenge on the guy who always steals his parking spot?

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A Vintage Seafood-y Weekend

While pop-up campers were representative of my childhood, I’ve always had a fondness for vintage travel trailers from the 1950s. No surprise, given my love of all things retro. Think shiny silver Airstreams that looked very Space-Agey back then, or my ultimate dream machine, a Volkswagen Camper Bus. So when a friend of ours told us about a place on the Washington coast where you can stay in fully appointed vintage trailers, we knew we had to check it out. This past weekend gave us the perfect excuse: it was both my birthday and the Astoria Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival. We made reservations a couple of months ago, and set out Friday afternoon after work.

We arrived in Astoria, Oregon around 6:30. Surprisingly, it was a gorgeous evening, with brilliant sunshine and a pristine blue sky dotted with puffy clouds. I say “surprisingly” because Astoria is notoriously cloudy and damp. But it’s a beautiful harborside city with a rich maritime history located at the confluence of the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River. It’s also the site of several popular movies including The Goonies, Kindergarten Cop, and Short Circuit. Quaint Victorian-style homes dot the steep hillsides overlooking the water and the impressive 4.2-mile long Astoria-Megler Bridge that connects Oregon and Washington. I love the place, and hope to live there someday. We slid into a booth at the Silver Salmon Grille and ordered a couple of drinks and appetizers. The steamer clams were the best we’d ever had! It was the beginning of a very seafoody weekend.

After killing time in Astoria, we crossed the bridge into Washington, and arrived at the Sou’wester Lodge around 8:30. Some articles refer to the place as a “spiritual convergence zone,” and I’d say that’s not far off the mark. It felt like we had stepped back in time; the rustic lodge (built in 1892) with its brightly colored string of lights overlooked a group of vintage trailers plucked straight out of the 50s, all tucked between a stand of towering fir trees within walking distance of the ocean. The proprietor was an older woman who was clearly an ex-hippie. She showed us around the lodge and then walked us over to our trailer, a 1953 Zelmar cruiser. The trailer was well-maintained and right up my alley, with polished wood and kitschy curtains throughout. It included a cozy bedroom, a table with bench seating, sink, stove, microwave, refrigerator (more like a classic icebox), and a living room with a low-slung couch. We even had a 13″ color TV/VCR combo and a library of VHS tapes to borrow for free. Very cool. We kicked back with some adult beverages and then walked over to a dive bar next door called Rod’s Lamplighter, where we had some more drinks, played pool, listened to karaoke, and chatted with the locals. Everybody was friendly, and the tater tots were delicious. We didn’t get back to the trailer until close to 1 AM, and didn’t get to bed for almost an hour.

The next morning we recovered in classic Mark & Tara style: we lounged around with Bloody Marys while watching 10 Things I Hate About You on the VCR. After showering (that was an experience in the cramped confines of the trailer bathroom), we headed over to Astoria for the festival. I’d been there a couple of times before, most recently in 2008, and always enjoyed it. Sure enough, it was a lot of fun, and a popular draw: the place was packed. We wandered around, sampling wine and beer and eating – you guessed it – seafood. Oyster shooters, crab and shrimp toast, pan fried oysters, seafood gumbo, all of it fresh and wonderful. We spent a few hours there, wandered around Astoria some more, and then drove back to Washington, where we hit the beach. By this time the skies had clouded over, the wind was raging, and the heavens opened up with a driving, drenching rain. We weren’t actually “on” the beach ourselves, per se, but in my car, driving up and down the sand, protected from the elements. That’s one of the best things about the Long Beach Peninsula: you can drive right out to the water’s edge. Afterwards we drove back into town and grabbed some ingredients for dinner. Back in our trailer, rain pounded on the roof and the wind clawed at the windows with the eager determination of a house cat demanding entry, but we were warm and dry. Tara cooked us a dinner of garlic chive pasta with asparagus tips and bay shrimp, and we watched a couple more VHS movies (St. Elmo’s Fire and Sister Act) before crawling into bed early. We were both exhausted after a late night and busy day.

Sunday we lounged in bed reading our Kindles for awhile and enjoying the sound of the rain pelting the roof. I pointed out that 24 hours later we’d be back in our cubicles toiling away for Corporate America, a depressing thought that we tried to push aside. Reluctantly we packed up and checked out, making a detour back to the beach before leaving. By now the rain had stopped and the sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. We were actually able to walk on the sand this time. Then we began the long drive home, stopping in Astoria for breakfast at Pig ‘n Pancake on the way. It was a white-knuckle drive, with lots of heavy rain and even some hail thrown in for good measure, but we made it back unscathed, arriving home mid-afternoon. After a quick trip to the grocery store we went to my parents’ house for a birthday dinner. They had watched Audrey for the weekend, in order to give Tara and I a much-needed relaxing weekend.

My verdict? Best birthday ever! We’ll definitely return to the Sou’wester Lodge. Err…the “spiritual convergence zone.”

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Where’s the 13th Floor?

I was in an elevator a few weeks ago, and noticed there was no 13th floor. I know that some building owners are superstitious and consider 13 an unlucky number, but just because there wasn’t a 13th floor listed does not mean the 13th floor didn’t exist. In this case (a hotel with 15 floors), if you’re staying on the 14th floor, guess what? You’re really staying on the 13th floor, sucker. Calling it something different doesn’t mean it’s not there. It is, under a different name, to make those with triskadaphobia feel happy.

Just because it isn't listed doesn't mean it's not there.

Just because it isn’t listed doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I’ve always felt bad for the number 13. It gets such a bad rap, and I’m not even sure why. There is some argument that Judas was seated 13th at the table during the Last Supper, but the Bible doesn’t talk about a seating order and makes no mention of 13 being an unlucky number. In Norse mythology, the 13th god – Loki – son of Odin (another god) and brother of Thor (another god) – murdered Baldr, another god, and was the 13th to arrive at the funeral. I find that a pretty flimsy excuse to shun the number 13, because the Vikings had so many gods to worship already, would the loss of one really put a dent in their ability to pray? I would gladly stay on the 13th floor of that hotel. Room 1313, ideally. Bring it on!

The world is a crazy place. The things we do or say to make ourselves feel better, huh? Fate is going to do what Fate is going to do, regardless of our efforts to step in and intervene.

I was thinking about all of this recently because I often marvel how my life turned out so perfectly, despite every effort on my part to go down a different path. Had things turned out the way I wanted them to a few years ago, I’d have ended up with somebody else. And would now be a widower. She passed away earlier this year, and unbeknownst to either of us, had been suffering from a fatal illness for years. Ironically enough, that same person prevented me from pursuing yet another path that would have left me feeling unhappy and trapped. I can only shake my head in wonder. If you ever read Stephen King’s 11/22/63, it suggests the idea that there is a Master Plan, and despite how hard you try to alter the course Fate has laid out for you, it will make every effort to right itself so the end result is exactly as intended. In this book, “the Past harmonizes,” making it very challenging for the protagonist to change the future (in this case, prevent Kennedy’s assassination). It’s a fascinating theory, and one of the more provocative King novels ever written. I mean, maybe the Present harmonizes, too.

There’s a reason why I included a mention of Fate in my wedding vows.

I know I’ve talked about all this stuff before, and it may sound like I’m beating a dead horse. It’s just that, I have these moments of clarity where I realize how I’ve dodged multiple bullets over the past few years, and it sometimes leaves me shaky. Because I came so close to having a life that wouldn’t have made me happy. I see that now. I didn’t then. It’s pretty scary.

I think I’m just extra happy and really excited lately because our trip to Denver is now a mere five days away! One week from this very moment we’ll be in the crowd at Mile High Stadium, watching the Broncos kick some Redskins butt. In person. Talk about a dream come true. This whole vacation is going to be amazingly fun, and I. Cannot. Wait!!!

And as Tara says, every day we spend together is a blast, even when we don’t do anything special. Yesterday, we did. We drove to Hood River for the Fruit Loop – a meandering drive through the countryside, with stops at various farms and orchards for all kinds of harvesty goodness. Apples, pears, jam, cider, baked goods. Last year it was cold and wet. This year, sunny, mild, and dry. The weather may not have felt fall-like, but we had an amazing view of Mt. Hood, and were able to walk through a corn maze without getting muddy. We even stopped in at Cathedral Ridge Winery for some wine tasting, and on the way home, saw a gigantic 70 y/o sturgeon at a fish hatchery. It was the perfect day.

Hope you had a nice weekend, too!

Mount Hood on a sunny Autumn afternoon.

Mount Hood on a sunny Autumn afternoon.

A Lovin’ Spoonful

We’ve  been back home going about our normal routine for a few days now, though the post-wedding bliss continues unabated. It’s still a novelty to refer to Tara as “my wife,” and I’m sure that will give me a thrill to say for some time. Coworkers joke about “the ol’ ball and chain,” but they also greeted me with a round of applause when I walked through the door on Tuesday and were genuinely happy for me, so I’ll forgive them their cynicism. Apparently, the guys who saw pictures (male coworkers and the husbands of female coworkers) wanted to know why they didn’t get to wear tuxedo t-shirts to their weddings, so my attire made quite the impression. Maybe I’ll launch a new casual wedding trend?

I doubt it, but it’s a nice thought.

We are also still reaping the bounty of our wedding weekend; Monday, Scott and Esther made us fish tacos using some of the sea bass we brought back, and last night, Tara and I enjoyed steamed Dungeness crab. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m starting to get seafooded out. This doesn’t bode well for our freezer, which is stuffed with plenty more fish and crab. Maybe in a few days it’ll sound appealing again.

One thing I forgot to mention in my wedding post: Friday evening, we started noticing spouts of water offshore, visible with the naked eye from our beach house. Turns out we were witness to migrating gray whales! Well, all but my mom, who was either always looking in the wrong spot or turning away at the exact moment they breached the surface. It was still pretty cool to see. I miss the sights, the scents, and the sounds of last weekend. I have a white noise machine and the first couple of nights back home I played the ocean sounds, but it’s just not the same as the real thing. A few weeks ago Tara asked me if I could ever see myself living on the Oregon coast, and I said at the time, probably not. I’d miss Portland too much. But after last weekend, I do in fact think I would be quite happy in a coastal town. Probably Astoria, which is much less touristy and stripmallish. A nice old Victorian perched on the side of a hill with a view of the Columbia River and/or Pacific Ocean? Yeah. I can see that. Plus, Astoria has both a Fred Meyer and a Burgerville, so I’d be set. And PDX is less than two hours away. If it was good enough for the Goonies and Arnold Schwarzenegger, it’d be good enough for me, too. Even Newport or Lincoln City have their charms. If we ever come into a lot of money and can afford to take the plunge, I’d like to do it. It helps that I really like gray skies and clouds, and detest hot weather. In that regard, I’d feel right at home.

This is the restaurant Tara and I would love to reopen!

This is the restaurant Tara and I would love to reopen!

We have even joked about opening up our own restaurant. There’s a boarded-up place in Lincoln City called The Lovin’ Spoonful that would be perfect for us. It’s even got a peace symbol on the sign! It’s small and cozy, and we could decorate it with our lava lamps and others 60s and 70s kitsch. I looked them up on Yelp, and they were open until April, 2012. Too bad we missed out on going! It got pretty good reviews, was decorated with old rock ‘n roll album covers, and served comfort food like “Simon and Garfunkel’s Chicken Pot Pie.” This, my friends, is right up our alley, and a concept we could have fun with. We’ve even discussed a menu, and talked about what some of our signature dishes would be. Tracy’s clam chowder, for one. My mom’s chicken paprikas. Tara’s chicken chimichangas. My fried chicken. We could do some fun themed burgers: the Woodstock burger (with lots of ‘shrooms), the Purple Haze burger (grilled red onions), the Apollo burger (served with a tiny American flag poking through the bun and described as “out of this world!”). The possibilities are endless. I know that restaurants are a LOT of work and we’d probably get burned out after a couple of years, but I also see it as a fun venture. Again, dependent on coming into a lot of money, though.

Dare to dream.

Not much else new to report. My employer’s annual symposium is a week away, and I’ll be glad when that is over and done with. I’m not exactly looking forward to giving a presentation in front of a crowd of strangers, but I’m less thrilled about giving up three whole days of quality time with Tara. We’re newlyweds, dammit! Just having the conference finished will allow me to breathe again.

On a positive note, fall has apparently arrived early this year. It’s been a cool week, and this morning, it was a downright crisp 44 degrees. Plus, rain is in the forecast 5 out of the next 7 days. This usually doesn’t happen until October, but I for one am not complaining. Fall is my favorite time of year!

Holy Matrimony!

As I write this post, I can hear waves crashing on the shore. I’m in a hotel room in Newport, Oregon, with the balcony door open and the cool salt air wafting in. I can hear the occasional cries of seagulls over the roar of the surf. It’s been a constant in my ears since Friday night, as has the impenetrable gray overcast. I’ll miss these things when I return to civilization, but you know what? I’m taking back a pretty good souvenir.

I’m bringing home a wife.

This long weekend has been absolutely perfect. Back when I proposed to Tara on February 1, I had given no thought to the actual wedding part of our marriage. I was so relieved she said yes, I figured those details would come later. Neither of us wanted a big wedding, and we decided early on to keep it casual and fun. Just an intimate gathering, immediate family only, on the Oregon coast. So I found a beach house that would sleep the appropriate number of guests, and we picked a date. September 14, of course. Our two-year anniversary, and our lucky number. It couldn’t get more perfect than that.

Only it could, because there were 14 of us total, and we got married at 2:00 PM on the dot. 1400 hours.

Friday morning, our first stop was Portland. We decided to take advantage of a weekday off and hit up Bijou Cafe for brunch. The Rose City is notorious for long lines at brunch. There was even a Portlandia episode spoofing this. On a Friday morning, we were seated right away, and enjoyed a delicious meal. My chorizo hash with roasted red peppers and eggs over easy was fantastic, but the star of the show was the homemade organic ketchup. Tara loved her fluffy French omelette with mushrooms. Then, we walked to Voodoo Doughnut, where we had ordered a wedding “cake.” Only it wasn’t really a cake, but an assortment of heart-shaped doughnuts personalized with our names, because we wanted to keep the theme quirky. After waiting in line nearly half an hour we got to the counter, and told them we were there to pick up our order.

They had no record of our order.

And this is what separates good places from bad. We were devastated, and Tara was near tears. We told them we were getting married the next day and on our way out of town, and the manager came out and said he would make things right as best he could. We didn’t get the heart-shaped doughnuts we wanted, but we did end up with cream-filled doughnuts with blue and orange highlights (go, Broncos!) and our names on them, plus an assortment of others – Maple Bacon Bars, Voodoo Dolls, Blazer Blunts – and were only charged for two doughnuts. It cost us a whopping $3. They may have screwed up our order, but they made it right, and that’s what counts in the end. I love Voodoo Doughnut.

Then it was on to the coast. We arrived at the beach house about 3:30 in the afternoon, slightly ahead of my parents, Scott, and Esther. We did a quick walk through and were blown away by the beauty of the place. It’s a tri-level home on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with five bedrooms. Ours upstairs featured a king bed with a pillow top mattress sitting on a platform immediately next to the window, with an incredible view of the ocean. It was so relaxing sleeping there with the window open and the roar of the ocean in our ears. Tracy, David, Anne, and little Anthony arrived a few hours later, and we had a blogging friend from Seattle, Nancy, and her friend Brian stop by for a visit. They happened to be vacationing on the Oregon coast at the same time. Papa Murphy’s pizzas were consumed as everybody chatted it up and got to know one another. Finally, Tara’s dad and his girlfriend, and her sisters Maggie and Jessie, showed up about 10 PM after a flight from Vegas and a long drive to the coast in the dark. We stayed up until nearly 1 AM before finally making our way to bed.

Saturday morning dawned. Our wedding day. Tara handed me a card that nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was, after all, our anniversary, and the start of the most special day of our lives. The morning was a blur as we ran errands and the clock ticked down to Zero Hour. Her dad is an avid fisherman and had chartered a boat for their group to do a little fishing. “A little fishing” turned out to be 30 dungeness crabs and about 40 lbs. of ling cod and sea bass. Perfect for our clambake that afternoon! Suddenly the officiant, Elizabeth, was there. And then it was time.

We stepped out onto the back deck. There was a perfect spot on the landing for Tara and I to face each other and recite our vows while our guests gathered on the deck. What an amazing and beautiful spot for a wedding; I get shivers still just thinking about it: the Pacific Ocean stretched endlessly behind and below us, the crashing waves, the windswept trees, and the two of us, surrounded by the people we care about the most in our lives. There was no wedding dress or tuxedo, because we wanted it casual and quirky; I wore a tuxedo t-shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, and Tara wore a simple but nice dress shirt and capris. She immediately started crying so I slipped on my checkered sunglasses in order to keep it together myself. Which I did, thankfully. I had been very nervous about reciting vows, because we each wrote our own, and that’s a scary thing, pouring your heart out in front of everybody. But they were perfect, and the whole ceremony was quick, lasting about seven minutes.

“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” she said, and introduced us as Mr. and Mrs. Mark Petruska.

“Whoo-hoo! Let the party begin!” somebody shouted, and it did. After filling out paperwork the officiant went on her way, and the rest of the afternoon included a wine and food pairing demonstration by David, who is a sommelier by trade, and our clambake, with fresh crab that had still been swimming around (or whatever crabs do in the ocean) earlier that morning, along with clams, shrimp, red potatoes, and corn. Tracy made a delicious batch of clam chowder that was as tasty as any restaurant’s, and we all just had a lot of fun well into the night. And a lot of drinks. A certain bride of mine who shall remain nameless partook of a bit too much alcohol and was delayed in climbing into bed, but she did have a lot to celebrate.

Sunday morning we had fresh fish for breakfast (hey, why not?) and we sadly bid farewell to our guests, who left in groups. It was just Tara and I left, and we locked up the house before heading south to Newport, where we had a reservation at the Elizabeth Street Inn, a hotel we discovered last December. We splurged for a jacuzzi suite and were able to talk them into an early check-in, so we climbed into the hot tub and watched the Broncos game on TV. Then we, and, and then we, and…well, never mind. We drove down the coast for a bit, then stopped in at Georgie’s Seafood Grille for dinner. We had a table next to the window with a view of the ocean, and some pretty damn tasty seafood. Then it was back to the room for a relaxing evening, more jacuzzi time, and a very intense episode of Breaking Bad. Some time later we tore ourselves away from the balcony and the ocean and the mist to go to bed.

And here we are. All that’s left is to check out, grab breakfast, and make the trek back home. Reality intrudes tomorrow, and I’m not happy about that, but in the end, I could not have asked for a more perfect wedding. Everybody had a great time and got along wonderfully, and they all really liked the beach house and the setting. Our wedding was perfect for us: not at all stuffy or formal, but still serious and romantic and, I can’t stress this enough, FUN. Best wedding ever. By the way, the officiant told us that 90% of the people she marries these days meet online. I thought that was pretty interesting. A lot of them opt for fun and quirky weddings like ours, too. Why not? Life is short – you might as well do what makes you happy!

I did. I married my best friend, my soulmate, the love of my life. Nothing could ever make me happier than that.

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Mirror Lake

Mount Hood, Oregon, Mount Hood National Forest

Yesterday we set out on our first hike of the season: a 3.2-mile roundtrip jaunt to Mirror Lake. It’s a relatively easy hike despite a bunch of switchbacks; the elevation gain is 700′. The reward? A spectacular view of snow-covered Mount Hood looming over the lake, its reflection a reminder of how this beautiful lake got its name.

We actually weren’t sure how the weather was going to turn out. When we left home, the mountain was obscured by clouds, but shortly past the town of Sandy they burned off. Instead, we ended up with crystal clear blue skies, sunshine, and a nice cool breeze. It was probably in the low-mid 60s during the hike – ideal weather, as a matter of fact.

Most of the trail passes through a verdant forest of Douglas firs and pines. Pink rhododendrons were just starting to bloom, as were trilliums and beargrass. Feel free to click on any of the photos below to enlarge/read descriptions.

Chain Reactions: The Best in the Northwest

One of my friends “checked in” to In-N-Out Burger on Facebook the other day, and I commented that I was jealous. Because I love In-N-Out Burger, but there are no In-N-Out Burgers even remotely close to where I live. The nearest is two states and about seven hours south of here, which explains why it’s been over three years since I’ve indulged in a Double Double. Three years! Ack. We also have no White Castles (23 months since I last ate there) or Raising Cane’s (15 months). These omissions seem horribly unfair. Even Dunkin’ Donuts, which was all over the place when I was growing up, does not have any franchises out this way. It’s been many years since I’ve eaten there and, as a result, it has taken on a mythic aura in my mind. If I ever happen upon a Dunkin’ Donuts, I swear I will come to a screeching halt and make a mad dash inside. For a doughnut that is probably inferior to the ones they sell right down the street from my house, but such is life, you know? We crave what we can’t have. Which is why I’m curious as hell about places like Steak ‘n Shake and Chick-Fil-A and Whataburger, none of which I have ever tried.

Sometimes, coveted fast-food chains eventually do end up expanding out west. For years, Krispy Kreme was confined to the South. I’d heard good things, and was curious. Finally, in the late 90s they opened up a place in Seattle. People from Portland would make the six-hour round trip drive all for a box of glazed doughnuts. And then, they opened a couple around here. One of them is 10 minutes from home. And it’s been years since I’ve been there. What was once so novel, I now just take for granted. There are better doughnuts elsewhere, so why bother with Krispy Kreme? The same goes for Sonic. They opened their first local outlet just a few years ago. They’re good, but you can get a good burger anywhere, you know?

And then, there’s the ultimate tease. After going fifteen years without El Pollo Loco, one opened up in Vancouver, WA a few years ago. It was a huge deal; there was a ribbon cutting ceremony, and the mayor showed up. I loved El Pollo Loco when I lived in California, and I took full advantage, stopping by often for a quick lunch or dinner. One year later, they closed unexpectedly as a result of mismanagement. Sigh. Now I miss them again.

But I got to thinking about this. For every Smashburger we lack, for every Taco John’s we don’t have, for every missing Arctic Circle and Long John Silvers and Pioneer Chicken, we do have some really terrific local and regional chains that, while common up here, are hard to come by (or downright impossible to find) outside of the Pacific Northwest. Places that I would miss dearly, even if I lived across the street from a White Castle or Hardee’s. So, I made a list, because lists are fun! These are what I consider the best local or regional chains in the Pacific Northwest. They’re limited to fast-food or casual restaurants and, to qualify, must have at least ten locations, the industry standard per the Independent Restaurants of America website. So, without further ado, here we go!

The Top 5 Local or Regional Fast or Casual Food Chains in the Pacific Northwest

  1. Burgerville. Locals know that Burgerville is more than just a fast-food burger chain. This Vancouver, WA-based company has 39 outlets, all but 5 of them located in the Portland metropolitan area. They’re confined to an 80-mile radius stretching from Albany, OR to Centralia, WA. Burgerville was founded in 1961 and prides itself on fresh, local, sustainable ingredients. Their burgers are made with Tillamook cheddar, for instance, and seasonal specials like strawberry lemonade, blackberry milkshakes, and Walla Walla onion rings all contain natural in-season ingredients from local growers. They use 100% wind power for all their restaurants, convert used cooking oil into biodiesel, and use only range-fed beef free of antibiotics and hormones. Best of all, their food tastes amazing! Some people gripe over the high prices and, while it’s true that their meals do cost more than your typical fast-food chain, you can taste the difference. People in Seattle can’t get Burgerville. People in Eugene can’t get Burgerville. Which makes us in the Portland area the lucky ones!
  2. Ivar’s. Now it’s Seattle’s turn to gloat. Ivar’s, based in the Emerald City, opened their first location in 1938 and now has 25 “fast casual seafood bars” and 3 full-service restaurants, most of them spread around Seattle and Tacoma, with one location as far east as Spokane. Fat lot of good that does us in Portland! So, what makes Ivar’s so special? Amazing, locally-sourced seafood. Their fish ‘n chips are available with Pacific True Cod, Alaskan halibut, or northwest salmon. You can also get scallops, prawns, oysters, chicken, clam strips, and an incredible clam chowder. Grilled platters are available, along with salads and shrimp or crab cocktails. Quality ingredients put Ivar’s a cut above your typical fast-food joint. Long John who?!
  3. Taco Time. Fast-food burritos are fast-food burritos, right? Not when they’re hand-rolled and fried to a crisp! Founded in Eugene, OR in 1959, Taco Time has since expanded to over 350 franchises, but the majority are here in the Pacific Northwest (though if you’re in Kuwait or Curacao, you’re also in luck). Taco Time prides itself on using fresh ingredients, making their shells, chips, and salsas from scratch every morning. They use real aged cheddar and meat that is never frozen. This commitment to top quality ingredients shows in their food! It’s all good, but I hardly ever deviate from my usual: those aforementioned Original Crisp Burritos, unique to Taco Time. They hand-roll a soft flour tortilla, fill it with either refried pinto beans, all-white chicken, or seasoned ground beef (my personal favorite), and fry it until it’s golden and crispy. A healthy choice? Decidedly not, but if you’re eating fast-food Mexican in the first place, you probably don’t care.
  4. Jack In The Box. This one seems like a weird inclusion to me. I’ve always had easy access to Jack In The Box, a San Diego-based chain formed in 1951. There are 2200+ locations, after all. Yet the majority are concentrated out West, especially in California, Oregon, and Washington. Aside from the Carolinas, there are no franchises east of a line from Ohio to Louisiana. I wasn’t even aware that people thought Jack In The Box was special until family from the Northeast came out for a visit one time and made an excited beeline for the place. I like Jack In The Box because of their menu variety (burgers, chicken, grilled sandwiches, teriyaki bowls, mozzarella sticks, egg rolls, judicious use of sourdough bread, nine different breakfast sandwiches served all day long, and tacos that are amazingly simple (they’re topped with a slice of American cheese, for crying out loud) yet delicious, and cheap. 2 for 99 cents? That’s a bargain!).
  5. Elmer’s. There are lots of Denny’s-style restaurants around the country. Casual dining places that specialize in inexpensive but hearty food, usually with a focus on breakfast, often open 24 hours. IHOP, Perkins, and Bob Evans are all great examples. In the Pacific Northwest, we’ve got Shari’s. Which would have made the list…if Elmer’s didn’t also exist. Opened in 1960 as Elmer’s Colonial Pancake House, this chain focuses on quality, local ingredients and friendly service, with 25 locations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho (plus a lone standout in California). With menu items like dungeness crab omelettes, Snoqualmie Falls oatmeal, Cascade skillets with local Zenner’s sausage and Tillamook cheese, and fluffy German pancakes topped with seasonal local berries, Elmer’s commitment to local foods is impressive. Even their steaks are sourced exclusively from Northwest ranchers. Shari’s is good, but Elmer’s is a notch better.

And, you get a bonus Honorable Mention. Little Big Burger doesn’t officially qualify because it’s only got 6 locations. However, they haven’t been around long: their first restaurant opened across the street from Powell’s Books in 2010. The owner, Micah Camden, a restauranteur and the driving force behind some of Portland’s most-respected fine dining locations, decided to open a fast-food burger joint with quality local ingredients modeled after none other than In-N-Out Burger. That meant keeping the menu simple, with just four menu items: hamburger, cheeseburger, veggie burger, and fries. But the flavors packed into those choices are phenomenal. The burgers are, well, little – but that’s the point. They’re made with Cascade beef on freshly baked brioche buns, and are available with cheddar, American, bleu, and a creamy (and delicious) chevre. The fries are tossed with truffle oil and are probably the tastiest I’ve ever had. Even the ketchup is homemade. Everything is made to order, with nary a heat lamp in sight. And, you can order beer to wash down your food. This tiny not-quite-a-chain has amassed a huge cult following in its first three years, and continues to expand. I have no idea how big they’ll eventually get, but one thing is certain: they are poised to give our beloved Burgerville some stiff competition. Not to mention that other California-based burger place that doesn’t exist up here.

Burgerville. The best in the Northwest.

Burgerville. The best in the Northwest.

Is there a restaurant chain you wish existed in your hometown? Which local chain makes you proud?

Our almost-sunset.

Should’ve Had The Crab Cakes

Saturday night, I was perusing the menu at Pier 101, a nice seafood restaurant in Lincoln City, Oregon. I was starting to get irritated, because there were too many delicious-sounding dishes to choose from. Don’t get me wrong, options are great; in school, multiple-choice quizzes were always my favorite. But when it comes to ordering in restaurants, there is just no pleasing me. Ever. Because no matter what I end up deciding on, I will always second guess my decision – no matter how satisfyingly delicious the entree turns out to be.

Take the other night, for instance. I was torn between two frontrunners, the peanut snapper and the sauteed scallops. The stuffed prawns were a wild card, and at the last minute the razor clams made a hail-mary pitch for attention. They all sounded wonderful. (Thankfully, we’d had pasta the night before, so at least the crab fettucini was eliminated from the race early. Otherwise, it would have been a real crowded field of contenders). With the waitress hovering on the periphery, my heart started beating faster. Must. Make. A. Choice. Oh, the pressure of it all. Don’t you hate that, when the final seconds are rapidly ticking away, and you know your server is going to appear at any moment, pad in hand, ready to wrest an answer out of you whether you are ready or not? In a desperate, last-ditch gambit, I looked to the accompanying side dishes for inspiration. The scallops promised rice pilaf, but the razor clams came with garlic mashed potatoes. Damn, no help there. And then the waitress appeared, but before I could buy myself a few extra seconds to mentally narrow the choices further, Tara turned to me, smiled sweetly, and pulled the dreaded “you go ahead and order first, dear” play from her book.


I hate when that happens. But once your dining companion has issued the you-go-first challenge, you can’t counter with the same proposal, because  that just turns into a silly tug-of-war game played in front of an anxious server who is smiling on the outside but secretly thinking for christ’s sake, you two, quit being so freakin’ indecisive already – I’ve got a million other tables to wait on.

So I reached into my own bag of tricks and asked the waitress what she would recommend. She had glowing reviews for the peanut snapper, so I went ahead and ordered that. I just didn’t have the energy for further contemplation at that point.

The fish was quite tasty. It was marinated in a hazelnut liqueur and included a topping of crushed macadamia nuts and a sweet/spicy peanut sauce. I was pleased with my choice.

Right up until the moment when the waitress put Tara’s plate down in front of her. Because the dungeness crab cakes (which hadn’t even been in the running), with a delectable side of asparagus spears drizzled in hollandaise sauce (be still, my wistful heart!) looked superb. And, of course, they were. I was wishing I had ordered that instead. But I guarantee you, had I gone with the crab cakes, I’d have been kicking myself for not trying the snapper.

It’s a sickness. I am just never completely satisfied with what I order, because there’s always something better. If I were a death row inmate choosing my last meal, I promise you that even if it was something succulent like steak and lobster, as they wheeled me into the execution chamber, strapped down to a gurney, I’d be second-guessing that decision. My last words would probably be, “I should have had pizza instead.”

There is just no pleasing me.

Though I’ve gotta admit, I was pretty pleased with the way this past weekend turned out. Tara and I were in Newport, on the Oregon coast, for an overdue celebration of our new jobs. So overdue, in fact, that my first new job came and went, and I was two weeks into my second new job, before we finally got around to celebrating. We booked an oceanfront suite at the Elizabeth Street Inn, heading out immediately after work on Friday, and arriving there – after a stop for dinner (the clam linguini was amazing, but Tara’s shrimp fettucini was SO DAMN GOOD, too! – here we go again) – about 9:30 PM. The scent of freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies filled the lobby, so we helped ourselves, and the moment we stepped into the room, we knew we were going to have an amazing time. I don’t know which made us happier: the king-sized bed, the fireplace, the private balcony, or the constant roar of the ocean. Probably all four. The hotel pool and spa weren’t bad, either.

Saturday we lounged around the room until noon, drinking bloody marys and relaxing. We then ventured into town, through a driving rain, for lunch. I had the fish ‘n chips (which were good, but didn’t compare to Tara’s clam strips). We then walked around the Historic Bayfront District, getting drenched, but ended up killing an hour in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not before deciding that the weather had gotten the better of us and we’d be happier just kicking back in the room with wine and cheese and bruschetta and.

Well. Just “and.”

Saturday night we headed north for the aforementioned dinner, before returning for some relaxation in the pool and hot tub. Sunday morning we helped ourselves to the free hot breakfast buffet before regretfully checking out. We ended up at a sports bar in Lincoln City, where we watched most of the Broncos game before finally bidding the coast farewell and driving home. All in all, it was an incredible weekend, and neither of us wanted it to end. Damn you, reality, for intruding!

But we promised each other we’d be back, and are thinking of making this an annual winter tradition. A weekend getaway in the off season, when prices are low and crowds are sparse, is the perfect romantic interlude for the holidays.

Next year, though, I’m getting the scallops. For sure.

Then again, the razor clams do come with garlic mashed potatoes…

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