Written by Janey Wong | Photography by Nico Lim
Created in partnership with Portland in Color
The thriving East Portland neighborhood of Lents — one of the city’s most culturally diverse — is ripe for exploration.
Founded as an independent town and suburb southeast of Portland, Lents neighborhood was annexed into the city in 1912. Composed of lower-income Jewish, Chinese, German and Irish families, the neighborhood was historically neglected by city planners. Perhaps the most notable example of this disregard came about when Interstate 205 was constructed in the late 1970s, essentially cutting the neighborhood in half.
In recent times, Lents has become an enclave for Asian, Eastern European and Latinx communities with local businesses and nonprofits like the Asian Health & Service Center reflecting and serving the needs of the community. Notable Lents residents have included American folk legend Woody Guthrie, whose time there is now monumentalized by an affordable family housing building bearing his name, and, more recently, the famously displaced Belmont Goats (now re-relocated to North Portland).
The neighborhood has undergone a vast transformation since 2010, largely due to the efforts of the city’s economic and urban development agency, Prosper Portland (formerly the Portland Development Commission). Although many Portland neighborhoods have undergone rapid change, the Lents Town Center development is notably different in its commitment to sustainable growth. At the core of Prosper Portland’s action plan are affordable housing units and business development for the neighborhood’s mixed-income community. The resulting improved walkability and accessibility to public transit mean visitors can more easily discover Lents’ many hidden gems.
Where to Eat in Lents
Bella’s Italian Bakery and Market
The name of Bella’s Italian Bakery and Market pays homage to owner and pastry chef Michelle Vernier’s Italian grandmother. “Bella,” which means “beautiful” in Italian, was a nickname her Nonna gave to all the girls in the family, “Probably because [we] looked more or less the same and she couldn’t remember our names,” notes Vernier on her blog.
The bakery and market are a clear love letter to Vernier’s family and their heritage, from the handmade pastries to the homey interior. Customers in the know visit on Thursday Pizza Nights, Lasagna Sundays, or early weekend mornings to procure sfogliatelle — a labor-intensive Naples specialty, rarely made by hand anymore. The pastries, made with hand-stretched dough and homemade ricotta, require a 24-hour resting period before baking and take a period of three days from start to finish.
If you’re looking for “Old Portland,” you can find one of its gems tucked into a nondescript strip on Holgate Boulevard. Established in 1985 by Seiji Takahashi, the Takahashi restaurant is now owned by his protégé, Kao Saechao, who began as a sushi chef and worked his way up to manager. After assuming ownership in 2017, Saechao decided to keep the restaurant largely as it was. The surprisingly cavernous space is still filled with charming odds and ends such as figurines and tapestries that Seiji brought back from Japan.
The menu was streamlined a bit after the transition, but patrons can still find the Takahashi’s popular selection of signature rolls like the Cholesteroll and Jo Roll in addition to vegetarian sushi.
Blink on your journey along the easternmost strip of Woodstock Boulevard and you just might miss El Nutri Taco. The restaurant is the epitome of a neighborhood joint, hiding in plain sight along a residential block as an extension of owners Chencho Martinez and Gabina Lopez’s house. Today, the taqueria has two brick-and-mortar locations (the other is on Northeast Alberta Street), but like many Portland eateries, it originated as a food truck. The main draw of Nutri Taco is undoubtedly their vegan and vegetarian options. Offerings include house-made chipotle soyrizo, decadently seasoned soy curls and tempeh, with Tofutti sour cream and Daiya cheese to top everything off. Freshness is a through-line at the establishment and omnivores will find that even El Nutri Taco’s meat dishes taste decidedly less greasy than standard taqueria fare, without sacrificing flavor.
What to See in Lents
One of only eight of its kind in the United States, the Portland Memory Garden was specifically designed as a haven for people with memory disorders and their caregivers. The garden’s accessible layout — a wish tree in the center flanked by garden beds containing different flora that bloom during each season — is an easily walkable oval design containing many circular elements. Several benches line the garden’s pathways, inviting visitors to relax and enjoy the garden’s peaceful and meditative atmosphere. Created as a collaboration between public and private entities, including the Oregon-Greater Idaho Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association and Portland State University’s School of Urban Studies and Planning, the garden is a testament to community building at its finest.
Get acquainted with Lents’ thriving art scene and the community that makes it by checking out a street mural by local artist Rodolfo “Rudy” Serna. This piece is painted on the street directly in front of the Native American Youth and Family Center’s (NAYA) intergenerational affordable apartments (8510 SE Steele St.). The mural’s brightly colored and intricate design features life-giving Native American imagery and flowers, architecture and musical figures from around the world, reflecting NAYA’s diverse residents. For Serna, art and community-building go hand in hand, and most of his projects are collaborations with the people that live near them. This piece, one of several Serna has coordinated in Lents, was completed by community members in July 2019.
As Portland patiently lobbies for an MLB team to call its own, avid baseball fans can head to Lents Park for a fun-for-the-whole-family Portland Pickles game. In 2018, the collegiate summer team joined the West Coast League, which is comprised of teams from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Festivities during games include appreciation nights, casual dog shows, pre-game concerts, giveaways and, of course, rambunctious cheering — spearheaded by the Pickles’ mascot Dillon and topped with overhead chair-shaking commemorating every run. With Portland’s passionate sports fan bases — from Blazermania to the Timbers Army — known nationally, it only makes sense that the Portland Pickles have earned that same brand of enthusiasm, albeit on a proportionally smaller scale. Join the approximately 64,000 fans who flock to Walker Stadium during the mid-June–August season.
Where to Shop in Lents
Started in 2006 by volunteers, then run by Zenger Farm, Lents International Market joined the Portland Farmers Market family in 2016 as the city’s only international farmers’ market. As “an important sales outlet for immigrant and new farmers, and new small food business owners,” the market features culturally appropriate produce, including locally grown “traditional Mexican produce and Asian greens,” the Portland Farmers Market website details. The Lents International Market runs from June through November.
On weekend mornings, Sulina Lao, along with her husband and son, unload fresh blooms from their Boring, Oregon, farm to sell at that day’s farmers’ market: Gresham on Saturdays and Lents on Sundays. Lao’s bustling flower stand, Sulina’s Garden, is a must-see flagship of the Lents International Market. Pre-arranged bouquets line the perimeter of the stall, and there’s always a small selection of in-season produce on offer, but the real magic happens when customers request a custom creation. After the customer names a price point ($5, $10, $15 or $20) and preferred colors, Lao sets to work. Each time she builds a bouquet, onlookers are treated to performance art of sorts. Flitting from bucket to bucket like a bee, she quickly and instinctively selects blooms, then wraps them up with deft hands.
On the cusp of the Lents and Foster-Powell (FoPo) neighborhoods, foodies and shoppers looking for Asian and Russian specialties head to SF Supermarket and Good Neighbor, respectively. SF (short for Shun Fat) is a California-based supermarket chain that features live seafood and tropical fruits such as rambutan, dragonfruit, jujubes and the ever-polarizing durian. A little further north on 82nd, Good Neighbor offers an impressive selection of smoked fish, European deli meats and cheeses by the pound, and frozen pelmeni in bulk. Both are musts for folks looking for quality ingredients for a home-cooked meal or just wanting to peruse an amazing array of hard-to-find imported snacks.