Word of Mouth

The 11 Best Things Food Critic Karen Brooks Ate in 2016

Beef tartare to old-school pizza to Japanese shaved ice, here are the year’s defining dishes.

By Karen Brooks November 14, 2016 Published in the December 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

Pomo 1216 karens best dishes reran3

A scene from the Pok Pok/Mission Chinese breakfast shrine

Image: Karen Brooks

Beef Tartare at Dame

At this charming new spot for cutting-edge wines and small plates, former Seattle chef Eli Dahlin (The Walrus and the Carpenter) cleverly hijacks the elements of a Caesar salad for a tartare of pure surprise and delight, its creaminess offset by white anchovies, grated Parm, and celtuce, a suddenly hip “lettuce” valued for its celery-like stems. 2930 NE Killingsworth St, damerestaurant.com

Defino Slice at Scottie's Pizza

A year after opening an east-side slice shop, Scottie Rivera tapped 16 years of pizza-perfecting neurosis to achieve an old old-school square, lost somewhere between New York and Naples. Imagine Sunday-night trays of hot cannelloni, blaring TV, and your sister in curlers—reborn as pizza. The Scottie’s gestalt includes two kinds of oozy, creamy, handmade mozz; bright, uncooked marinara; buttery, burnt, cheesy edges; and a final hammer of torn basil, pecorino, and garlic oil. Respect. 2128 SE Division St, scottiespizzaparlor.com

Drinks at Revelry

The year’s most refreshing, food-friendly cocktail list plays off this kitchen’s Korean-global snacks like a call-and-response song. The selection of house-infused sojus all go down with a sophisticated tingle, at once delicate and piercing, with flavors like toasted barley tea and sour cherries or, yes, fortune cookie. Order a flight. David Sigal, busy honing what is surely the world’s first pho-negroni, is an original voice: the bartender to watch. 210 SE MLK Jr. Blvd, revelrypdx.com

Pomo 1216 karens best dishes reran3

Peach and frikkah salad at Tusk

Image: Karen Brooks

Salads at Tusk

It’s hard to make weeds, leaves, and green wheat the stuff of dreams. But Tusk did that, putting beautiful, unexpected salads at the heart of its farm-centric, Middle East–riffing menu. I’m still pining for summer’s toss of charred frikkah, juicy peaches, giant pecans, and soft smooshes of sheep’s cheese. Salads for brunch? Tucked alongside lamb skewers, grilled halloumi cheese, and gorgeous eggs? We’re in. 2448 E Burnside St, tuskpdx.com

Japanese Shaved Ice at Courier Coffee

My favorite treat this year: long, malleable, cotton candy-esque frozen tufts, sculpted into a cult treat rarely seen in Portland. We’re talking true Japanese shaved ice, which tastes like an exotic snow cone layered with syrups and condensed milk. Sakiko Setaka (with help from husband/Courier owner Joel Domreis) blends rock sugar, molasses, and brown rice syrup for a nuanced coffee-raisin ice, or concentrates Kyoto’s Uji matcha for a vivid green tea ice sided by handmade mochi and sweet beans. Saturdays only. 923 SW Oak St, couriercoffeeroasters.com

Courier shaved ice du9oaq

Japanese shaved ice at Courier Coffee

Image: Karen Brooks 

Shoyu Ramen at Kayo's Ramen Bar

This low-key newcomer to the scene has the ramen bowl I want to geek out over. Kayo’s shoyu soup exemplifies a lighter side of ramen, from the broth to the bouncy noodles. It goes down like a delicious power shot of a Jewish grandma’s chicken soup—if your bubbe put pork bones in the mix. Oy! 3808 N Williams Ave, kayosramen.com

Asian Breakfast Bar at Whiskey Soda Lounge

I’d already fallen hard for Andy Ricker’s new weekend Asian brunch. But a special September breakfast during Feast Portland solidified that this was the meal locals have been missing. That’s when Pok Pok’s founder and New York’s Danny Bowien (the DIY impresario behind San Francisco’s Mission Chinese) laid down the ingredients for a great morning: Thai rock and a help-yourself jok bar bristling with bouncy pork balls and dried scallop floss, plus a lotus flower candlelit shrine featuring booze, shrimp chips, and a framed photo of Tina Turner. (Ricker’s less elaborate Asian brunch is offered every weekend.) 3131 SE Division St, whiskeysodalounge.com

Oxtail Soup at Hat Yai

Can a soup featuring the braised hunks of cow tail demand a shout from the mountain tops? If it hails from Hat Yai’s fast-ascending kitchen, the answer is yes. This bright, heat-tinged, lime-soaked beauty of a bowl—a mainstay of Muslim neighborhoods in southern Thailand—soared above thousands of dishes rustled out of Portland kitchen’s this year. What really makes it? The sweet-sharp, crispy crunch of micro-diced Chinese celery floating everywhere and the savory crackle of fried shallots. Spoon in, and you’ll know why this was one of our breakout restaurants of the year1605 NE Killingsworth St, hatyaipdx.com

Pomo 1216 karens best dishes reran3

Rye pancakes at Coquine

Image: Karen Brooks

Rye Pancakes at Coquine

Lumberjack cuisine finds its inner girl chef in this pile of flapjacks smelling of earth and fresh-milled rye, deep in caramel tones and ground- fennel-seed freckles, and double-fluffed with whipped egg whites. Seasonal toppings are the mode: perhaps the dark savor of blueberries and maple syrup from local farmer Dan Sullivan, or fresh ricotta and ginger lemon curd. 6839 SE Belmont St, coquinepdx.com

Meatballs and Spaghetti with Garlic Bread at Pizza Jerk

When it opened earlier this year, was a fool for Tommy Habetz’ maximal pizzas ... the dialed-in pepperoni, the Goodfellas-esque Sunday Gravy pie, and the weirdly wonderful, sweet porky Dan Dan pie. But I can’t stop thinking about the house meatballs, fluffy-firm beef orbs that make room for pecorino cheese inside and out. The house marinara is gold: thick, vibrant, and a little spicy. But the thing that really gets you? Hot garlic bread wrapped in a little paper bag. It reminds us how rare it is to taste something so real. 5028 NE 42nd Ave, pizzajerkpdx.com

Pork and Chive Dumpling Soup at Han Oak

I first encountered Peter Cho’s mandoo dumpling soup at the experimental chef’s Sunday-only Korean brunch, served in his super-cute home kitchen-cum-pop-up incubator spacea pot of the seriously aromatic beef and wild mushroom broth percolating on the stove. In short order, Cho spooned it into a bowl with fist-sized pork dumplings, as tender as an Elliott Smith tune. On top: scallion threads, omelet shreds, and black nori, which tastes like iron and the sea. The soup is currently featured at Han Oak’s brunch, a leader in Portland’s growing Asian morning meal movement. And those dumplings do double-duty on Cho’s wonderful Friday-Saturday night Korean dinners, served a la carte with splashes of black vinegar-ginger broth. 511 NE 24th Ave, hanoakpdx.com

Show Comments

Related Content

Best Restaurants 2016: Thai Twist

Portland’s Best Spot For Terrific Southern Thai: Hat Yai

10/10/2016 By Benjamin Tepler

Best Restaurants 2016: Casual Korean

Portland’s Coolest New Restaurant: Han Oak

10/10/2016 By Benjamin Tepler