The Best of the Rest
This cinder-block bunker of modest reserve serves culinary provocations on a street known more for hipster aspirations than for globe-smashing intrigue. It takes audacity to put crunchy chicken skin at the center of a salad hosting cubes of fresh watermelon while making room for the heady surprise of Thai chiles, bitter-herbal watercress vines, and a carpet of baba ghanoush. Chef Sarah Pliner’s approach unfolds slowly on a seemingly random list of dishes, each its own constellation of cuisines and visual juxtapositions. France winks at Chinatown; Japan dances with India. Any given night turns up plenty of food and drink to tease the mind and make your tongue smile.
Naomi Pomeroy is a rarity: a girl cook who runs with the meat-worshipping bad boys of the Portland food scene, muscles flexed, elbows flying, but with lace showing underneath. Beast is her tiny, personalized food stage for sumptuous multicourse meals choreographed and assembled in the middle of the room. With no real kitchen, and one big imagination, Pomeroy ships an unexpected parade of elegant potpies, maple-glazed pork bellies, and foie gras bonbons in six-course prix fixe dinners that celebrate French comfort cooking and Oregon farm finds. The four-course brunch is the city’s best, embracing candied bacon and a no-brakes attitude in an atmosphere of Otis Redding and pure girl power.
Biwa is an upscale izakaya, a Japanese bar where customers can drink beer and sake to their hearts’ content while nibbling on small plates of, say, Korean beef tartare topped with a quail egg, or a lusty, late-night-only burger with marinated pork and kimchi mayo. Other menu delights include yakimono (which translates roughly to hot, delicious grilled meats and vegetables), chicken heart, and pork belly, all sumptuously prepared. And then there are the steaming bowls of ramen or udon noodles, served in a savory dashi broth and topped with egg or grated daikon or barbecued pork or seaweed.
Boke Bowl embodies the best of Portland’s restaurant scene—a design-savvy, unpretentious, affordable celebration of the art of eating. Ramen honcho Patrick Fleming is more concerned with quality and creativity than textbook authenticity. But his democratic playbook glimpses the future of dining with artistic choices for carnivores, vegans, and gluten-phobes alike. Nothing quite matches the joyful hedonism of Boke’s signature ramen, teeming with pulled pork and fried chicken. But there’s plenty here to love: addictive grilled eggplant buns; the joyful brussels sprouts salad; colorful pickles to roll in gingered rice and seaweed sheets; and pears fried to fruit-leather intensity.
To satisfy a Swedish meatball craving, simply head down to SE Clinton Street, where a bustling Scandinavian café awaits with Danish modern atmospherics and food pretty enough for Wallpaper magazine. Once seated, settle on a Stockholm hot dog wrapped in a potato pancake with house-made relish or a baked scramble with gravlax or smoked trout, served in handsome skillets next to sides like roasted apples. Everyone comes for aebleskivers, golf ball–size puffs of batter baked in a special pan and served with homemade lemon curd and applesauce. And of course, the rich meatballs in a creamy sherry sauce are far more inspired than the ones at Ikea.
Bunk co-owners Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood create dangerously good culinary experiments between two slices of bread, from a rousing salt cod and mashed potatoes toppled with parsley salad to a lusty pork belly bahn mi. No wonder their powerhouse sandwiches have turned up on popular food shows like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives and The Best Thing I Ever Ate. A tiny downtown location (211 SW Sixth Ave) offers the same signature, as does spin-off Bunk Bar (1028 SE Water Ave), along with loud indie music, an anti-mixology bar, and late-night hours, plus some additional finds, like a BBQ shrimp po’boy, courtesy of Habetz’s dream addition—a deep fryer.
Country Cat Dinnerhouse & Bar
Missouri native Adam Sappington is evangelical in matters of meat and a master of American vernacular cooking—somewhere between a nose-to-tail preacher and a Southern granny. That translates to three meals a day in a family-friendly, wood-booth-clad neighborhood eatery perfumed with hickory smoke, grits, and barbecue essence. Catch the Sappington mode in Portland’s best fried chicken; the squeal-worthy “whole hog plate”; or a custom-made burger on a fresh-baked onion bun elevated by a mountain of mighty onion rings.
Grüner (Now Closed)
In this Alpine fantasy, chef Christopher Israel makes art of Mitteleuropa in a jewel-box revamp of the leaden and the uncool. Snag a bench at the beech-wood stammtisch (family table) and begin your climb to the mountaintop with two unworldly visions: beet-pickled deviled eggs and a plate of thin-cut radishes displayed like an Indian mandala. Braised rabbit/chicken is a must, blushing with savory juice and paired with tender spätzle, as is the cider-poached calves’ liver. Grab one smoky, bacon-topped burger for the table, and throw in a side of smashed potatoes. Close with homemade doughnuts, with a warm bath of chocolate ganache for dunking—a foretaste of heaven.
HA & VL
Owners Ha “Christina” Luu and William Voung are artisans, crafting small-batch regional Vietnamese soups with flavorful free-range chickens, meticulously skimmed broths, and noodles fully soaked before taking a dip in the boiling pot to assure an extra bounce of chewy goodness. Every day brings two options, but Thursday delivers the ultimate double bill: snail noodle soup, with fresh-ground ginger sauce for dipping, and shredded chicken noodle soup as you wish your grandmother could make it, with punctuation marks of sliced pork and ribbons of fried egg. Come early: the goods are often gone by noon.
Hokusei (Now Closed)
This warm, industrial space delivers a journey, doused in whimsy, steeped in discovery, and showcasing some of the best nigiri in the city. Head straight for the sushi bar and order up the omakase—a dizzying, five-course tasting menu that changes nightly according to the fresh sheet and the imagination of veteran, Tokyo-born sushi chef Kaoru Ishii. You’ll find steamed Japanese egg custard concealing buttery chunks of crab and scallop; an addictively rich bowl of nikudofu; a delicately rich, textured tower of shrimp, scallop, and fried eggplant topped with a velvety dollop of sautéed foie gras; black cod marinated in sweet soy and yuzu, crisped to perfection; and, the highlight, a fresh wave of nigiri featuring obscure fish from the Oregon coast and beyond.
Ken’s Artisan Pizza
French-style bread baker Ken Forkish helped lead Portland into pizza’s promised land in 2005 with experiments at his landmark Ken’s Artisan Bakery. By ’06, he’d spun his wonders into their own restaurant, complete with a wood-fired oven, an Oregon-focused wine list, and a warm setting full of local salvage. Lines form by 4:45 for perfect crust, delicate tomato sauce, and a dozen restrained topping combos, like green garlic with Grana Padano and pecorino or homemade sausage with fiery chiles. Ken’s spicy soppressata truly elevates the art form, with joyful mouthfuls of crispy salami, wild heat, and smoky dough.
Portland’s first indie steak house features an eye-popping butcher counter up front and a notable lack of cigar-chomping ambience. Equal parts American brasserie, lunchtime sandwich shop, and neighborhood diner, Laurelhurst Market was conceived by Jason Owens, Ben Dyer, and David Kreifels, the trio behind Simpatica Dining Hall. Their changing menu showcases local meats and seasonal vegetables as well as moderately priced steaks from affordable cuts (tri tips, skirt, bavette) and a love of handcrafting down to fresh-made graham crackers and marshmallows for s’mores—not to mention a passion for house-smoking, fueled by a whomping brisket swaddled in soul-
satisfying barbecue sauce.
Le Pigeon bad-boy food star Gabriel Rucker is known for ruffling feathers on Portland’s east side. But his spin-off downtown bistro is accessible, easy, and seductive—more bluebird than street bird. The new place skips the DIY approach for tush-friendly banquettes and food nested in the classic French bistro. Get in on Little Bird’s inventive charcuterie board, full-on flat-iron steaks, lusty duck confit, and, for more adventure, hulking marrow bones that look on loan from a natural history museum. Grab something to drink from a wine-lover’s list strong on Burgundies, and conclude with a pitch-perfect tarte tatin or a decadent chocolate creation to melt your heart. Vive la France in Portland.
John Taboada pioneered a new east-side indie food style with this 33-seat eatery in 2002. He hand-built the interior for the price of a used car, then filled it with a local-farm gestalt, scholarly European village recipes, and his own definition of how a restaurant could be run—freewheeling, food-focused, and tenderly priced. In a city that prides itself on a farm-to-table ethos, nobody embraces the philosophy more completely: ninety percent of the produce is grown within the city limits. You won’t find a more original seasonal menu anywhere—if it’s on the list, it was made from scratch in the kitchen. A lawlessness hovers in the air, and that’s part of the magic.
With his I-did-it-my-way bluster, ceramic-chicken fetish, and locavore intensity (think chanterelle vodka), Jason French embodies everything to love—and parody—about Portland’s food scene. The playful depth of his homesteader’s cabin gone mad never lets up, from the name Ned Ludd (after the loom–smashing, anti-industrial 19th-century British folk hero) to the restaurant’s lone stove, a six-foot-high fireplace fueled by gnarly logs stacked everywhere. Dishes inspired by Old World recipes, campfire odes, and French’s imagination change daily (or even midmeal) as supplies ebb and flow. Among the surprises tumbling out of the open kitchen’s 750-degree cavern: a plate-size chocolate-chip cookie, rising in a cast-iron skillet, its salt-crunching surface emerging one lucky degree shy of torched.
Noisette (Now Closed)
Modern French Fusion
In a city deeply entrenched in a DIY ethos, chef-owner Tony Demes offers a beautiful break: small-scale, modern French fusion cooking circa 1990 in Midtown Manhattan. Tony Bennett rules the soundtrack. Chandeliers shoot bling across plush seats of marshmallow and chrome. At the three-seat bar, a gentleman vigorously shakes whatever you like. Jackson Pollock sauce-squiggles, cubist cuts of rare tuna, and towering soufflés—each a weightless joy of fluff in a golden crust—glide out of a kitchen staffed by white-jacketed men toiling with tweezers in utter silence. Each dish is meticulously arranged on ever-shifting plates of outsize scale holding tiny portions of contemporary food meant to feed your mind, not fill your gut. The mode is at once proper and impressionistic: an English tea party hosted by Alice in Wonderland.
Nostrana’s love letter to regional Italian cooking and Neapolitan pizza is a vision of Portland: a local legend (former Genoa co-owner Cathy Whims) cooking the food she loves at moderate prices, sophistication without the pretention, a devotion to local farms and purveyors. This is Italian home cooking as it should be—stripped down, honest, powered by wood fire. No place in Portland is better suited to please a diverse crowd: foodies, kids, wine lovers, your adventure-fearing relatives. The mandatory preamble is the Caesar-esque insalata Nostrana. Pasta with tomato butter embodies simple purity, but desserts—hot-from-the-oven fruit crisps and intensive chocolate bodino—can make you gasp. The bistecca alla Fiorentina is arguably the city’s best steak: 2.2 pounds, wrist-thick, cooked over oak fire, and big enough for four.
Set on the ground floor of the Olympic Mills Commerce Center, Olympia Provisions is Portland’s inaugural salumeria. Since 2009, salumist Elias Cairo has been forging the resurgence of American charcuterie, flinging his specialty salamis and spreading his pork-proud gospel to the epicurean edges of the country. Charcuterie fiends can swing by the retail meat counter to pick up fresh sausages and house-cured meats, from fennel-pocked finocchiona to velvety slices of pistachio mortadella. Behind the meat display, former Clyde Common chef Alex Yoder transforms Cairo’s masterful meat-craft into a rotating feast of Spanish and Mediterranean small plates. Shrimp bathed in chile oil and chèvre or curls of baby octopus over corona beans and chorizo lend themselves to a skillful Old World wine list brimming with dangerously drinkable rosés and sherries.
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton’s meaty love story is told over dramatic flames erupting from a hand-cranked grill that could pass for an elegant torture device. And holy smokes, let’s not forget the wild halibut—a thick monster that arrives on the bone like a vision of Morton’s from the sea—or a clam chowder served with smoked bone marrow shouldering some fierce jalapeños. The intimate chef’s counter is an essential destination—and close enough to the wood fire to literally feel the heat. But happiness can be easily found at clustered tables or the teeny bar, home of a righteously twisted pisco sour: smoky and ear-tingling under a billowing white egg cloud. Lest vegetarians feel excluded, this big-hearted kitchen also gets giddy with seasonal vegetables. Greg Denton’s baroque inclinations are best in small doses, but the spare magnificence of his skirt steak or crackling fresh sausages will leave you licking your chops.
Portland’s go-to destination for intimate fine dining is a Victorian house perched over a hair salon in a residential neighborhood. Nearly two decades ago, Kimberly and Vitaly Paley bailed from New York’s restaurant world for Portland, where they invested in farmers, not décor, and helped jump-start a new Northwest cuisine. Over the years they’ve won a coveted James Beard Award, penned a coffee-table cookbook, and ushered in nightly packed houses for food that can be earthy, whimsical, or decadent. The kitchen still juggles house classics—perfect mussels and hand-cut fries, exquisite bone marrow towers knee-deep in red wine sauce and fat escargot—and mad creativity. Testarossa (pighead) à la Cryovac, anyone?
From its bare-bones beginning as a takeout shack, Pok Pok has grown into a full-on indoor-outdoor eating experience while owner Andy Ricker has earned a reputation as the country’s foremost Thai grilling expert. Order a plate of khao man som tam—blissfully sweet shredded pork served over coconut rice with green papaya salad—and sit at one of the (heated and covered) outdoor picnic tables. Or step into the small, adjacent, speakeasy-like dining room. Inside or out, don’t miss the blackboard specials, unusual dishes like grilled boar collar, and signature fish-sauce chicken wings. For dessert, a dreamy affogato of condensed-milk ice cream drowned in Vietnamese coffee is a must, with unsweetened Chinese doughnuts on the side.
It takes a certain chutzpah to reimagine the five food groups in the baby-stroller stronghold of Beaumont Village. Chef-owner Johanna Ware offers not so much a menu as a rethinking of dinner, Asian cult foods, and Oregon larder all at once. In this bright enclave of red-lacquered tables, pop music, and flotsam-and-jetsam lamps, the snacking is fun and fearless—and so is the heat. No two small plates are alike, so order a collection to share. An evening’s adventure can swing from a supremely elegant egg custard holding a shriek of chiles, pork crumbles, and fermented black beans—an homage to China’s iconic mapo dofu by way of Japan—to a mind-bending “cobb salad” stocked with shishito peppers, fat wads of blue cheese, crispy-crunchy six-minute eggs, and kimchi mayo. Ware learned to twist Asian conventions with technical process at David Chang’s famed Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan. She’s the real deal, offering a friendly vibe, clever cocktails, and bargains through 2 a.m. in the back room Barwares.
If you’re in a French mood, a bit of Lyon can be found in a converted 1890 house relabeled as St. Jack. By day, pull up to the pâtisserie, a cozy zinc counter and a curtained nook, and simply point to cannelés, éclairs, and whatever else begs from vintage cake plates. The wise make sure to commission a batch of madeleines, made to order and served warm. As darkness falls, St. Jack transforms into a three-room riff on a bouchon, an offal-loving den of informality, common in Lyon, that serves bulk local wines and food made for cast-iron stomachs. You won’t find French regional legends like calves’ muzzle or salade de groin d’ane (literally, “donkey snout” salad). But bubbled-over crocks of macaroni gratin pounded with bacon lardons and boisterous plates of blood sausage leave no doubt: Lyon is in the house.
Tanuki’s new incarnation on SE Stark Street is a cave of debauchery, with unbeatable izakaya (Japanese bar food) and a knockout drink list on the cheap. The menu is a dizzying array of pickled plums, kimchi spice, and fermented noodles, but don’t panic—there’s an easy way out. Order omakase (basically “chef’s choice”): you name the price, and chef-owner Janis Martin will unleash a parade of spicy, salty, and sometimes unidentifiable plates for the whole table. Twenty dollars brings an onslaught of courses, from cinnamon-spiked, tea-stained quail eggs to Netarts oysters under an avalanche of shaved kimchi ice. Tanuki is Portland’s ultimate izakaya joint: dark, delicious, and requiring no forethought. Grab a bottle of sake for the table, say “Omakase!” and settle in for an evening of hard eating. Just remember the rules from the original Tanuki on NW 21st Avenue: no sushi, no kids.
Chef John Gorham has managed to import the singular rowdiness and rugged charm of a tapeo in Andalucía to his Spanish-inspired east-side eatery, from the rough-hewn communal tables to the tiny bistro settees for two and the cozy chef’s counter in back. As for the delicious food, there’s a little French and a pinch of Northwest thrown into the mix—evinced by the creamy sherried chicken-liver mousse and the garden-fresh salads made from local greens—but it’s all guided by the spirit of delicious tapas. Expect flavorful paellas, fried green tomatoes with pickled mayo, juicy crab-and-pork croquettes, seared scallops and braised lamb with apricots and coriander, and salt-cod fritters, not to mention bottles of pétillant txakoli and robust Rioja from the modest wine list. Any toreador would feel right at home.