PDX Soup Hall of Famers
Ox Clam Chowder
It tastes like Mo’s Clam Chowder at Defcon 2. How else to describe this iconic Oregon dish, birthed at the coast, reborn in the city with macho swagger? The chutzpah to plant a smoked marrow bone and hellishly hot jalapeños in a supremely dainty, creamy broth is a delicious act of defiance and brilliance.
Old-school “gourmet” Portland ripples through this red-orange pool of tomatoes, buttered onions, cream, and orange juice. It’s fail-safe, take-me-back-to-the-womb comfort. Think Campbell’s tomato with a higher IQ, ladled out of a giant vat at Elephants since the 1980s. Longtime customers make their own blend—half tomato-orange, half Mama Leone’s chicken soup. Makes no sense, but it works.
Luce’s Cappelletti in Brodo
This is labor-of-love soup, inspired by a Parma grandma. Rich yellow broth is the first clue—whole chickens are in the pot, not just bones or scraps, while hand-pinched noodle pods laze on top. Spoon in for a rush of oozy ricotta cheese, lemon intensity, and Parmesan funk. To enjoy it as the elders do, according to Luce lore, spill a little red wine into the broth.
Hat Yai’s Oxtail Soup
Can a soup featuring 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 kitchens 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 2016.
Han Oak’s Pork and Chive Dumpling Soup
When I first encountered experimental chef Peter Cho’s mandoo dumpling soup, served in his super-cute home kitchen-cum-pop-up incubator space, it was a pot of seriously aromatic beef and wild mushroom broth percolating on his 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. These days, nab a bowl at Han Oak’s drop-in “Noodles & Dumplings” nights (Sundays and Mondays only), or as an “a la carte option” at Cho’s wonderful fixed-price Korean dinners, served with splashes of black vinegar-ginger broth.
Soup Masters (a.k.a. order whatever is simmering in the house)
Soup recipes don’t exist at this house of seasonal worship. The changing selections reflect only chef Kevin Gibson’s mood ring and cooking philosophy. Not just peak vegetables and wild mushrooms (his chanterelle use borders on compulsion) but unsung flavor heroes shine here—no one loves a cardoon (or thoughtful garnish) like this guy.
I’m always amazed how many Portlanders still haven’t experienced the slow-simmered pleasures from Portland’s First Family of Vietnamese Soups. The Luu/Vuong clan thrills rabid regulars and national critics with fierce classics (pho to mi quang) and rarely seen regional gems, only two versions per day. Lucky Peach paid homage last year. What, pray what, are you waiting for?
We rarely think about what goes into soup: the careful choices, the surprising flavor jumps. Chef Katy Millard leaves no doubt, presenting us with an edible landscape of details (Dungeness crab, raw and roasted matsutake mushrooms, Asian pear, sprouted fenugreek, cashews, and the citrus fruit Buddha’s hand have all turned up) followed by aromatic broths, from carrot to mushroom dashi, poured tableside. It’s a little bit of theater, and a lot of unexpected deliciousness.
For years, without dogma or media spin, Higgins has quietly, consistently produced delicious soups from the kitchen’s storehouse of farm-fresh vegetables. Two options emerge daily, from ever-changing, eclectic influences—easily enjoyed in the old-school bar or more formal dining room, and chased with one of Portland’s best beer list. You might find a soul-satisfying black-eyed pea and ham hock or a righteous smoked salmon chowder. But, inevitably, the real surprise are the deeply satisfying vegan options, like a full-throttle Tuscan bread soup or root-sweet parsnip puree zapped with cumin, coriander and house fermented chiles.
Where the Food People Slurp
Aric Miller (co-owner/barista, Sterling Coffee Roasters): “One of the best things I ate in 2016—nay, ever—is Wei Wei’s Taiwanese beef noodle soup. In my 42 years I have yet to encounter the flavor of this broth; have it once, and it’s got claws firmly in your gut. I think about it still, daily. Nightly it plagues my dreams.”
Maya Lovelace (chef-owner, Mae): Teo Bún Bò Hu’s namesake soup is “comforting and invigorating, good for an afternoon pick-me-up or hangover cure. The broth is fresher and lighter than most local versions, perfumed with tons of lemongrass, chiles, and a hint of shrimp paste. The fantastic herb plate (and stellar iced coffee) adds to the experience.”
Kelly Myers (chef, Xico): “I've always been a regular at Pho Hung. But recently I’ve made a point of having Vietnam’s breakfast actually for breakfast. I get it now! Pho Hung’s pho makes you feel sharp and well-nourished to start your day. I’ve always loved their broth in particular, with star anise and charred ginger. You can see about 10 enormous stock pots in the back of the kitchen, steaming. I get the Number 9, the brisket, which the menu categorizes as ‘For Beginners.’ (Oh well, I'm not a tendon eating kind of person.) I like the experience of customizing each bowl with bean sprouts, basil, jalapeño, chile oil, hoisin, and Rooster sauce. Every bowl is different depending how you feel.”