Updated 3.1.14: Sahagun seems to be out of business
[Note: The retail store closed August 21st, 2010. However, you may be able to find her chocolates at the businesses listed at the end of this post]
I recently spent a bit of time in the hospital, and somewhere in a morphine-induced fog, I started daydreaming about chocolate. Not just any bar on the street, but a single, perfect chocolate.
I never really believed the “chocolate high” until Elizabeth Montes came along and opened her tiny shop on NW 16th in Portland, named after Bernardino de Sahagun, a Spanish Missionary who arrived in Mexico in 1529.
I’ve had Sahagún (pronounced saw-goon) chocolates at the Portland Farmers Market several times and had always been impressed by the quality and care that goes into her confections. Soon Mrs. Montes was featured in Chocolatier magazine. In June of 2005, she opened a store on the west side of an old apartment building downtown. There is something about a cold winter day and chocolate that goes together, and her shop, a place that is such a secret you really don’t want to tell anyone about it, has been on my frequently visited list for some time. It’s a perfect stop on a first date.
Sitting in the hospital, the idea of food was the furthest thing from my mind until I heard the nursing staff raving about the chocolates someone had brought. By their description, I didn’t even have to ask. I knew they were talking about Sahagún. Within a few hours, I developed such a craving, I was begging the nurse to unplug me from the I.V’s and let me make a quick taxi ride to the store. Somehow, it seemed Elizabeth’s chocolates would be a more effective pain-killer. I could see pity in the nurse’s eye as she wiped a bit of creamy caramel off her chin, but my plea was to no avail. Instead, I would have to rely on memories.
Drifting in my morphine fog, I remembered the first time I discovered Sahagún. It is about as unpretentious a place as you will ever find; a tiny shop with a small case and a coffee machine. Not much room for anything else except for a few stools.
The girl behind the counter offered me a small sample. All self-control was lost, and I tried one of everything in the case. Each one seemed to lead to another, and by the time I left, I had tried the entire inventory. There wasn’t a flaw in the lot. Make no mistake, these are some of the best chocolates I have had anywhere in the world.
The selections poured from the case. Pepitapapas, a dark Ecuadorian bittersweet chocolate bark with little, barely toasted, pumpkin seeds. Just the slightest hint of home-grown jalapeño gives it earthiness and depth. The second bark with almonds and fruit candied in house lends a classic juxtaposition between flavors. Oregon hazelnuts dipped in dark chocolate give a slight crunch and then an explosion of flavor. Candied ginger, orange, and lemon peels dipped in chocolate, play a wonderful game between textures – bitter, sweet, acid; an education in matching tastes. “Mega Pills Morning Chocolates”, pairs Portland’s famous Stumptown coffee to single-origin chocolate. They are unexpectedly moist and creamy, giving with the slightest pressure. I want to keep a box of them next to my bed, so I can have my daily starter of caffeine without sticking a bare foot from under my downy comforter.
All these chocolates were good, but then I had the pièce de résistance: caramels about the size of a large thimble. The rich, dark chocolate shell is thin, just a flavorful holder for the goodness inside. You can’t just nibble, the different ingredients need to be experienced all at once; pop the whole thing in your mouth at once and it explodes, sending ribbons of incredibly salty/sweet/buttery caramel across your palate. A single hazelnut gives a slightly crunchy texture. One can only go so far in describing a bite of food; just let me say that it is an unbelievable experience that blew a fuse somewhere deep in my brain.
Stop your conversation, lean against a wall, and concentrate. Take time chewing; feel and taste all the different components. This really isn’t a chocolate, it’s an art piece; a painting you’ll only appreciate behind closed eyes. The last time I went to the shop, I put one in my mouth as I walked out the door. I wanted to dance my way down the street, twirling around lamp posts, singing in the rain.
There’s nothing better than finishing with a cup of Elizabeth’s hot chocolate, made with hormone-free milk, and melted single-varietal chocolate. Right now they are making it with São Tomé, a bittersweet bar from France that is 75% cacao, giving it a long, lingering finish and earthy depth. This isn’t your typical whipped cream-topped, powdered plotz served so many places. It is more like heaven in a cup; a quintessential chocolate experience.
Lying in that hospital bed, I remembered the smile on my face pulling away from the curb. I had ingested a hefty amount of little chocolates, candied peels, bark, and a steaming cup of melted hot happiness. Hitting a wall of traffic as I pulled onto the freeway, I had a huge grin. A mile later I was quietly snickering, kind of like you do when you’ve pulled off the perfect practical joke on a friend, but they don’t know it yet. Soon I was singing loudly, making a general spectacle of myself, car-dancing down Interstate Avenue at 40 miles an hour.
I highly recommend Sahagún.
All photography by Vince Patton, © 2008
- Phone: 503-274-7065
I’m planning a trip to Portland as I write this.
Fantastic post – I love your photos and can completely put myself in your place (though substitute phenergan for morphine).
It must be props-to-Sahagun week. I fully approve of your selection of award recipient. Good work.
And Nancy’s interview was a great read.
You can see my little shout out that I posted on Sugar Savvy last Tuesday:http://www.wellfed.net/sugarsavvy/sugarsavvy.php/2006/02/28/time_out_for_chocolate
Look towards the end of the post.
Thank you Elizabeth for so smartly and eloquently justifying my lifelong “habit” of slowly savoring my chocolate. Even when I was 8, I somehow managed to make my 3 Musketeers bar last for a good 45 minutes – to the annoyance of my brother and sister. And now that my chocolate tastes have been expanded and elevated over the years, I get to spend quality time with her salted chocolate caramels. Ohhhh….sweet… salty…chocolate…
Not that I don’t have room in my heart (and mouth)for the trashy stuff now and then. Today’s post is a nod to the bad (but somehow so good) old stuff from my days of a less-discerning candy-jonesin’. http://www.wellfed.net/sugarsavvy/sugarsavvy.php
Those caramels sounds great. I already have a friend picking some up for me. Good chocolate tip…
The chocolates and caramels sound amazing- I can’t wait to try them next time I’m in Portland- but what’s just as good is your writing. Great piece!
Lady Concierge says
Thank you, thank you! Now I know EXACTLY what to get my (chocolate fanatic) best friend for his birthday….
shuna fish lydon says
Morphine is overrated but those caramels aren’t! Nothing like making a mess of yourself expoecting one thing and being thoroughly happy it became something else!
Thank you for tempting me like the sexy food dude that you are to re-visit Portland in ther not-too-distant future…
We just returned from our much-anticipated trip to Portland, and stopped here after reading your post. All I can say is WOW!! Elizabeth is great, and was a joy to talk with while we tried all of her incredible chocolates. After 20 minutes in her tiny shop, I joyfully walked out with a take-away box full of caramels, jasmine truffles and bark, and can now die happy.
Food Dude says
C&S – Glad you liked it. One of my favorite places.
Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for making me go to this shop. I met a fellow chocolate lover there to check it out and we spent hours lingering on the bar stools over our hot chocolate, tasting truffles, breathing in the smell of chocolate, and watching delighted customers come and go. (It seems a travesty to put that chocolate into a paper cup, though…) This will definitely become a regular treat for me.
I had some friends in the area pick up a little box of goodies for me. The caramel is fantabulous!
They quite enjoyed chatting with Elizabeth who seemed mystified and delighted that your post has generated so many new customers.
Yes, I offered her again the salt caramel, but then she went for the unassuming little round with jasmine tea infused ganache. Her eyes closed, it was awhile before she could speak, and then only in her new tongue.
I hate to be a downer here but am I the only one who isn’t all that impressed with Sahagun Chocolates? I think the chocolates are decent and Elizabeth does and excellent job at marketing herself and her product. Maybe I’d feel differently if I hadn’t been to Alma Chocolate on NE 28th prior to this visit. The salted caramel at Alma is a blended perfection of salt, caramel and chocolate. At Sahagun, I lost sight of the chocolate and almost thought I was tasting a ‘too salty caramel’. Also, the pricing at Alma is much better. There seems to be a big focus at Sahagun on ‘image’ and ‘marketing’ and to me, that is a turn-off. I think Sahagun will still be a big success but I’d be interested in a taste comparison by the above reviewers. And I didn’t even mention the habanero truffle at Alma….
Huh? If by marketing you mean an email list and a lot of word of mouth that has brought people and a modest amount of media to her, then I guess you’re right. But she has a pretty lousy location and no REAL marketing. The shop itself is pretty darned tiny and unadorned. She uses almost no molds for her chocolates. We’re not talking about Moonstruck here. What is this “image” you refer to?
You can see my taste comparisons here:
Each has their relative merits. I think Alma, DePaula, Pix, and Sahagun are above the rest in town and can compete with more nationally renowned gourmet chocolates. However, and I say this with the upmost respect to the others who I buy from regularly, Sahagun has the most consistent and perfect ganaches of them all. They’re never grainy. Never too liquidy. And to my preference, the chocolate is rarely overpowered by the flavorings. Also, because she hand rolls her truffles instead of using molds, the shells are thinner providing a superior experience, imo.
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Well said, MSG, well said.
Kim Nyland says
Well said indeed MSG. …. I hope pdxfoodie answers.
As for the reviews …completely agree
kim @ apizza
Yes, MSG, well said. Another person dressed down for expressing their thoughts on a matter of taste.
Sahagun has been a darling of the Pdx food blogosphere and other media since even before it opened — I think the fact that Ms. Montes was chosen for the cover of the WWeek restaurant guide is testament to the “image” you seem puzzled by. If there was one error the original poster made, it was attributing the hype to self-promotion, as opposed to just promotion — and I don’t think either you nor pdxfoodie can really say which is more more correct.
I’m sure you realize, Jeff, that Sahagun existed before the shop ever opened and was selling chocolates no less impressive at the Portland Farmer’s Market. If it was a “darling”, it was only because people like myself had been eating the fabulous chocolates long before the store opened.
I didn’t attack PDXFoodie’s preference for Alma over Sahagun. I don’t know what preferences PDXFoodie has exactly. I just gave reasons why I think Sahagun makes excellent chocolates, at least as good as anyone else in town.
I did attack PDXFoodie’s very mistaken description of Sahagun as a place hyping itself, more concerned with superficialities than quality. I think Sarah at Alma would disagree with that as would John DePaula. I know all three enjoy each other’s chocolates and respect each other’s talents and devotion to the craft.
I tend to agree with foodie to the extent that Sahagun was overexposed for a bit. The press was all over them. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily and I don’t think any of us knows whether Elizabeth was the origin of the blitz and frankly, it’s irrelevant. But I do understand the position of enough is enough. I have never been overwhelmed with Sahagun’s product but I don’t position myself as a chocolate afficianado either. I think foodie was just wondering of he was the only one that didn’t think Sahagun was the end all of chocolate and frankly I agree with him.
I think that there is room for all of the chocolatiers in town and I think they all have something that I love that will keep me coming back.
-I think Sahagun has the best hot chocolate (haven’t been to Cacao yet, though) I have ever had and I love that I can sit and drink it out of a real (not paper) cup.
-I think Alma’s salted caramels are the best in town…but I like a more toothsome caramel than DePaula, Sahagun and Pix make. It’s about personal preference here. I also love her chocolate covered ginger toffee – YUM!
-I love John DePaula’s truffles – I think the flavor he gets into his ganache is amazing, and I think they are absolutely beautiful chocolates. I also love the way he finds the right pairing for the coating for the truffles – e.g. – I love the pomegranate truffle and I think covering it with white chocolate is brilliant, even though I am no fan of white chocolate, because the sweeter white chocolate goes so well with the tartness of the dark chocolate pomegranate ganache. I love the variety of his flavors, too. And the newer mendiants he is making rock!
I clearly didn’t take the time to ‘appropriately’ phrase my message. I was referring to the slight ‘over exposure’ of Sahagun. I’ve seen her image in WWeek, Portland Monthly and most recently my AAA VIA magazine that comes with my subscribtion to AAA.
I think that constitutes more than an email list and word of mouth for marketing.
And I simply prefer Alama for other reasons, including, but not limited to taste and price.
I think it’s low to justify your dislike of something by saying someone else is too good at marketing themselves, especially when you don’t know anything about she does herself for marketing. What is she supposed to do when someone comes calling and she’s worried about paying the rent for her shop that month? Turn them down since she doesn’t want someone who must never have tried to run a successful food business while keeping the quality to the level she believes in to think she’s over exposing herself?
If you like Alma’s chocolates better, great, explain what you like about them. Why be insulting to someone else trying to make a living to justify your point?
On B: I think you confuse people lining up behind me and people lining up behind Sahagun’s excellent product.
On A: Have you considered counseling for your extramsg fixation? The other side of the coin is that I was defending someone that was wrongly “crucified” for a perception founded more in the mind of the poster than reality. Apparently for you, Jeff, it’s okay to attack people if they own a shop or restaurant, but not if they’re commenting on a blog.
pdxeater: Do you ACTUALLY know what Ms. Montes does or does not do to market/promote her business? If so, tell us who you are and how you know. If not, your argument is just as much empty speculation as the original poster’s.
BTW, I really don’t care on either side of this issue. I just get pissed when (a) extramsg crucifies people who might dare to post something “wrong” and (b) other people line up behind him.
Jeff: I ACTUALLY do know, because I am a customer and she told me. If you, or anyone else would ACTUALLY like to know too, it’s easy enough to ask her. Of course, that would involve ACTUALLY having a conversation with someone to their face.
BTW, I am not part of the Extra gospel choras (hah! and double hah! and a feh! as well). If you think that, I ACTUALLY have a bridge, or 9, to sell you. Now stop tempting me to say something I’ll regret about groupies, lesbians and soccer moms.
Raul Garcia says
I really don’t care about the marketing aspect. I do know that they had
an incredibly small sampling of chocolates which at least were not waxy like Moonstruck or Godiva. They did not wow me by any chance.
They seem very much a Portland-type phenomenon. A few people rave and then everyone jumps on the bandwagon. They are quite ordinary.
Alma is better and Teuscher despite not being local is the best of all.
No magazine ever even mentions them despite their superb truffles and marzipan and I suspect it is because they do not advertise at all.
I would never go back to Sahagun again. Pix is not bad either.
Posted by: pdxfoodie:
“….the chocolates are decent and Elizabeth does and [sic] excellent job at marketing herself and her product…seems to be a big focus at Sahagun on ‘image’ and ‘marketing’ and to me, that is a turn-off…”
Pdx foodie, you don’t have the faintest idea what you are yammering about. I’ve had conversations with Elizabeth about “marketing”, and she has slim-to-no interest in such things, even too little by my taste if she is to survive & thrive. She makes small efforts at PR, promotion, & marketing. In any case, why crucify someone for getting some deserved exposure? Does that make the product less worthwhile? Perhaps so, in your hipster-than-thou world.
FYI: DePaula, Sarah (of Pix) & Elizabeth all respect, like, and support each other (prices to me seem identical, don’t know what you are talking about on that count). Maybe they can model for you & other petty types on this thread an attitude of evaluating folks on the fruits of their hard labor, not on their posturing abilities or coolness factor.
Doctor Stu says
Personally, I think Moonstruck sucks, and is no better than Sees. The extra dark chocolate 500 gram bar in the red wrapper for about $4 that Trader Joes imports from Belgium tastes better to me! As to the other Portland based companies such as Alma, DePaula, and Sahagun, I think each one does certain things better, but all are excellent. Some of the best “artisan” chocolate I’ve tasted actually was made in Salt Lake City, by Hatch Family Chocolates.
She has some new items that are fantastic.
There’s a truffle made out of DeVries’ Dominican that has several layers, making for cool textures.
Also a new thing called the Crackle Pop that is just divine.
My new favorite item is the Figalicious, which is fig and chestnut dipped in chocolate.
Last day open before xmas is this Sunday.
Food Dude says
They both have their strengths and weaknesses. https://portlandfoodanddrink.com/?p=805
What — you haven’t been to Cacao yet?
Their hot chili/chocolate is indeSCRIBably, incredibly amazing.
one swell foop says
Sahagun is wonderful, but Cacao carries Amedei. It saves me having to order it from, and pay for shipping from Italy.
FYI The Meadow (on N Mississippi) also carries Amedei (and an awesome selection of finishing salts).
one swell foop says
Omigod. She now has an ice cream maker. Is experimenting with various flavors. Went yesterday to find three sorbets: chocolate orange & lemon-blueberry. Had the chocolate. Couldn’t believe it wasn’t ice cream; it was that good! Think it was made from the 71% Ecuadoran.
Will be closed all of August, so am already going through anticipatory withdrawal.