Food Review

10 Portland Dishes Not to Miss in 2021

Even in a pandemic, Portland chefs, bakers, and food cart cooks are feeding our minds and souls, deliciously.

By Karen Brooks and Katherine Chew Hamilton January 5, 2021

Peter Cho's Steamed Bao Burger

Peter Cho's ingenious steamed bao burger will be featured at Toki, opening in early 2021.

If I ruled the thesaurus, I'd plant “steamed bao burger” on the list of synonyms for ingenious, right between “original” and “resourceful.” With his Korean house-party restaurant Han Oak in make-do pandemic mode, chef Peter Cho has created the new soup dumpling for our times, enclosing the innards of an old-school double cheeseburger (American cheese ooze, raw onion, and secret sauce to boot) inside of a hand-rolled bao, pinched and sealed at the edges. The whole thing is pan-seared on one side and steamed on the other. Like a magic trick,  the burger remains juicy and medium-rare. Trust me: you want more than one. Find it soon at Toki, a new Korean restaurant from Cho and his wife Sun Park, opening soon in the former Tasty N Alder spot downtown. 580 SW 12th Ave., @tokipdx — KB

L'Unico Alimentari's Squid Ink Tonnarelli with Crab and Burrata

A magical, rule-breaking combination of crab and burrata.

There’s an ancient Italian saying that goes: “Never mix cheese and seafood.” But rules are made to be broken. Lanfranco Paliotti, the chef of food cart L’Unico Alimentari who was born and raised in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, flaunts the rules with his squid ink tonnarelli topped with burrata, local Dungeness crab, and basil. Give it a stir, and the creamy burrata coats every strand of the black, square-edged pasta, punctuated by sweet, tender lumps of crab meat. Rules? This is a match made in heaven. 1825 N Williams Ave., @lunicopdx — KH

Langbaan's Spicy Halibut and Featherback Dumpling Soup

Langbaan's soup brims with oceanic brine, dumpling joy, and some surprising heat. 

Portland's acclaimed Thai tasting menu hideaway has always excelled at soups, with regional recipes and flavor complexities rarely found on these shores. Now, soups are soaring on Langbaan's temporary a la carte take-out menu. Honestly, I've never tasted anything like this one. The briny seaweed broth tastes like it was simmered in the ocean, then splashed with sideways heat. Floating on top: fat clouds of chewy, flavor-dense seafood dumplings, shreds of king crab, and a pair of prawns. At $21, it's not a cheap thrill. Call it a filling, unforgettable meal. 6 SE 28th Ave., @langbaanpdx — KB

Gregory Gourdet's Haitian Your Own Private Yurt

A yurt at Kaan's Winter Village.

Even in normal times, a Haitian food throw-down from Top Chef star Gregory Gourdet would be a major treat. In the midst of a pandemic, served at a solo table, inside an outdoor yurt, it's a miracle. The adventurous, ambitious, three-month project (through the end of March) doubles as an R&D lab for Gourdet's upcoming Haitian restaurant, Kann, down to the largely BIPOC staff. The six-course dinners and zero-proof cocktail pairing crests $200 per person.

Gregory Gourdet's special duck set: whole roasted bird, plantain flour crepes, charred cabbage pikliz and Haitian grits. 

But the splurge of splurges is the extra, add-on duck set, which revolves around a whole roasted bird nesting in a pool of dark, sumptuous juices. Heap the tender shreds into coconut-scented plantain flour crepes, throw on some spicy charred cabbage pikliz, wrap up, and devour. It's bonkers good and worth every penny. The duck addition is up for grabs daily through mid-January. 831 SE Salmon St., — KB

Gracie's Apizza's Tomato Pie (and Homemade Ice Cream) 

Tomato pie, the self-described "best pie" on Gracie's menu.

I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as too much cheese on a pizza. But the New Haven-meets-Neapolitan style pizza at Gracie's Apizza has proven the opposite—that sometimes, a scant sprinkling of pecorino is all you need. The tomato pie is described on Gracie’s online menu as “the best pie,” but the star of the pie is the robust, sweet-savory sauce, garnished only with a bit of oregano and a few slices of fried garlic. Which is not to shortchange the tangy, nutty, naturally fermented crust, cooked to a crackling, leopard-spotted crunch in a wood-fired oven. Need more dairy? Try the shockingly good house-made ice cream, with flavors like corn cereal or chocolate sesame. The texture nails that balance of airy and creamy that’s so hard to find, much like a good gelato. 8737 N Lombard St., @graciesapizza — KH

Hit the Spot's Chicken Burger

After a yearlong quest to find Portland's best classic cheeseburgers, PoMo's “Burger Cabal” ranked Hit the Spot at No. 2. But the real revelation at this eastside food cart? A chicken burger. A chicken burger! Imagine your dad's ecstatically marinated and grilled chicken thighs, infused with the smoke of chipotle peppers -- in patty form, tucked inside a squooshy bun. I heard about it from fast-food reviewer and former Simpsons writer Bill Oakley, who texted me, “I believe it to be revolutionary. Never had anything like it and, as you know, I eat a ton of that stuff.” Alas, it's no longer available, given lack of demand. People, get on it! Ask for it; no, DEMAND it. You're welcome. 4835 NE Sandy Blvd., @hitthespotburgers — KB

JinJu Patisserie's Q-een Amon Pastry 

Jin Ju's outrageous Q-een Amon pastry. 

Breton's kouign-amann (pronounced queen-a-mahn) lives in its own pastry kingdom, a kind of crown-shaped croissant muffin exploding with caramelized sugar crackles all around the outside. It's hard to find a good one, much less a great innovative one like JinJu's, which shoots a mighty blob of Nutella straight into the pastry's butter-raging heart. Co-owner Kyurim “Q” Lee shows why she is the Q-een, adding powdered sugar and the fancy crunch of chocolate pearls. I ate it with sheer animal fever. Bodacious! Saturdays and Sundays only, after 10:30 am. 4036 N Williams Ave., @jinjupatisserie — KB

Plaza Plate from Birrieria La Plaza

The Plaza Plate: birria, tortillas, consome, and cheese in various forms.

Birria tacos exploded in popularity in 2020, thanks in large part to Instagram (and the fact that birria tacos are freaking delicious flavor bombs). But this big red loncheria’s birria de res—the only kind of meat you’ll find at this taco truck—is based on a decades-old family recipe from Jalisco: beef slowly stewed in a blend of guajillo and pasilla chiles. It’s served on tortillas stained brick red with consome, griddled or crisped up and ideally topped with cheese. To taste all that Birrieria La Plaza has to offer, the Plaza Plate brings it home. The haul includes an open-faced soft birria taco, a birria-stuffed quesadilla, a mulita (cheese-topped birria sandwiched between two crispy tortillas), and a birria-topped tostada, plus a cup of consome for sipping and dipping. 600 SE 146th Ave., @birrierialaplaza — KH

Matta's McDonald's Makeover

Matta's coconut-washed, spicy-slawed fried fish sandwich posterizes its muse at McDonald's. 

Image: Karen Brooks

Vietnamese-American food explorer Richard Le has put corporate fast-food giants on notice at his humble food cart (now in a new NE location). His Filet-o-Fish sando struts out of the cart's window—a marvel of hot, golden, coconut milk-washed hunk of cod or catfish parked inside the lime-green maw of a pandan milk bun, made by Le's wife and in-house baker Sophia. It's a monster of a sandwich just teeming with American cheese, Thai-chile tartar sauce, and herby pickled slaw. Watch Matta's Instagram feed for the next time this semi-regular special drops. Don't sleep on this one. 4311 NE Prescott St Ave, @mattapdx — KB


Berlu Bakery's Pandan Honeycomb Cake

Berlu's honeycomb-textured pandan cake.

Vince Nguyen and sous chef Sky Kim behind the pastry case.

Image: Karen Brooks

An upside to this upside-down world? The number of chefs exploring new expressions of self, among them modern minimalist Vince Nguyen, who taught himself the art of Vietnamese baking after the dine-in shut down. I'm now a fool for his banh bo nuong, a green-hued, honeycomb-textured dessert, at once irresistible in flavor and full of the pandan leaf's vanilla-esque perfume. It's a marvel of squish and chew and a wonderful world away from the classic notion of “cake.” 605 SE Belmont St., @berlupdx — KB

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