The 2020 Portland Food Highlight Reel: Pivots, Food Carts, and New Restaurants
Yes, 2020 was one of the hardest years we’ve collectively been through—and it was especially tumultuous for people in the restaurant and bar industry. Many restaurant owners found themselves repeatedly opening and closing their dining rooms while trying to evade permanent closure, and many employees were laid off multiple times. But despite it all, Portland’s dining scene continued to be as innovative as it’s always been–in many cases, even more so—with plenty of creative pivots, a new wave of exciting food carts, and a surprising number of excellent new brick-and-mortar restaurants. Amidst all the chaos, here are some the triumphs of 2020 we’d like to celebrate.
The Year of the Pivot
Among the top-most used words and phrases of 2020, along with "pandemic," "social distancing," and "epidemiology": "pivot." While nearly everyone’s had to make pivots of their own this year, few industries have had to pivot as often as restaurants. Some were straight-up fun, like Gado Gado’s drive-in movie, projected on an inflatable screen in the restaurant’s parking lot.
With everyone cooking at home more often, many restaurants helped us get more creative in our own kitchens. Some offered meal kits. After Naomi Pomeroy’s restaurant Beast closed, she transformed the space into Ripe Cooperative, which offers seasonal four-course meal kits complete with a sketch of suggested plating. Ripe is also home to a market offering ready-to-eat sides like soup and crab-spinach dip, plus pantry items and bottles of wine. They’re just one of many spots that have added a market section during the pandemic. Fresh pasta palace Montelupo, which opened during the pandemic, transformed a space that was originally intended to be a dining room into an Italian market, stocked with cook-at-home pasta kits, wine, charcuterie, pantry items, and tiramisu. And before to-go cocktails finally made it through the Oregon state legislature in the final days of 2020 after a long fight from the industry, many places, like Eem, offered take-home cocktail kits, complete with all the necessary garnishes and mixers.
Others harnessed the power of live video to bring a hands-on, interactive cooking experience to Portlanders' homes. In March, some of the city's big-name chefs, including Gabriel Rucker, Vitaly Paley, and Gregory Gourdet, launched cooking classes on Instagram Live, and in December, Nodoguro created a Zoom cook-at-home 13-course dinner series based on the anime series One Piece.
Two of our favorite pivots this year emerged from Berlu, which prior to the shutdown was known for its multicourse, minimalist tasting menus, earning it a slot on PoMo's Best Restaurants of 2019. But tasting menus don’t often translate to takeout. So this summer, chef Vince Nguyen created the Bakery at Berlu, where he started making not-too-sweet gluten and dairy-free Vietnamese-inspired pastries, like pandan honeycomb cake and mango rolls—the perfect recipe for a PoMo Best Restaurants 2020 winner. (A similar restaurant-to-bakery pivot emerged from Magna this year, where Carlo Lamagna churned out pandan-iced ube cookies and Jollibee-inspired peach-mango pies.) In late fall, Nguyen adapted to the seasons with Noodles at Berlu, serving a different hard-to-find Vietnamese noodle soup each week, complete with handmade noodles and vegan options.
And, as we all know, outdoor dining is safer than eating indoors. Plenty of restaurants pivoted to patio service this year, including chef Greg Higgins of farm-to-table pioneer restaurant Higgins, who created a spinoff on the patio of the Oregon Historical Society called Piggins. Kachka created a much-loved summer-only rooftop patio dining experience, Kachka Alfresca. Meanwhile, restaurants like Eem took “dining out with your pod” to a whole new level, creating walled, roofed pods around each table, while wine bar OK Omens installed heated, rainproof cabanas around each table. We also loved the patio at contemporary Cambodian spot Sunshine Noodles, one of the first restaurants in Portland that was specifically designed with pandemic safety considerations in mind, with Dance Dance Revolution-themed arrows directing foot traffic and cartoon noodle bowls serving as social distance markers.
Another Golden Age of Food Carts?
Portland’s iconic food cart scene blew up in 2008, fueled by the Great Recession. Now that economic times are tough again—and outdoor dining and takeout make up the majority of the restaurant game—we’re seeing a renewed interest in food carts rather than brick-and-mortar spaces with large dining rooms. Some of our best meals this year came from food carts: crab and burrata squid ink tonnarelli from L’Unico Alimentari, Filet-o-Fish homages on pandan buns from Matta, and Tuscan chickpea and mozzarella panini from Sorbu. As Justin Hintze of fried chicken and potato wedge cart Jojo told PoMo back in June: “We’re used to adversity. We’re not dependent on alcohol, where many restaurants make their margins. Our business models are situated for this.”
There’s a Lot of New, Too
Yes, the local restaurant scene has seen some sad closures this year. But I certainly wasn’t expecting the deluge of creative, exciting new restaurants we got. Among the favorites was vegan, BIPOC worker-owned Sri Lankan restaurant Mirisata, which got its start this summer as a pop-up in NE. After losing its pop-up space, the restaurant quickly established a brick-and-mortar location in SE. Gado Gado expanded its takeout concept, Oma’s Takeaway, into its own brick-and-mortar at the former Whiskey Lounge space, and its nasi lemak, tempeh curry, and corn fritters made Oma’s one of our favorite restaurants of 2020. Tonari, the cool, casual cousin of Nodoguro, was another PoMo favorite thanks to its tonguekatsu sliders and rice sandwiches. Other standout new restaurants of the year include Taqueria Los Puñales, serving a bounty of various guisados on handmade tortillas; Malka, serving chaotic, aptly-named twenty-something-ingredient rice bowls like “I Have a Lot of Feelings”; Lazy Susan, serving charcoal-grilled meaty delicacies as well as some memorable sweet and savory pies; and Sebastiano’s, a Sicilian deli specializing in muffalettas and cannoli. We’d like to leave most of this difficult, heart-wrenching year behind us—but we’ll gladly take these newcomers with us into 2021 and beyond.