Take Your Taste Buds on a Terrific Trip
Salt and Straw has only been open for a year and a half -- the original Northeast location opened its doors in August 2011 -- but owners Kim and Tyler Malek have already put a firm stamp on the Portland ice cream scene in that time. While there were certainly good gelato and ice cream options in town beforehand, the Malek cousins may have been the first to bring a true "farm-to-cone," excellent gourmet ice cream to foodie-centric Portland.
The duo started with a brief stint in a ice cream food cart before making the plunge into a more permanent location on NE Alberta Street. The reputation of their ice cream's quality spread quickly, and it wasn't long before late-summer lines stretched out the door and onto the sidewalk. Salt & Straw now serves up the best ice cream in town.
At the heart of the ice cream is, of course, the cream. Salt & Straw's all natural cream comes from Lochmead Dairy in Eugene, Oregon, and contains 17 percent butterfat. Despite that high amount, the ice cream doesn't taste overly rich. And none of the flavors are overly sweet, either. In fact some of our favorites were those that combine elements of the savory.
The other hyper-fresh and local element is the handmade cones, pulled out of a waffle iron right before your eyes. Most of the ingredients mixed with with Eugene cream and served atop a made-before-your-eyes cone come from a short distance away as well.
Many flavors may seem far-fetched, but almost always end up balanced -- and often a pleasure-provoking, unexpected experience. Regular offerings include sea salt ice cream with caramel ribbon, the very popular honey balsamic with cracked pepper, coffee and bourbon, honey lavender and pear with blue cheese.
That last may sound the most off-the-wall, but it was one of our choices for a four-variety "flight" ($9 gets you four kids' sized scoops -- definitely the way to go for those looking to take a taste expedition) during a recent visit, and the subtle, sweet taste of fresh pears blended so well with the more savory, creamy, slightly salty and sharp flavor of the blue cheese to create wonderful taste experience for both my girlfriend and me. The occasional small chunks of blue cheese made some bites more on the savory side than others, which added to the flavor journey.
Additional flavors rotate with the seasons and the moods of the creators. To celebrate Elvis' upcoming birthday, the Happy B-day Elvis combines malted banana ice cream with peanut butter and marionberry jam from Oregon Hills Farms-- again, a great combo of sweet and savory, with local ingredients lending a freshness that's palpable. Lest you forget you're in Portland, one serving suggestion is to make this into a Sunday using sweet rolls sourced from a local bakery and candied bacon.
When we saw the candy cap mushroom with port red wine on the menu, of course we had to add it to the flight. This seasonal offering is exquisite, and also tough to describe. It was a flavor unlike anything we'd ever had -- subtle and light with vanilla and maple undertones. Candy cap mushrooms are the only variety used in both sweet and savory dishes, so it makes sense that they'd appeal to Salt and Straw, which does so much blending of the two.
We finished off with the coffee bourbon, with the coffee definitely making its presence known with force, and the bourbon barely detectable underneath. It's a super-strong, rich dark roast flavor that stays with you and while we both really liked it, it's one you want to save for last. Local ingredients are again front and center, with Stumptown single-origin coffee mixed with Holy Kakow Organic Chocolate and Burnside Bourbon from Eastside Distillery.
Salt & Straw's servers will eagerly scoop up a bunch of sample tasters for you -- and that's perhaps the most fun part of the whole experience. Clearly we were taken in, and continued the journey with the flight of four small servings to share ($9).
Kid-sized servings are $2.75; Single scoops are $3.75; Double scoops are $5.75; and Pints are $8.
A four-pint sampler can be shipped for $65, consisting either of seasonal varieties or year-round favorites.
Not Kids' Stuff
Of course there are kids at Salt & Straw all the time -- this is ice cream, afterall. But many of the flavors are on the sophisticated side and are less sweet than many ice creams; and the lines are often more than a temper-tantrum-prone youngster will be able to bear. It can also get crowded -- we were there mid-afternoon on a cold, rainy winter Sunday, and even then there was a short wait and scarce seating.
The prices are also higher than your typical scoop shop. I'd argue that the goods are more than worth the cost -- but if you have a soccer team in search of gargantuan gooey sundaes, you might want to go more mainstream. Sundaes at Salt & Straw will run you $7.75 a piece.
Scoop Shop and Bakery -- NW 23rd Avenue
The second Salt & Straw opened its doors in spring 2012, and it's significantly more spacious with more seating -- although still usually full in the summer months. A big glass window reveals the ice-cream-making action going on behind.
What's more, the newer location opens up at 7 a.m. to serve up baked breakfast goods made in house and Stumptown coffee. Thanks to the new bigger space, Salt & Straw now makes all its baked ice cream mix-ins in house as well
Salt & Straw Breakdown
Amazing balanced flavors, with the perfect creaminess and sweetness levels
Lots of local and fresh
An opportunity to take your mouth new places
Lines can be long
On the pricy side
Seating fills up quickly
Salt & Straw's Basics:
Phone: 503-208-3867 (NE Alberta Street); 971-271-8168 (NW 23rd Avenue)
Cuisine: Exquisite gourmet ice cream advocating a "farm-to-cone" approach
Average tab per diner: $6
Hours: NE Alberta Scoop Shop open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily; NW 23rd Scoop Shop and Bakery open 7 a.m.-11 p.m. daily