Portland’s next food chapter has arrived: Modern cuisine meets DIY culture, breakfast gets several makeovers, rebel bakers find new sweet spots, and fish has a hook, at last. Everyone, it seems, has a turntable. We’ve curated the ultimate menu of the year: 10 spots ushering in a new era of eating.
Pull up a seat and dig in!
1. Restaurant of the Year: Ava Gene's
Every 10 years or so, a restaurant comes along that raises the stakes and alters the plot forever. In the 1980s, Genoa refracted Italy through the passions of a team of farm-fresh fanatics, taking Portland way off the decade’s flashy, yuppified script into a realm of eccentric, demanding, personal passion. Zefiro stamped its mark on the ’90s by making Portland dining serious but sexy (arguably for the first time). The ’00s emergence of the semi-underground Ripe supper club set the stage for all the do-it-yourself, handcrafting rebels to come.
Now, with Ava Gene’s, Portland grows up. But rock and roll never dies.
- Burrata: cream-filled mozzarella-style cheese
- Fritti misti: fried vegetables
- Pane: wood-fired breads
- Seasonal salads
- Pastas: don’t miss chitarra with mussels and almond butter
- Peanut gelato
- Fresh cannoli
Last November, Duane Sorenson opened a marble-clad mash note to Italy near the birthplace of his Stumptown Coffee Roasters, bundling local sensibilities like muscle fiber. Ava Gene’s is the place where the city’s beloved but familiar food tropes—the exactingly sourced ingredients, the cultural collision of garage-rock scruffiness and shameless Europhilia, the sly reimagining of fine dining’s rituals—are reconfigured into a new standard of excellence. The room swings like an indie brasserie beneath light tubes that swarm and glow like fireflies. It’s a place to indulge everything that makes Portland tick, with an unstoppable parade of inspired food, religious seasonality, and what sounds like a director’s cut of iconic rock, rare and uncut. From the bar comes the bright, smoky surprise of cedar-steeped Campari, and a unique enthusiasm for little-known grappas. Even the Italian wine list gets personal—nothing clever, just an awesome library of great finds from great vintages, some dug out of collectors’ basements.
3377 SE Division St
Traditional limitations of “rustic” food are erased two bites into thick, wood-charred bread holding chicken livers and red plums, or agnolottipasta plumped with polenta, corn stock, and raw corn. This is not safe, letter-perfect Italy—it’s Duane’s world, nostalgic but open-minded, channeled through the focused imagination of chef Joshua McFadden. The beauty of the menu lies in eight subdivisions: addictive fritti (fried stuff) to perfectly al dente primi (pasta), always changing and meant for sharing. Vegetables are McFadden’s stars, shooting through nearly every dish, including 10 salads, each one better than the next. Celery dances with dates, roasted almonds, chile heat, and flinty Parmesan; beets, carrots, and pickled raisins arrive not with vinaigrette, but a glaze of fresh-ground pistachio nut butter. Who even thinks of these things? Joyful simplicity, great ingredients, the acuity of intention: this is Ava Gene’s stand. Come with friends, plan to laugh, order wide and deep.
In comfort-crazed Portland, an artistic modern kitchen soars.
Some dishes crash through the flavor barrier to shift our understanding of what food can be—think Le Pigeon’s foie gras profiteroles or Ox’s ode to clam chowder and smoked marrow bones. This year’s breakthrough belongs to Castagna’s “terrarium,” an edible greenhouse of shooting leaves and kicky flowers gleaned from the kitchen’s backyard garden, then painstakingly tweezed into a glass. Dreamy onion custard and a hypergreen purée of onion stalks stand in for soil and grass, while floating beads of “charcoal oil” charge each bite with the smoke and char of onions on the grill. It’s a modernist feat, exhilarating in its crunch and fragrance, and on a par with dishes found in Europe’s Michelin-starred haunts. And this is merely a gratis “snack” on Castagna’s tasting menu.
Every meal at Castagna lately seems to unfurl a new taste to remember. After a few years in the shadows behind former front man Matt Lightner, Justin Woodward emerged as one of Portland’s most accomplished chefs—a modernist poet juggling his own voice and technical prowess, honed at New York’s famed experimental food lab WD-50.
His best ideas are excitedly out-of-the-box, one of them a rib eye reveling in caramelized mussel jus alongside an oyster emulsion tasting straight from the tide pool.
1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Come with an evening to burn. The room is quiet; the focus is food. You can master Woodward 101 in three easy courses ($65 plus snacks), or you can embrace the 17–20 dish tasting menu ($110). Or, slip in for the new “dessert flight” of three deliciously innovative treats for $25. One night I landed on the world’s first mash-up of Asian bubble tea and Downton Abbey: a glass of lemon verbena iced tea and “sweet tea pearls” sipped through a candied straw fashioned from puréed peaches. Somehow, this is still Portland’s best-kept secret.
- Three courses, the tasting menu, or the dessert flight. What are you in the mood for?
3. Rising Star Chef: Holdfast
At a pop-up dinner concept, a young talent reboots fine dining with casual ceremony and seriously good food.
At 29, Will Preisch delivers a fresh vision of what fine dining in Portland can be: high-quality, highly personal, and casually ceremonial. He swings easily from modern to gritty, from one-bite snacks to multifaceted entrées, from foraged sea plants to a hunk of steer from New Seasons. He’s arguably Portland’s most exciting young chef—and he doesn’t work in a restaurant.
Yes, we’re rolling the “rising star” dice on the sheer joy of eating one man’s food at a rented kitchen counter that feels more luncheonette than French Laundry. Preisch’s pop-up restaurant, Holdfast Dining, is barely four months old. But it weaves several threads of Portland’s food scene—temporary restaurants that don’t look like restaurants, a free-form approach to influences, informality raised to a new kind of formality—into a magnetic experience.
Holdfast holds court several times a month at Northwest Portland’s KitchenCru, a well-equipped kitchen rented to culinary dreamers by the hour. You sign up online, snuggle in at the 10-seat chef’s counter, and dig into six to 11 courses conceived, cooked, composed, and hand-delivered by Preisch himself (who often also serves as host and dishwasher). No middlemen, no waiters, no predictability—that’s the Holdfast rule. You might encounter one sublime pork chip holding a whiskeyed cherry—a pig’s ear meets the manhattan. And that might lead to artful squibs of green-grape gazpacho siding torched bread, charred avocado, and pristine squid with more bounce than Beyoncé. The rib eye kills, visually and flavorfully. One night, eight courses in, Preisch repackaged the American South into a single, revelatory bite of corn, fat, and honey born again as a savory corn-bread madeleine. This is what progressive food should be: creative but not precious, complex but not complicated, and, most important, delicious.
Can this model work? Will it be influential? Or will Holdfast be a flash in the pan? It’s anybody’s guess. But right now, Preisch has unleashed some of the best food to be found in Portland. This guy is going places.
- You’ve only got one choice: the evening’s fixed-price menu, wine pairings included.
Turntables, spicy drinking snacks, and six perfect drinks. Portland’s best new bar isn’t just business; it’s personal.
He is a budding bar star, a Reed grad, and a fiend for old records and classic Hollywood movies. She is queen of the kitchen at Beast and a Top Chef Masters vet. Together, Kyle Linden Webster and Naomi Pomeroy are captains of ambience and ingredient geeks searching for the interesting moment, the unforgettable drink, the groan-worthy bite. The couple found it at Expatriate. Their 30-seat bar is unlike any other, dancing on the edge of gritty and glamorous, high-quality and highly personal. In this joint venture, she cooks and he shakes old-school cocktails—four or five ingredients only, one full-flavored experience.
- Chinese sausage corn dog
- Shrimp toast
- Drinking Snack No. 1—market vegetables with spicy pork and tomato curry
- Korean fried game hen
- Daiquiris in any form
The first thing you notice is the blackness, the shadows, the “Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” vibe. Expatriate is darker than a planetarium, and it works. Flickering votives and fat red candles oozing wax on brass holders spotlight what matters here: vintage records, two turntables spinning moods throughout the evening, six nightly cocktails, each balanced like the scales of justice, and a collection of crunchy, herbaceous, heat-packing Asian snacks dispatched with ornate gold silverware. Lost and found objects stand in for décor, each encapsulating a personal story—the copy of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare by famed expat Henry Miller, the elaborately carved arch reclaimed from a Chinese restaurant, the pile of French Vogues on the bar.
5424 NE 30th Ave
Ambience aside, what really caught my attention were Pomeroy’s corn dogs—corn dogs!—remodeled as super-delicious cylinders of dainty corn bread and spicy Chinese sausage, with hot mustard and sweet chile sauce on the side for dunking. That was before the Korean fried game hen arrived, blistered beneath pickled watermelon ranch dressing, and after a Scandinavian daiquiri, deep with licorice tones and generous acidity. You can request any drink from the bar, but the six nightly sips are the focus, meant to pair with Pomeroy’s loose take on Southeast Asian street eats, with the occasional nod to James Beard (a simple onion and butter sandwich). It all could feel pretentious if weren’t so damn good and this much fun. So pull up a plush white bar chair and say hello to your neighbor. Expatriate is the meeting place of the year.
Portlandia meets Martha Stewart in a homemade haven of pancakes, pies, and oven-fresh sandwich breads.
On a frumpy stretch of N Albina Avenue, Sweedeedee proudly serves “pie, breakfast and lunch.” Outside, jars of tea “cook” in the sun. Inside, mason jars double as wall art and napkins arrive clasped in kitchen-bag ties. Music blares, and between the staff and customers there are more tattoos than in a Russian prison. Hourlong waits are a given. First impression: a been-there, laughed-at-that Portlandia moment. Second take: “Whoa, this food is really good. How do I get in?”
A year ago, 37-year-old Eloise Augustyn was on food stamps. With a skateboarder’s energy, a grandma’s gift for satisfying flavor, and a hammer-wielding dad on carpentry duty, the girl who cooked, baked, and waited her way through Portland kitchens conjured her own brand of home cooking. Big portions, big flavors, wired-in details, great vibes, and just about everything under $10. That’s Sweedeedee. Bowls of Maldon salt and hand-cranked pepper mills stand on every table. From the tiny kitchen come soups, farm-fresh salads, giant cakes, and a righteous honey pie, all custard and dark amber in a full-butter crust.
At the counter, inch-thick slabs of zucchini bread make the best possible argument for eating your vegetables. Then there are the grilled triangles of homemade brioche bracketing braised beef, pickled onions, and fresh horseradish cream, or a towering vision of bacon, slivered beets, and lettuce on oven-fresh cornmeal molasses bread.
5202 N Albina Ave
Breakfast percolates all day, led by the best corn-cakes plate around: billowing spheres of comfort with baked eggs, stewed greens du jour, crispy bacon slabs, and a mini-vat of maple syrup. Happy noise fills the air. Seating is limited to 22 lucky souls, and Portland’s Sweedeedee crush is growing fast. My advice: get in line with the rest of us.
Corn cakes • Sweedeedee Breakfast Plate • BLB sandwich (bacon, lettuce, beet)
Good Buddy (braised beef sandwich) • Cobb salad • chocolate chip cookies
without question, a slice of honey pie
6. Sen Yai
Pok Pok superstar Andy Ricker tangles with Asian noodles and Thai breakfast.
They are authenticity geeks, Asian families, and traveling fanatics seeking a Portland food high. Their ranks are small but devoted. Every morning they gather at Sen Yai for a taste of something rare and authentic: Thai breakfast.
Andy Ricker, the mastermind behind Pok Pok, could be cloning fish-sauce-wing joints from here to eternity. Instead, he’s taking a chance on breakfast in a city fixated on chicken and waffles served in mammoth portions.
Sen Yai (Thai for “big noodle”) looks like a burger drive-in reborn as a Bangkok cafeteria. But instead of carhops, servers armed with Thai coffee and coddled eggs zip around a parking lot of picnic tables, yellow umbrellas, and the smokiest crushed Thai chiles this side of Chiang Mai. Inside, speakers broadcast the organ-happy singsong of Asian pop, but everyone is focused on the perfumes leaking from big bowls of jok, which is like Thai cream of rice but deep with ginger, scallions, and umami juju beneath a cloud of fried noodles. There’s enough steam to give you a facial. Zap it with white pepper and a little soy—or perhaps crushed chiles in vinegar. If you’re really flying, nab a side of patangko—unsweetened doughnuts for your dunking pleasure.
3384 SE Division St
By 11 a.m., Sen Yai shape-shifts to its true mission: a meticulously authentic Thai noodle house that cranks day and night. Not everything hits that magic sweet spot—the crash of herbs, textures, and addictive flavors that Ricker can tap so well. But the menu is brave, uncompromising, and stocked with finds built around soup noodles, wok-fried noodles, and phat Thai, five different ways. I’d return just for sweet-and-sour yen ta fo soup, or the wildly charred kuaytiaw khua kai noodles. But I’m a fool for that breakfast—it tastes like a revelation.
- For breakfast: jok (with pork and egg); steamed pork buns; coddled eggs and toast; hot “sock brewed” tea.
- For lunch and dinner: yen ta fosoup; Kuaytiaw Khua Kai with duck (crusty, wok-charred noodles over chopped lettuce); “boat noodles” soup; phat Thai thamadaa (regular)
A modern speakeasy hauls a new wave of seafood ashore in Portland.
Despite our proximity to two rivers and an ocean, Portland exalts pork, and seafood ambitions are rare and often fleeting. When was the last time a kitchen charged hard beyond wood-fired halibut? It took one self-taught dude with no big-city experience and a $15,000 budget to dream up Portland’s best fish story: a reservations-only, modern-style speakeasy. At Roe, opened last fall, Trent Pierce’s only tools are an immersion circulator, a couple of induction burners, modernist cookbooks, and a headful of crazy ideas.
3113 SE Division St
Instead of fancy décor and a full kitchen, Pierce invested in exotic, sashimi-grade fish (mostly line-caught in Hawaii). Then he laid down a $100, 10-course tasting menu, one of priciest tickets in town, swimming with barracudas, blue snappers, and butterfish. It worked out better than anyone imagined, finding followers and critical acclaim while resetting the seafood switch in Portland.
To find it, head to the very back of Block & Tackle on SE Division Street. Past the unmarked curtain is another world, small and quiet, a kind of secret club where jazz fills an amber-lit chamber. If you’re looking for a nice crab cake, you’re at the wrong place. At Roe, Pierce and ever-present sidekick Patrick Schultz, quieter than Zen monks, assemble mysterious food collages as diners fork into dishes that look like miniature Kandinsky paintings. Each composition holds no less than a half-dozen flavor boosters, Thai herbs to French sauces, smoked steelhead roe to confit jalapeño. Antarctic toothfish cuddles up to shishito peppers and bruléed figs; walu tuna sashimi meets a blizzard of frozen foie gras, each melting bite richer than Paul Allen.
Flavors can blur over an evening, and with limited kitchen gear, everything is raw, sous vide, flash-marinated, or butter-poached—code words for soft. You may find yourself howling for a crispy skin. Then comes a vision of lobster pho with beefy broth, handmade cuttlefish noodles, habanero heat, Thai herbs, and a lifetime of pleasure. You’re hooked.
- Best dessert: “Chocolate,” an unmade ice cream sandwich of marshmallow gelato, coffee ganache, whiskey caramel, and chocolate wafer
8. The Sugar Cube
A food-cart pioneer opens a creative bakery where even breakfast tastes like dessert.
- Toast plates
- Spiced buttermilk corn bread with molasses butter
- Fruit crostatas with fresh lemon curd
- Coffee mallow pie
- Blackout cake
- Bourbon honey pie
- Anything bearing the word “cupcake”
In 2008, Sugar Cube shot out of nowhere with conceptual Joy of Cooking cakes, hand-hewn munchies, and a new vision for what a food cart could be: a wallet-friendly destination for haute retro treats. Cupcakes gushing caramel sauce smoky as bacon vaulted from a pink trailer window alongside “marionberry crack coffee cake.” Through various cart-pod relocations and more ups and down than the Kardashians, Kir Jensen still managed to deliver an unbroken series of OMG moments.
Now, after years of inspired creativity in Portland parking lots, Jensen has a brick-and-mortar home on NE Alberta Street. The Sugar Cube, the sequel, opened in September with daylight hours from Wednesday through Sunday. The trailer’s sassy vibe has given way to butter-yellow walls, wide slate benches, and careful vintage touches, all bright and breezy with just 20 seats. At the marble-clad pastry case, caloric truces are quickly broken as changing baked goods and beautiful butter crusts get center play throughout the day. The Sugar Cube’s greatest hits are in regular rotation (Guinness stout cupcakes frosted in maple cream cheese, the “Ultimate Brownie,” served warm) along with new ideas, like a luscious fluff of coffee mallow pie, sweeter than an Al Green track. The mode is rustic, seasonal, and always twisted.
The Sugar Cube
3039 NE Alberta St
Jensen’s idea of breakfast—indulgent snacks bordering on dessert—includes concoctions like a spiced corn bread frosted with molasses butter. Savory stratas combine the best of bread pudding and quiche under one hot cheddar roof. Toast plates emerge as buttery slabs of bread heaped with changing toppings, from homemade Nutella etched with good olive oil to almond butter and bruléed bananas. If Mom weren’t looking, this is what you’d eat every day.
9. Din Din
In one chandelier-lit kitchen, Francophilia, imagination, and local ingredients rule the day.
Every vibrant food city has stylishly scrappy restaurants reveling in tasting menus and dinner-party vibes. Courtney Sproule has taken the next step, overhauling the ambience as often as the food.
From 2007 to 2012, Sproule charmed local eaters with intricate pop-up meals on rooftops, in urban nurseries, and in church basements with her whimsical supper club. Din Din is the brick-and-mortar reincarnation of that vision. Sproule’s passion for reinvention extends to curated music, hand-designed menus, projected movies, and a merriment of comfort and surprise cooked in an open, chandelier-lit kitchen. Menus are small, but tiny gestures loom large. Sproule’s brand of “only what we love” cooking is deployed with French techniques, farm-fresh obsession, and more enthusiasm than the entire cast of Glee.
The mood morphs throughout the day. The all-day coffee bar is a find for flawless cappuccinos sided by French sugar cubes and the kitchen’s candied orange peel. Business types fill the room at lunch, juggling laptops and bowls of perfect pea soup, baguettes holding ham and camembert, and whatever else the kitchen is cooking up that day, as Pavement rocks in the background. Weekend-only dinner menus change monthly, along with the décor and table settings.
920 NE Glisan St
At a recent dinner, I polished off little squares of pain d’epices beneath a ground-cherry mousse with wild huckleberries, a carpaccio of five local tomatoes, and Yamhill County pork glazed in wild plum agrodocle while sitting within an installation of hyperstylized photographs and vintage tabletop tableaus. If you’re not game, Din Din could feel precious and twee. But for the adventurous, no place better expresses the seasons, with more imagination.
- For brunch: made-to-order duck egg omelets and pain d’epices.
- For lunch: soup du jour, lentils with blue cheese, and daily specials.
- For dinner: fixed-price menu, including wine pairings and unusual cocktails
10. Racion, Lardo, and Grassa
A downtown food block captures the zeitgeist in three easy bites.
Last year, ChefStable, Portland’s indie restaurant company, unveiled a 5,000-square-foot, high-concept Mexican restaurant called Corazon in downtown’s burgeoning West End. After just three months of anemic reviews and disappointed customers, it went down like Godzilla in Tokyo Bay.
But in the turnaround of the year, ChefStable honcho Kurt Huffman carved this cavernous mausoleum into three restaurants—Lardo, Grassa, and Ración—connected by a shared kitchen. Each is a work in progress. But the trio stands as a snapshot of Portland’s food scene: adventurous sandwich shops, the return to comfort food, a crush on modernist cooking, clustered microprojects sharing resources, and not least, downtown’s rebirth.
Lardo, founded three years ago as another over-the-top food cart, has become a mini-empire of sandwich shops with national ambitions. Downtown’s annex contains Lardo’s big-boy portions, friendly ethnic spins (hello, pork meatball bahn mi), and touches of danger (pork scraps roaming in “dirty fries”). The double burger seems built for Andre the Giant, with twin thin patties, divine “porkstrami,” piping-hot cheese, and dripping sauce on a bulging brioche bun.
- Racion: sous vide egg, five-course tasting menu
- Lardo: pork meatball bahn mi, double burger, kale caesar salad
- Grassa: mezze rigatoni with pork sugo, chitarra squid ink pasta with salt cod
Meanwhile, next door, Grassa, also from Lardo chef-owner Rick Gencarelli, cranks out fresh artisan pasta for the masses in a “workshop” environment: pasta machines, dangling extension cords, and heavy metal music. A hanging menu holds nine rotating fresh pastas, salads, antipasti, and lowbrow cocktails. The simplest ideas yield the biggest rewards: ricotta gnudi snuggling up to rich lamb bolognese, grooved rigatoni swimming in homey pork ragù.
The most interesting of these three sisters is Ración, a Spanish-leaning house of tweezer food and good cheer. Here 32-year-old Anthony Cafiero imagines modernist cuisine for the Everyman. Molecular gastronomy usually intimidates; Ración takes the opposite approach. The laid-back vibe hits home as Cafiero explains his sous vide egg with corn silk: “We cooked the eggs in the shell at 63.4 degrees Celsius, which gives me, like, an egg custard inside. The corn silk on top is like a crispy corn cotton candy. Cool!” The food doesn’t achieve Michelin shine, but Ración may be the most fun room in town.
This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of Portland Monthly.