June 12, 2023

Transforming downtown Portland: a three-part series, part three

Part three: Sunday Funday in downtown PDX

Last Sunday, on a prematurely perfect summer day, my better half and I went downtown in the late afternoon for some consumer adventure, and here’s what we found:

We started at Behind the Museum Café, a Japanese tea shop located within Elliot Tower on SW 10th Avenue. Owner Tomoe Horibucbi hails from San Francisco, where she taught cooking classes and ran a café. The café is charming and calming, with customers chatting or working quietly. We sipped iced matcha latte and genmaicha, a toasted brown rice tea, and snacked on Onigiri, a seaweed pocket with warm rice and fillings like salmon, teriyaki chicken or shitake. We also tried Chikara cake, a dense cake with figs, blueberries, prunes, nuts and rice flour. This stuff is what holiday fruit cake and granola bars wishes they could be.

We headed to the West End, where things got serious. It’d been years since I had been to Wildfang, where I quickly set my sights on a super sharp vest and the “Wild Feminist” t-shirt I’ve been longing for. However, Wildfang goes much further than menswear for women. Owned by Emma McGilroy and Julia Parsley, the brand brings inclusivity into sharp focus. “We’re here to empower everyone to challenge the gender norms that hold us back. We got you. Wear you, not someone else.” says Amy, Head of Growth.

Right next door, we hit Tender Loving Empire, where I learned things! First, Tender Loving Empire is also a record label. I did not know that! Secondly, they sell a thing called a banana hat, and it’s not what you think. Their website says it best: “Your choice to support Tender Loving Empire is a choice to support hundreds of makers, musicians and small businesses.”

We wrap up Pittock’s Power block with Woonwinkel. Owner Kristin Van Buskirk was a color designer for Nike before opening her store, which besides elevating home goods to art, invites color to come home with us. Beautiful home goods, gifts and lifestyle goodies make this my favorite place to visit in the dead of winter, when everything feels like a cold, wet, gray blur.

From there we slip across Burnside, passing the fresh throngs of people in the huge outdoor seating area at the newly opened Shake Shack, and Portland’s retail juggernaut, Powell’s Books, while making our way along NW 10th to MadeHere. A wide open space chock full of locally made stuff feels more like a gallery than a store. MadeHere was born in 2014, but this is my first visit. Looking across the big shop, I see evidence of their 150 makers and 10,000 products. This place is emblematic of the Oregon Way: “If I can’t buy it, I’m makin’ it. Then I’m gonna quit my corporate job, make a bunch more of it and sell it.”

By now we’d burned off our late afternoon snack and headed to dinner at Xin Ding Noodles, formerly the Thirsty Lion space at SW 2nd and Ash. Assistant Manager Mindy Chong and owner Leon Liu relocated to Portland from California at the beginning of the pandemic to launch the restaurant. The ghost of Thirsty Lion flows from the 10 huge flat screens broadcasting various sporting events. But guess what? One bite of hot and sour soup, dry fried string bean, and dried pot shrimp, and I’m not thinking about the Blazers and beers on tap. It would take a dozen return trips before I could truly get a handle on Xin Ding’s gargantuan menu, comprised of dim sum, countless noodle dish choices and every traditional Chinese dish you can imagine.  

Last stop before rolling home is Petunia’s Pies and Pastries on SW 12th and Alder. The light-filled space, furnished in white, against exposed brick, brings you back to a classier time, and is brought to you by owner Lisa Clark and her family. The bakery is gluten and dairy free, borne out of Lisa’s own severe food intolerances, which she developed as a child. With or without dietary restrictions, Petunia’s is a special treat. The sour cherry peach crumble pie and birthday cake blondie we planned to bring home were polished off on the drive.

Our day trip led me to reflect on this town I love so much—bursting with creativity in the face of tough challenges—and fills me with pride to be a resident of this little city that could. As devastating as it’s been for so many of our stalwart businesses (RIP Saucebox, Nel Centro and Bijou Café ), it’s also heartening to see new concepts coming in behind them. And it’s also inspiring to witness so many of our existing shops, restaurants and gathering places as they continue to dig deep, survive, pivot, double down, reimagine, fall down, get back up and stay scrappy!

And as tough as it is for our ground floor businesses, they are not completely alone. Sarah Shaoul’s Bricks Need Mortar, Prosper Portland’s Repair Grant and Healthy Business Permit programs, not to mention the work being done by Travel Portland, Business for a Better Portland, MercyCorps NW, MESO and Built Oregon (just to name a few!) all recognize how much support our hometown businesses need.

Along with each of us, every one of our neighborhoods is transforming into something new and different. And I can’t wait to find out where my next PDX adventure takes me.


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