Welcome to Ask Eater, an Eater Portland column where the site’s editor and reporter answer questions from readers and friends. Have a question for us? Submit your question in this form with the subject line ‘Ask Eater.’
Hey, Eater — Where can we actually find great bread in Portland? Since we moved here, I’ve tried all the usual spots and haven’t had luck. It’s all, like, fine, good even, but nothing life-changing. Even Ken’s — I love the pizzeria, but the bakery hasn’t done it for me. Where should I look?
Hey, Kaitlin. To a certain extent, bread goodness is in the eyes — and mouth — of the bread-holder. For example, my mother is totally fine with a white flour bread; she’s far more interested in a really crusty exterior and a super airy, light interior. If you’re my partner, you might be more interested in the nuance of a really flavorful, whole-grain sourdough — often, when you’re in that territory, you may lose a bit of that shattering exterior, but you make up for it in the flavor of the actual bread. It also depends on how you plan to use this bread: Toast? Simply sliced or ripped? Dunked in olive oil?
My immediate thought, knowing very few of your preferences, is to go for Starter Bread in St. Johns. Starter specializes in these super beautiful, single varietal grain breads. I’ve never seen bakers as thorough with how they pair the grain with the sweeteners or fats — for example, the polenta bread uses blackstrap molasses and olive oil, which softens it and also plays off the toasty sweetness of the corn. You’ll get super descriptive flavor notes online, to see if it sounds right to you; however, if you’re looking for a bread with some sort of gravity-defying crumb, this is probably not the spot; I like their loaves as vehicles for nice butter or jam. Starter started (get it?) as a bread subscription service, which it still offers, but it also now operates a lovely little bakery that is open for walk-ins on Sundays. If I were you, I’d buy a loaf on a Sunday, see if you like it, and if you do, commit to one of the subscriptions.
I’d head over to Cafe Olli for something with a more expansive crumb but still that richness and depth of flavor. Yes, people think of Cafe Olli for its pizzas and killer breakfast service, but it’s also one hell of a bakery. The crusts tend to retain all of those toasty, dark notes, but the bread itself is lighter in flavor profile, and plenty airy. I think this is your best bet for an all-around tasty bread, a people pleaser.
If you’re my old Parisian roommate Noëmie, you’re in it for the crackle of the crust. The way I’d watch Noëmie feel up baguettes across the Greater Boston Area in college was wild; she was frequently disappointed with all of the soft, chewy exteriors she’d encounter. For a baguette, I do think you have to do what most chefs do and opt for a Little T baguette. If you’ve had a baguette at a restaurant in Portland, it is likely one of Little T’s; they’re enormously popular. It’s perhaps the finest baguette I’ve encountered in the United States, crunch-wise, with some nice airiness inside.
Also, don’t overthink it — I know it’s a chain, but Grand Central Bakery does really nail the crunchy crusts of its breads, and the crumb tends to be particularly airy inside. My mother will not leave town without two loaves of Como, purchased directly from the bakery.
I hope this helps. Sometimes, it’s not really about the bread; maybe it ties back instead to homesickness — missing the place you left behind. Maybe it’s about that first loaf you had, the one that opened your mind to the broader world of bread. The more life experience you have, the more sheer data you have about how things could be; you become harder to impress, and things feel less novel. And after a while, it all dulls. Is there something in these loaves that can feel life-changing to you? Portland is sort of special for its hyperfixation on grain sourcing. Maybe the story of specific grains and specific growers can unlock something for you. Maybe not. Maybe you’re from like, Paris or something. Portland isn’t Paris, but I do think there’s something beautiful happening in the bakeries here; keep tasting, and see if there’s something you maybe missed while remembering the boules of before.