Best Restaurants 2016: Bucket List

30 Portland Restaurants for the Ultimate Local Dining Bucket List

Hope you’re hungry. Here are 30 top picks from Portland Monthly editors.

By Kelly Clarke, Karen Brooks, and Benjamin Tepler October 10, 2016 Published in the November 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

Top Photo: Apizza Scholls. IMAGE: Karen Brooks

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Apizza Scholls

With a reception as warm as a warden greeting a recidivist, Apizza wins no atmosphere awards. Still, for pizza theologists, it’s a temple. Owner Brian Spangler channels New York’s Italian-American coal-oven shops through an Oregon baker’s avid heart. Spangler makes dough daily and uses an infrared thermometer to suss out prime spots in his electric oven. The result: muscular pies with char-speckled bottoms that make East Coast devotees swoon, from a “New York White” to a sausage and spicy peppers, all ginormous. 


Chef José Chesa’s brand of tapas in a nutshell: stupid-good but incredibly smart, informed by modernist know-how but as accessible as a Tater Tot. From a guy hiding a small galaxy of Michelin-star experience under his apron come big and little snacks, detailed salads, toasted squid-ink noodles, well-chosen Spanish wines, and a rocking, seafood-laden black rice paella for two, all in a bustling, casual space. Among the finds: bombas, crackling balls of potato mash, spicy beef, and comfort; and deep, dark chocolate “nutella” with toasted Spanish bread for scooping. 

Ava Gene’s

Now the mothership of chef-turned-restarateur Joshua McFadden’s small but growing fleet of eateries, Ava Gene’s swings like an indie brasserie. It’s a place to indulge in everything that makes Portland tick, as exacting ingredients, garage-rock scruffiness, shameless Europhilia, cocktail savvy, and Italian wine are reconfigured into a new standard of dining: marble clad, service intensive, and soaring behind what sounds like a director’s cut of iconic rock. Traditional limitations of “rustic” food are erased between the wood-charred breads, vegetable power, and satisfying pastas.


It takes audacity to put crunchy chicken skin at the center of a salad hosting cubes of fresh watermelon, the heady surprise of Thai chiles, 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. And the drinks served in this cinder-block bunker’s attached bar are equally inventive.

Bar Mingo

Jerry Huisinga performs quiet, old-school Italian magic at this casually modern satellite of Caffe Mingo next door. Get a spread of starters for the table, especially the lip-smacking chicken livers dancing on crispy toast, the mint-spiked lamb meatballs, and the best calamari around, super fresh and springy. Pasta rules, with at least a half dozen options nightly, all made fresh, from a silky, soulful, big-flavored lasagna to chitarra with spicy puttanesca and fried bottarga bread crumbs. The risotto (Wednesday only) banishes local competitors simply because it’s the real thing, made in two fresh batches with surgical concentration.

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Lasagna at Bar Mingo

Image: Karen Brooks


Naomi Pomeroy runs with the meat-worshipping bad boys of the Portland food scene, muscles flexed, elbows flying, but with lace showing underneath. Beast is her stage for sumptuous multicourse meals choreographed and assembled in the middle of the room. Pomeroy ships a deeply seasonal parade of mushroom soups, maple-glazed pork bellies, and foie gras bonbons in six-course prix fixe dinners that celebrate French comfort cooking, communal tables, and Oregon farm finds. The four-course brunch is among the city’s best, embracing candied bacon and a no-brakes attitude in an atmosphere of Otis Redding and girl power.

Bollywood Theater

Chef Troy MacLarty directs an edible journey through India complete with collaged ephemera, Gandhi shrines, and real-deal flavors. The MO is casual, and the format (counter orders, bus your own dishes) keeps prices low. Classic thali platters—sambar, raita, dal, saffron rice, curry, and paratha—are full-meal steals at $12–15.50. But the kitchen really excels at Mumbai street snacks (bhel puri, dahi papri chaat), seasonal vegetable sides, and Goan-style pork vindaloo that tastes like barbecue from another planet. You polish it off with animal sounds and sweet, buttery, crumpet-like rolls. But order carefully, or face a garbanzo bean assault. 


A culinary poet and dessert artist, chef Justin Woodward splices seasonal high points, technical feats, and concentrated sauces into spare compositions of strange beauty. His best ideas are excitedly out of the box, among them an edible “terrarium” with dreamy onion custard and hypergreen onion-stalk purée standing in for soil beneath a greenhouse of backyard leaves and flowers. The room is quiet; the focus is food. You are here for the elaborate tasting menu. But, you could always simply slip in for the Michelin star–caliber “dessert flight” that somehow remains Portland’s best-kept secret.

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A dish of padron pepper, herbs, and artichoke at Castagna

Image: Karen Brooks

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 neighborhood eatery perfumed with hickory smoke, grits, and barbecue essence. Catch the Sappington mode in Portland’s landmark 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.


At Davenport, you’ll find two guys doing what they love and hoping someone will show up. In the kitchen, Kevin Gibson, veteran of Castagna and cult diner Evoe, cooks with stripped-down clarity, producing a menu that reads like a mood ring of the seasons: ever-changing soups and salads, braised meats and local fish, polished with attention to detail and Old World sentiment. At the same time, co-owner Kurt Heilemann has turned the East Burnside space into a pretension-free wine nerd’s paradise. His list is 150 bottles deep in value-driven finds—a stash of Loire Valley discoveries, Sicilian gems, and that Piedmontese producer with one great plot. But even a $30 bottle arrives with a set of rare, hand-blown Zalto glasses. Cheers.


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. (If they’re sold out, you can still score a glass of their vaunted Vietnamese iced coffee.)

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Ha & VL

Image: Karen Brooks


One of the first farm-to-table restaurants to open in Portland in the early 1990s, Higgins has staying power. This can be attributed in part to its timeless cuisine: impressive house-cured charcuterie, seasonal risottos, and a walloping whole-pig plate, not to mention chef-owner Greg Higgins’s longtime loyalty to the local farmers who produce his ingredients, which translates to a surprisingly vegan-friendly menu. Regulars often skip the white-tablecloth dining room and settle in at the homey, wood-worn back bar, with its formidable beer list, uptown lunch menu, and some of the city’s best soups, changing daily.

HK Cafe

A multisensory clamor of grinning maneki-neko cats and rattling carts that leave pork- and ginger-perfume contrails in their wake, this east-side strip-mall hall has quietly usurped Portland’s dim sum crown with its massive roster of flavor bombs. Nibble plump, pork-and-shrimp-popping siu mai dumplings and sautéed green beans heady with tiny fermented shrimp. Sample translucent, sesame- and chile-slicked jellyfish salad, roasted meats, and snack innards. Flag down a server and demand an egg yolk bun—a yeasty mind-scrambler hiding a drippy trove of hot, sweet golden goo inside.


This boisterous take on Russia’s traditional cuisine, as reimagined by chef Bonnie Morales and her husband, Israel, centers on vodka and all the requisite cured fish, dumplings, and cabbage-wrapped meat that come with the territory. Its small tables groan under plates of vareniki bulging with tangy farmers cheese and satisfying beef tongue (fried to a crisp but meltingly tender inside), plus caviar and traditional Soviet sweets, Kachka just might kick-start a homegrown Russian revolution.


This cozy, cramped kitchen hidden in the back room of Thai restaurant PaaDee looks like a foodie’s vision of a Bangkok night market, with herbs everywhere, soup vapors billowing, and moody shadows creeping from table lamps. The décor only hints at what’s to come: a two-hour tasting menu of traditional Thai snacks, coconut-chunked soups, raw dishes, chile relishes, grilled pig parts, and some shockingly delightful desserts buried in salty coconut cream or infused with Thai candle smoke. At Akkapong “Earl” Ninsom’s restaurant there are no choices, no substitutions. Plunk down $75, settle in, and let the kitchen do the work. 

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Dinner at Langbaan

Image: Karen Brooks

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Clam pasta at Luce

Image: Karen Brooks

Le Pigeon

Gabriel Rucker is a Portland original whose ideas crackle into something electric. Working off-the-cuff in his own world of complex flavor combinations, Rucker is possessed by French bistro cooking and Americana. Meat rules the ever-changing list: foie gras, pigeon, and pig parts are frequent guests. But salads can also be brilliant, and the French-focused wine list is deep, smart, and personal. The voltage extends to the softly lit, Parisian atmosphere, with communal tables and great energy. Le Pigeon embodies Portland’s food scene in a single, sharply focused snapshot.


Chef John Taboada’s Luce is not easily defined. Candlelit shelves stretch from the floor clear to the ceiling, inviting a treasure hunt for imported foods and Italian wine finds, available to drink on-site for a corkage fee. At tiny oak tables, an understated menu kicks off with a carnival of $2 antipasti bites begging for impromptu table parties and ends with double-decker sponge cake billowing pastry cream and pistachios. In between come a fine stuffed trout, a dandy dish of spaghetti and clams, and the best bowl of soup to be found: cappelletti in brodo (stuffed pasta in broth).

Måurice Café

Kristen Murray curates every molecule of flavor at her strange and delightful French-Scandinavian “pastry luncheonette,” where the experience veers from twee to revelatory, varying by the day and the plate. You’ll meet both Murray’s sweet-craft and her nana’s lefse; bitter salads; and a vermouth happy hour. One visit lands you her “chocolate box”—black sesame seed cake, banana mousse, and chocolate mousse housed in glossy chocolate walls, so stunning it belongs in the window at Barneys. The next yields bostock, a thick slice of brioche coated with walnut paste and poached fruit like an otherworldly French toast. It’s a gutsy spot—580 square feet of technical skill, refined palate, and tunnel-vision fervor.


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Open-face spelt sandwich with peaches and strawberries at Maurice.

Image: Karen Brooks


John Taboada pioneered a new east-side indie food style with this 33-seat eatery in 2002, filled with 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.


Local food legend Cathy Whims presents 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: 2.5 pounds, cooked over oak fire, and big enough for four.

Olympia Provisions

Since 2009, salumist Elias Cairo has been forging the resurgence of American charcuterie, 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, 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 baby octopus over corona beans and chorizo lend themselves to an Old World wine list brimming with dangerously drinkable rosés and sherries.


Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton’s meaty love story is told over flames erupting from a hand-cranked grill. Don’t miss their Uruguayan beef rib eye or the 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.

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The grill at Ox

Image: Karen Brooks

Paley’s Place

In 1995, 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 perched over a nail salon in a Victorian house. 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—beautiful beef tartare, hand-cut fries, exquisite bone marrow towers knee-deep in red wine sauce and escargot—with creativity.

People’s Pig

For five years Cliff Allen manned his mesquite wood grill in a cart smaller than a prison cell. Now, his “Make Every Bite Count” philosophy is found in a barbecue shack on N Williams Avenue. Smoked pork shoulder and lamb summon Austin, Texas—little more than meltingly tender flesh, fatty halos, and sumptuous curls of oak-wood smoke. Juicy baby backs, upholstered in sticky, crackly bark, vie for PDX’s barbecue crown. And the golden jo-jos humiliate every fry around. But the smoked fried chicken sandwich is the real star: thighs, skins on, smoked to smithereens, baptized in hot oil for crispy ruffles, then glazed in jalapeño jelly and captured in a monumental, char-blistered sourdough bun. We could eat one every day and call it “death with dignity.”

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A barbecue platter at People's Pig

Image: Karen Brooks

Pok Pok

From its bare-bones beginning as a takeout shack, Pok Pok has grown into a full-on eating experience (including smaller spin-off, Pok Pok Noi, at 1469 NE Prescott St, 503-287-4149), 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, the unusual dishes like grilled boar collar, or the signature fish-sauce chicken wings.

St. Jack NW

Last year, St. Jack migrated from its quaint corner perch on SE Clinton Street to a bigger, more industrial landing on a bustling corner of NW 23rd Avenue. Chef Aaron Barnett’s menu is still a comforting love letter to the rustic bouchons of Lyon, France—serving food made for cast-iron stomachs. But there are some serious upgrades, too, including an ambitious seasonal chilled seafood menu packed with luxurious nautical finds like briny-sweet whorl-shelled bulot (giant snails). Despite the address change, the bouchon’s bubbled-over crocks of macaroni gratin pounded with bacon lardons and plates of blood sausage leave no doubt: Lyon is still in the house. 


On a frumpy stretch of N Albina Avenue, Sweedeedee proudly serves “pie, breakfast and lunch.” Outside, jars of tea “cook” in the sun. Inside, Maldon salt and hand-cranked pepper mills stand on every table. Big portions, big flavors, great vibes, and most dishes under $10: that’s Sweedeedee. From the tiny kitchen come soups, farm-fresh salads, giant cakes, a righteous honey pie. Sandwiches are towering visions of bacon, beets, and shredded lettuce on fresh cornmeal molasses bread. Breakfast percolates all day, led by the best corn-cakes plate around.

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A breakfast plate at Sweedeedee

Image: Karen Brooks

Tasty n Sons

At John Gorham’s all-day brunch spot, the food is inspired, and so is the mood. Dishes are served family-style, allowing diners to split, share, and compare. You won’t find eggs to order, but they turn up everywhere—fried with a cheddar biscuit or over-easy atop spicy North African sausage and couscous. The French toast, served with fruit-infused maple syrup and whipped cream, bids for the best in Portland. A light frittata packed with farm-fresh vegetables arrives still sizzling in a cast-iron skillet. A communal vibe will tempt you to try new things—a valuable habit at Tasty n Sons, or its downtown sister spot Tasty n Alder.

Toro Bravo

Chef John Gorham imports the rowdiness of a tapeo in Andalucía to his Spanish-inspired east-side eatery. 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 boisterous 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.


Oaxaca is represented at Xico—but so is Oregon: playful notes, purist notions, and fresh-ground masa fill out a room that feels like a beach hut with pearls. A few dishes seem destined for iconic status, including a crispy, smoldering mass of chile-glazed chips with cotija cheese and a pozole makeover, starring a whole roasted trout (in place of the usual pig’s head) and a broth you’d be happy to swim in. Among the desserts is a dark chocolate–dipped oblong of coconut, almonds, and raisins that would make the Mounds folks blush.