I’m not even sure how this plot came to be, but I do know that once we had conceived the idea to hunt down THE best pain au chocolat in Portland, it became an undeniable mission.
It wasn’t that easy for us to find a day to spend literally bouncing between -and lounging within- the bakeries of this great little city, with enough time and attention to find a perfect, pastry specimen. (It’s not like anyone is paying us to do just this thing…yet. By day, Emma is one of two head tomboys at this not-so-little-project. I am still putting in the ground grease for my own no-so-little-project.) But at last, a very chilly, and frankly perfect day did appear on our calendars and so we hit the streets; she a dedicated eater and the daughter of an Irish culinary instructor, I a dedicated classically trained chef and both of us well-traveled, bona-fide pastry snobs with our buttery work cut out for us.
Outside of the U.S., pain au chocolate is not (by definition) merely a “chocolate croissant.” When in Rome they say (or Paris? But in this case, Portland.) So, we did expect that this would be the translation we would find most often in our search – a crescent-shaped pastry housing some chocolate. If, however, we had been anywhere in Paris we would have been aghast at Portlandia’s mistranslation of these little “chocolate breads,” (or chocolatine as you’d happily learn to refer to them when spending an extended time in France .) The life of a perfect pain au chocolat begins with a rectangle of croissant dough with two little batons of chocolate at either end. It is rolled up from the edges in to cradle those little chocolate bars, and baked up. The finished product will have a crisp, delicate, flaky crust, an airy, uber-layered center complete with ever-so-lightly-melted chocolate, and an overall rich and buttery flavor worthy of – dare I say – soft porn moans and Instagram posts. AND, in our case, also worthy of inspiring a little pause in a long-overdue catch-up between friends, so that we could pick at the flaky remnants of crust on the plate and pop them in our mouths without missing a bite.
In the interest of research, time (and artery health) we cut to the chase and trimmed a few of Portland’s staple bakeries from our list of places to visit on the day; contestants whose products we had recently tasted and whom we were pretty sure weren’t going to blow our socks off this time. This says NOTHING of the bakeries themselves and everything about this purist mission. In fact, a number of our favorite bakeries were not visited though they remain our tops for all the other offerings they have, and the ambiance they offer (Lovejoy, Pearl Bakery and Fleur de Lis to name a few.) Honestly, butter-laden French pastries are really not so enjoyable if they aren’t done well, and end up looking and tasting something like cardboard, air, or a oilslick. OR, something you might buy at Costco. (Again, America, if this is your definition of a croissant, the world awaits you.)
SO! On a very cold, yet surprisingly sunny Saturday morning we met in a cozy outpost of Little T Baker in the newish Union Way market hall, where our freezing fingers warmed by the baby blue Heath adornments and the bright little lady in this adorable sweater, whom exclaimed with glee when we announced our task for the day. Eager to hear our results, she poured us warm drinks — an English breakfast tea for Emma, and strong Stumptown for me – while we settled ourselves at a table. We promptly pulled apart the crescent-shaped Double Chocolate Croissant they had on offer (there wasn’t a proper pain in sight,) and dove in; to the pastry, and a long overdue catch up on all things about life, love, and aspirations. When our cups ran dry, we bundled up and hopped to the next bakery, just a few blocks away and the routine continued; we would enter a light-filled space smelling of espresso, butter, and morning, announce our mission, and would happily perch ourselves appropriately for pastry judging (and maybe some people watching.) We bounced all over the city in this way; to proper bakeries, breakfast joints, wood-fired ovens, well-lit modern spaces and hidden away little holes where baked goods fill marble countertops and enticing glass domes. We snapped pictures, pondered a point system, and paced ourselves…we visited four bakeries in four hours and that takes a graceful vigor, friends!
I cannot emphasize enough just how many lovely places Portland has to while away a day like this, and how many good pastries there are to enjoy. On the contrary, there are VERY few, traditional, classic, or textbook pains au chocolat in this fair city, (most of the time, we got a crescent with just one baton of chocolate. Welp.) Therefore, and perhaps needlessly to say, we were not swept back to our most recent visits to Paris on this pastry mission. We were swept right into lovely Portland instead, as we were meant to be from the beginning. Technically speaking, the water, and air that comprise a product are just as important as the hands that care for it. Portland’s ingredients are not Parisian, and so our pain au chocolat here were always going to be just that — OURS. This said, I have yet to run into a strict Francophile here whom couldn’t be turned by an excellent, and carefully shaped croissant accompanied by a well-pulled espresso, and served up with a side of flannel and fresh ink. You get my point — Portland is not Paris, and we wouldn’t want it to be. There is only one Portland, only one Paris, and only one Best Pain au Chocolat in Portland award.
Our gold star on the day, hands down, goes to:
Nuvrei Pastries + Cafe – 404 NW 10th Avenue
THE Best Pain au Chocolat in Portland. (Even though it is really a chocolate croissant.) Flaky and crisp on the outside; buttery, rich and clearly artisan on the inside. When you visit, tuck down into the bottom floor of the building to peep their production. Fantastic!
We also visited:
Little T Baker – Union Way, Suite O, 1022 W Burnside St
No pain au chocolat on offer. We suggest steering away from the double chocolate croissant and instead heading for the traditional croissant (or another pastry all together.) Definitely oggle the interior and peep the style on the barista!
St. Jack – 2039 SE Clinton St
This stop was actually suggested to us by the barista at Nuvrei, whom commented that he thought the pastries they were serving were the best. We think he should stick to this idea. This was a chocolate croissant in a very French bistro and might have been our most disappointing pastry, though the croque monsieur was rather good!
Roman Candle Baking Co. – 3377 SE Division St
A pretty good chocolate croissant, but the flakes were a little dry, and the pastry wasn’t quite rich enough through the center. If we hadn’t already been to 4 bakeries that day, we might not have been the wiser.
These two bakeries below receive an honorable mention from me, for they do justice to the traditional, classic translation of a pain au chocolat:
Saint Honore – 2335 NW Thurman St
This is one of the only true pains au chocolat in the city. St. Honore is the patron saint of bakers and, suitably, these folks know what makes good classical French pastry. Occasionally, their presentation leaves something to be desired but just about everything on the menu is quite good. Still, not the best pain au chocolat.
Ken’s Artisan Bakery – 338 NW 21st Ave
This is the other authentic pain au chocolat worth noting in the city, but it typically proves to be just a little bit too dry. Their canele, however, are excellent.
If you’re interested in charting your own course towards croissant excellence here in Portland, I have a couple of resources for you. Firstly, this article from Willamette Weekly on the Best Croissant in Portland and this, the pastry map I created in Google to follow on our adventure. You can also search the Twitter + Insta-verse for our hashtag #butterusuppdx
Bon appetit! xo L