Word of Mouth

Food Critic Karen Brooks on 2019's Best Dishes You Never Heard Of

Why you need to know about babka waffles and roti with creamed corn curry...

Photography by Karen Brooks November 26, 2019 Published in the December 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Vietnamese Pandan Doughnuts at Matta

Image: Karen Brooks

Unless you were stuck inside a sensory deprivation tank in 2019, you know two things about Portland’s food scene: Eem’s white brisket curry ruled the city and Soro Soro’s cotton candy affogato owned our souls (and social media feeds). But my own list is longer and probably far more uncool, weaving old favorites with new finds. These are the food moments that got my juices flowing this year.

Image: Karen Brooks

Best Thing to Come out of a Waffle Iron: Babka Waffles at Ava Gene’s A waffle spin on the chocolate-swirled Eastern European sweet bread? A brave move. No one messes with the babka. At his new weekend brunch, chef Joshua McFadden’s crew rolls the dough to order, then parks it in a hot iron until dark, crispy, and leopard-spotted with honeyed poppyseed paste, waiting for a top knob of maple butter. Relax, Bubbe: he’s got this. 3377 SE Division St, avagenes.com

Best Biscuits You’ve Never Heard Of: Buttermilk Biscuits at Cup & Bar This is no Southern classic—tasting more like a rogue spoon bread biscuit baked over a campfire, complete with a crunchy-craggy top. Eat it slowly, with fresh jam or served sandwich style with tucks of rosy Tails & Trotters ham and good house pickles. 118 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, cupandbar.com 

Sweetest Food Cart Find: Vietnamese Pandan Doughnuts at Matta B-boy dancer Richard Le pays tribute to the family roots he once avoided, via his daily “Vietnamese soul food” cart menu. At his side, wife Sophia makes terrific, coconut-glazed pandan doughnuts—what she calls “little baddies”—best dispatched with the duo’s Vietnamese drip coffee. Inspired. 2314 NE Alberta St, mattapdx.com

Image: Karen Brooks

Best Name for a Pork Bun: Who the Fuck Is David Chang? at Expatriate Say the word “pork belly bun” and all roads lead to the iconic, sweet-crisp wonder created by New York’s reigning food god at Momofuku Ssam Bar. Let it suffice to say, Expat’s Kyle Webster and Naomi Pomeroy are not cowed. Their version fumes with Korean spice, funk, banh mi-esque pickled cukes and carrot slaw on—in a show of respect—a steamed bun from Momofuku’s recipe archive. Gangster. 5424 NE 30th Ave, expatriatepdx.com

More Evidence David Chang Is Portland’s Secret Muse: Fried Corn Ribs at Shalom Y’All Meanwhile, a lesser-known Momofuku wonder also snuck into town this summer: wide swaths of kernels, sheared lengthwise, then flash-fried into curly “ribs” flavored like Mexican elote. Shalom Y’All, whose tiny downtown location found a strong voice this year, ran with the idea, adding smoky urfa chile butter, harissa, and char-grilled lime. Bring this back, please. 1128 SW Alder St, shalomyallpdx.com

Only One Order Left? I’ll Fight You for It: Roti Canai with Creamed Corn Curry at Gado Gado I nearly injured myself eating the flatbread at our Rising Star of the Year (see November’s Best Restaurants issue). Rolled and fried to order, it captures that tender, soft rip-and-chew of great griddle bread but also the flaky goodness of a croissant. On the side, this playful Indonesian-inspired kitchen sends out not the usual dal curry, but a pudding-like creamed corn curry, at once sweet and umami-rich beneath Parmesan shreds and drizzles of kepac manis, a near-black sweet soy sauce. Thank goodness for frozen corn; the curry isn’t going anywhere this winter. 1801 NE César E. Chávez Blvd, gadogadopdx.com

Image: Karen Brooks

The Gift That Keeps On Giving: Weekend Paella at Ataula We usually mourn the “good old days” of our favorite restaurants, before the inevitable slide into complacency. But a rare few actually go in the opposite direction. It happened this year at this neighborhood modern Spanish restaurant, evinced in particular by terrific weekend-only paella specials. Watch for real-deal arros a la llauan furrowed with tender rabbit, spreadable Iberico sausage, and poblano pepper ali-oli. 1818 NW 23rd Pl, ataulapdx.com

Image: Karen Brooks

Meal I’ll Never Forget, Ever: African Diaspora Dinner at Feast Portland Portland’s famed food festival shook up the tired “star chef dinner” formula this fall, letting local chefs take the reins to curate the dinner ideas, choose who cooked, and share the stories they hold closest. The result? Something rare in today’s food culture: organic moments at the table. Of particular note: the meal curated by Departure’s Gregory Gourdet, featuring legendary Alabama pastry chef Dolester Miles, electrifying young talent Kwame Onwuachi, and Seattle star Edouardo Jordan (pictured, left). When people ask me to recall the great meals of my life, this will be on the list: a room of laughter and real food from four significant chefs from all corners of the country, expressing what African American food means in America today. It was mighty and joyful down to the last crumb.

Filed under
Show Comments