On The Road With Oregon Bounty- Day 6: Traveling the Oregon Culinary Trail
It’s easy for foodies west of the cascades to believe that the eastern border of the culinary world in Oregon lies somewhere around Hood River. Well, they obviously haven’t traveled the “Oregon Culinary Trail” in Eastern Oregon recently.
Yesterday I took a 400-mile journey that led me from Bend, to Baker City, to La Grande, and finally to Pendleton. In each town, I met someone with amazing passion. These are not people who followed a dream because a bank pro forma told them it would work. They did it because they believed strong enough to make it work.
After leaving Bend I drove through John Day, up the Strawberry Mountain Valley, and over the southern end of the Blue Mountains.
In Baker City I met Tyler Brown, an ah-shucks 40-year old whose family has been in the restaurant business here since the 1970s. Ten years ago Tyler realized there was no place in this somewhat remote spot for folks his age to gather. So, he grabbed his hobby of home brewing and jumped in headfirst, renovating a historic building in downtown into Barley Brown’s Brewpub. In true entrepreneurial form, Tyler – who had never built a brewing facility before – constructed a four-barrel brewery, just large enough to produce a selection of microbrews for his own clientele. He didn’t do it to win awards, but soon the brewing establishment discovered what his patrons already knew. In the past few years, Barley Brown’s brews have begun hauling their share of awards back from the country’s major beer competitions.
My next stop was La Grande, and a restaurant called Foley Station. Walking in, you’re your first thought is “this can’t be La Grande.” That’s exactly what chef/owner Merlyn Baker loves to hear. Merlyn left Portland in 1997, where his last job was executive chef at the venerable Jake’s Crawfish. Merlyn wanted to get out of the city and into a place where he could breath, and where his passion for food could explode. It definitely has. He opened Foley Station with the passionate belief that he could create a dining oasis in northeastern Oregon. Meryln spends 18-hour days carrying out his dream. He bakes the restaurant’s bread, sources products from the area’s farmers and foragers who share his passions, and creates menus that highlight what’s grown and raised here. His kitchen is a culinary school of sorts for budding chefs, and Merlyn’s dream is to someday pass along this restaurant to a chef who can carry on the vision for the next generation “I’m an artist, and food is my medium. I want to see that live on.”
Finally, I ended the day by tucking my road-weary body into a booth at the Hamley Steakhouse in Pendleton. If you’ve traveled to this home of the famed Pendleton Round-Up, you very likely know about Hamley’s, the western store where you can still buy a good pair of chaps and a handcrafted saddle.
Next door, the Hamley Steakhouse is marrying cuisine with an authentic feel of the Wild West. Sure, the frontier-era bank cage in the first floor saloon — and the window where Butch Cassidy is said to have grabbed some cash at gunpoint — is quite impressive. And, yes, the bar from Butte, Montana’s Thornton Hotel – where folks like Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, and Annie Oakley are all said to have tipped a glass – is amazing in all it’s knife-scarred rustic splendor. I was more interested in the food at Hamley’s, where the locally-grown steaks, wine list and atmosphere could hold their own with any big city steakhouse in a dual at sundown.
Learn about what’s happening in Eastern Oregon during Oregon Bounty, and then take a tour of the Oregon culinary trail yourself. Check back tomorrow for our final destination: the Columbia River Gorge. Cheers!