Best Restaurants 2020

Magna’s Filipino Treats and Berlu’s Vietnamese Bakery Soar

Pandan, the floral-grassy-neon green “vanilla” and food coloring of Southeast Asia, is the ingredient of the year.

By Karen Brooks October 6, 2020 Published in the October 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

You want the pandan honeycomb cake at Berlu.

Call it a coincidence, a new Southeast Asian pastry wave, or just the hidden upside in this upside-down world. But heads up: Filipino chef Carlo Lamagna (Magna Kusina) and tasting menu avant-gardian Vince Nguyen (Berlu) have, out of their respective restaurants, launched mini daytime bakeries—each a personal dive into unexplored territory. Both leave no doubt: pandan, the floral-grassy-neon green “vanilla” and food coloring of Southeast Asia, is the ingredient of the year. 

Treats from Magna, including ube cookies and Jollibee-inspired mango-peach hand pies.

Image: Karen Brooks

Lamagna is a chatty charmer, tireless meal donator, and action-flick aficionado. But he’s also a sweet-toother who dreamed of opening a Filipino bakery. For now, that translates to a handful of rotating treats, traditional to modern, among them mango-peach handpies that pay homage to Lamagna’s misspent youth at Jollibee, the McDonald’s of the Philippines. The pandan-iced ube yam cookies are purple behemoths. Wildly, they taste like Froot Loops. I’d come just to snag an empanada—a thousand crumbles of garlicky beef wrapped in tender, butter-plowed pie dough. “Nothing too crazy,” Lamagna insists. “I’m not Pierre Hermé or anything. Just flavors from my childhood, simple things to make people happy.”

Over at Berlu, Nguyen was known for his brand of fine dining, a poetic expressionism rooted in French techniques. But during a pandemic break, he wondered, “Who am I?” Now, at 34, he’s tackling his Vietnamese side via classic pastries and breakfast savories. You want the pandan honeycomb cake, which looks like lime green striated bread made by mad bees. It’s a marvel of exquisite squish and chew, with the perfume of toasted angel food cake—a wonderful world away from the classic notion of cake. Also worth the trip: super-aromatic, noodle-threaded pork meatloaf, an egg-yolk omelet sun rising from the top. Very old-school Vietnamese, from a very new-school guy. This is one to watch. Magna: 2525 SE Clinton St; Berlu, 605 SE Belmont St

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