In a year of rising new talent and surprising tasting menus, these were the dishes that lingered in memory, in no particular order. Most are still available, so pull up a seat and join me.
CHEDDAR BISCUIT BREAKFAST SANDWICH at Milk Glass Market
A love supreme—fluffs of herby omelet folded and tucked with meaty bacon into the jaws of a tender, tangy cheese biscuit full of crispy edges. This is the sandwich that drove me to Moxie Rx, Nancye Benson’s pioneering North Portland food cart, years ago. Welcome back, Benson.
TASTING MENU at Le Pigeon
One November evening, chef Gabriel Rucker merrily screeched from Thailand to Italy to France in his own flavor-riffing mind, each dish its own universe of excitement. An intensity of frog legs, Thai eggplant and citrus sausage was followed by dead-perfect tagliatelle mingled with guinea fowl ragu and Parmesan rind “croutons,” and then, the DNA of Paris—escargot positively beaming with garlic, bone marrow and parsley. But the night belonged to a freewheeling “Peking Duck Breast” paired with burnt orange marmalade, a spicy duck liver sauce off to the side, and somewhere in there, coffee fumes and chiles. Nine years into his tenure at Le Pigeon, Rucker is still bringing the noise and the funk. It’s inspiring.
ROASTED SQUASH, YOGURT AND POMEGRATE SEEDS at Bollywood Theater
The vegetable dish of the year: roasted squash chunks reborn with Indian attitude—the crunch of black mustard seeds, the soapy punch of cilantro leaves, the squirt and bling of pomegranates. Just the right ratio of tang, char, sweet and heat.
CANDIED TOMATO AND ANISE PASTRY ROLL at Maurice
The crazy, jaw-dropping, utterly addictive pastry award of the year goes to Kristen Murray’s elongated brioche roll clamped around teeny candied tomatoes then glazed in icing positively embedded with anise seeds. This is what would happen if you rearranged the DNA of a bear claw, a pizza, and a box of Good & Plenty candies and baked it in an oven.
BLUE CORN AND PINE NUT PANCAKES at La Panza Café
Over the holidays, I happened on a stack of blue-black beauties at the crossroads of coffee cake, New Mexico, and heaven; each bite hearty but tender, full of earthy, savory pleasure and the occasional surprise of pine nut crunch. They’re a magnitude more interesting than most morning pancakes. I’ll be back.
CRISPY RICE CUP, GALANGAL COCONUT CREAM, AND SCALLOP CEVICHE at Langbaan
Every time I ate at Langbaan (PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year), I discovered some new obsession. This one landed in November, a three-bite Thai snack that somehow defied the laws of gastronomy— a sparky seafood salad on top while below, essentially, a sensual coconut cream pie.
SOM-O SALAD at Paadee
At Langbaan’s casual café, I’m hooked on a salad of pomelo (grapefruit) and grilled prawns whirling with Thai attitude: betel leaves, shallots, and lemongrass. The whole thing crashes forth with the roast and crunch of peanuts and cashews and a fearless chile-coconut dressing.
BBQ BRISKET WITH CILANTRO SLAW at P’s & Q’s Market
One messy, smoky wonder that balances bright zing, blackened edges, and a punchy slaw inside a fine potato bun. Factoring into the formula are the weirdest influences ever to grace a brisket: Kansas City ‘que, Spain’s avant-garde food king, Ferran Adria, and Portland’s pastrami palace, Kenny & Zuke’s.
DESSERTS BY HELEN JO at Little Bird
This is the pastry chef who grabbed my attention this year with intelligent twists and turns on familiar desserts – from s’mores with pretzels, chocolate peanut butter terrine and charred marshmellows to horchata panna cotta charged with watermelon, crunchy rice and ancho chile.
FRIED CHICKEN AND A PARKER HOUSE ROLL at Imperial
In a fried chicken-obsessed city, chef Doug Adams— Top Chef: Boston dark horse and Portland’s newest hometown hero—put a serious contender on the table: moist-meets-crunchy meat, Texas-size watermelon chunks, pickled onions, jalapeños, rooftop Bee Local honey, and the kitchen’s barrel-aged hot sauce (meted out with an eye dropper). I could eat it every day, especially with one of the kitchen’s illustrious Parker House rolls.
OCTOPUS, POTATO AND OLIVE SALAD at Luce
I couldn’t stop thinking about this salad. Such attention to detail and flavor, with every element just what you hoped it would be: big, firm, skins-on potato chunks; beautifully seared octopus; lots of herbs, and everywhere, the sharp brine of olives. A picnic in bowl.
FRITO MISTO at Davenport
A master class in the art of frying: delicate, ultra-crisp, and hot enough to blister your fingers. You couldn’t find a fresher version if you walked into the kitchen and pulled it out of the fryer yourself. And who but chef Kevin Gibson throws giant limbs of fresh porcini into the mix?
EGGS, BACON, AND PANCAKES at Sweedeedee
Two years in, this tumble-down twee house of homemade everything still delivered everything I want for breakfast: perfect eggs, bacon that justifies the guilt, a defining pancake (here, raptured with cornmeal), good maple syrup, a sign of life (braised and green), and great turntable spins.
GEORGIAN SOUP DUMPLINGS at DaNet
Among the parade of surprises at DaNet (Vitaly Paley’s monthly Russian pop-up in downtown Portland), came a whole new definition of soup dumplings: swirling domes that you pick up by their knotted tops, each holding crazy spurts of savory juices, crumbles of beef and pork, and a dozen herbs and spices.
ROTISSERIE CHICKEN AND POT PIE at Olympic Provisions Northwest
A quiet meditation on what makes French bistro food tick: a bronzed bird, all crackling skin and tenderness, a jolly pastry shell erupting with butter-browned potatoes, carrots, and lusty brown juice.
SALADE LYONNAISE at St Jack
In a world of culinary inventors, it’s a pleasure (or a relief?) to find a French classic etched in perfection: ultra-crisp frisee, the strut of a gorgeous poached egg, no stinting on bacon lardons, and a crunch-fest of bacon-fat croutons.
TOTOPOS CON CHILE DELUXE at Xico
This is what happy hour looks like in Portland: a nacho-esque mountain of salsa-soaked, fresh-hot chips fashioned from fresh tortillas made with fresh-ground corn (organic, non GMO, and crushed in the back room, of course!). Emerging from each crack and crevice: crispy bits of chilorio (pork belly), beautiful whole red beans, cooling crema, crunchy radishes, and a sultry sauce flashing five kinds of toasted chiles. Deluxe, indeed.
SEARED BEETS WITH TAHINI at Café Castagna
In the year of the beets, this was the dish to beat: farm-fresh purple beauties cooked in sherry vinegar and olive oil, then seared with blacksmith intensity into orbs of sweet, dark midnight, all glazed in the splendor of tahini, lemon juice, and garlic.
SALO at Kachka
From Portland’s new Russia party central, the pelmeni noodle dumplings with “fancy” broth was the comfort play of the year. But I couldn’t forget that first taste of salo, rows of Russian “bacon” (aka, pure white fat) arranged like a Commie Mad Men cocktail platter with tart pickle stumps, a streak of ground coriander, garlic shaved to impressive GoodFellas, and honey for scooping and dipping.
TANGLEWOOD CHAI at Either/Or
It’s not a microroaster or coffee-bean think tank, but Sellwood’s Either/Or percolates with fresh energy—every inch, every sip of this Scandinavia-meets-vintage coffee shop is considered. Owner Ro Tam’s espresso flights include a daily “taste pairing” – one day’s haul included shaved ice, papaya spears, and orange blossom water. The house Tanglewood Chai is the big find, hot or cold, reverberating cinnamon and rippling with fresh ginger. Tam, wisely, has bottled it.
LOCAL FISH at Nodoguro
Pork is the new salmon in Portland, but Ryan Roadhouse’s ever-changing, thematic Japanese dinners got me excited about fish again. Roadhouse (Portland Monthly’s Rising Star of the Year) gets it all right; the glisten, the velvety texture, the taut crackle of skin, and just the right notes to set it off, from butterscotchy miso jam to pair with Oregon cod or the surprising magnificence of crunched turnips mounded over local mackerel.