Confections at quietly adventurous Top Pot and off-the-wall Voodoo might just say a lot about their rival cities.
We competed long before the Seattle Sounders took on the Portland Timbers in one of Major League Soccer’s fiercest rivalries. Before Jet City posted up against Beervana. Before Washington became the 42nd state. Back when the transcontinental railroad arrived in Portland first.
“If Portland was a transplanted New England dowager,” wrote one historian of the civic competition circa 1880s, “Seattle was a rambunctious frontiersman.”
My, how times have changed here in the Pacific Northwest.
In the last 135 years or so, Seattle has morphed into the staid sibling, Portland the free spirit. Or as Crosscut.com put it recently, “You know the tropes: Seattle’s rich; Portland’s creative. Seattle knows how to make money; Portland knows how to do everything else.”
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Seattle has Amazon, Microsoft, REI, Boeing, Sur La Table, Nordstrom, Costco, Starbucks. Portland has Nike. Seattle has billionaires Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz. Portland has Phil Knight. Seattle has tattoos. Portland has more tattoos. Seattle has “Frasier” reruns. Portland has “Portlandia.”
And Seattle has Top Pot, home of “hand-forged doughnuts,” part of a self-proclaimed “delicious journey of good taste.” Portland has Voodoo, where “the magic is in the hole” — and at least one confection cannot be named in a family newspaper (think full-frontal nudity, plus triple Bavarian cream).
You can tell a lot about these regional rivals by the dunk of their doughnuts.
A soft rain fell before sunrise in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, streaking the two-story bank of windows at Top Pot’s flagship cafe. Birch bookshelves line the north wall. An espresso machine hissed in the background; Top Pot has roasted its own beans since opening the first of 17 shops more than a decade ago.
On this Monday morning, the Seattle Seahawks had yet to lose the Super Bowl, so the “Go Hawks” specials were going fast: 99 cents for your pick of a chocolate-iced, devil’s food number dotted with green and blue sprinkles, or a spicecake sinker with vanilla icing and Seahawks-colored accouterments.
Top Pot is quietly adventurous, a lot like the city it calls home. On Elvis Presley’s Jan. 8 birthday, its cafes sell out of King’s Rings (yeast-raised, maple-iced and sprinkled with juicy bacon chunks, $2.73 a pop after sales tax). Spiced chai doughnuts give way to marionberry fritters, depending on the season.
There are old-fashioned doughnuts iced with caramel glaze and sprinkled with Maldon sea-salt flakes imported from England, which “give a little crunch,” said Mark Klebeck, who started Top Pot in 2002 with his brother, Michael. “It’s a crystal that melts, dissolves on your tongue, versus something like an iodized salt that’s really harsh.”
President Obama stopped by back in 2010 on a campaign swing for U.S. Sen. Patty Murray’s re-election. His analysis, after taking a bite of a single glazed old-fashioned, which these days goes for $2.07, including sales tax? “Outstanding. But you can’t eat this every day.”
Many, however, do dine here often, like Phin Petersen, age 7. The Top Pot flagship is equidistant between his school and his sister’s, so he and his mom make a regular stop for reading practice and apple fritters, at $2.73 after tax, along with King’s Rings, the priciest in the display case. Those are his favorites, Phin said, because “they’re really big.”
They are also among the Top Pot hallmarks.
“We really try to push the classics with doughnuts,” Klebeck said. “But we also try to put some different spin on different varieties. We go beyond, but not so far as Pepto Bismol-filled.”
That would be Voodoo territory.
The short-lived dunker in question was actually glazed with Pepto Bismol and studded with crushed Tums. Portland’s Voodoo also offered a doughnut with Nyquil icing until the Multnomah County Health Department quashed both.
“We’re in a drinking district,” said co-founder Kenneth “Cat Daddy” Pogson. With a Pepto doughnut “you were either going to feel better or throw up and feel better. It’s a win-win. … It wasn’t as delicious as it was pretty.”
These days, Voodoo is better known for offerings such as the Captain My Captain (topped with Cap’n Crunch cereal and retailing for $1.50 without sales tax, because Oregon has none) or the Mango Tango, a $1.95 raised-yeast doughnut filled with mango jelly, covered with vanilla frosting and sprinkled with Tang drink powder.
Three of the four Voodoo outlets are open 24/7. The original location in downtown Portland sports long lines most hours — club kids, tourists, panhandlers and the plain old hungry.
Like Top Pot, Voodoo makes most lists of “best doughnuts in America,” though another Portland purveyor has nudged its way into food writers’ consciousness. Blue Star is Voodoo’s calmer cousin, all white tile and sophisticated flavors, like bourbon-blueberry-basil and passionfruit-cocoa nib. Blue Star’s slogan? “Donuts for grown-ups.”
Heather Arndt Anderson, author of “Portland: A Food Biography,” says her city is “entering a kind of doughnut renaissance,” but the carb-heavy confection has also been a player in Portland history.
“We’ve had a reputation of being a food town for 100 years,” she said. “Doughnuts reflect the early lumberjack cuisine and come closer than any other food to being a signature food of Portland.”
Those lumberjacks burned through 9,000 calories a day, Arndt Anderson said. No wonder they needed doughnuts.
But then, doesn’t everybody?