Best Restaurants 2021

República Is Portland Monthly's Restaurant of the Year

Ingredients from flying ants to corn truffles weave through a heartfelt, ambitious Mexican-forward tasting menu.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton November 17, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Midway through dinner at República, a glass dome appeared, much like the one holding the Enchanting Rose in Beauty and the Beast. A server removed it with a wiggly flourish, releasing a plume of fragrant smoke made by burning applewood and chicatanas, a flying ant and prized Oaxacan delicacy that emerges only at the start of the rainy season. Through the haze: an ancestral blue corn tostada with a paper-thin circle of kohlrabi, slices of dry-aged kanpachi rubbed with coffee and chicatanas, and dollops of chicatana aioli.

Image: Thomas Teal

Finding chicatanas in the United States, much less in Portland, is rare. Same with huitlacoche and escamoles, which parade seasonally through the restaurant’s five-course, ever-changing tasting menu—generous at $65 and up. One option features meat, the other vegetables. Omnivores, get both and share. Add a cocktail, a pairing of Mexican and Mexican American–made wines, or eclectic mezcals. Every drink, dish, and dessert has a story, presented by amiable servers or even by the person who made it.

Image: Thomas Teal

República opened last fall, a daring yet confidently executed move at a time when the future of the restaurant scene felt uncertain. Starting with a menu of homey comfort food dishes not often seen in Portland restaurants—tacos and quesadillas on handmade tortillas, tortas, soups, and guisados—the restaurant was based on a collaborative model where no single chef was the star, and dishes from various regions of Mexico made an appearance in a show of ancestral pride. Angel Medina, coffee roaster and owner of neighboring coffee shop La Perlita, partnered with two like-minded co-owners, chef Lauro Romero (formerly of King Tide Fish & Shell) and pastry chef Olivia Bartruff. Each staff member brought different talents to the team, including bartender Adriana Alvarez with evocative cocktails, Roberto Torres with soulful menudo and pozole, and Doña Chapis with expertly handmade tortillas. Soon, the restaurant's offerings expanded to include breakfast and lunch. This summer, República launched a heartfelt, ambitious Mexican-forward dinner concept unlike any other in the city.

The tasting menu weaves tastes that are both familiar and one of a kind. A ceviche combined heirloom tomatoes, plums, stone fruit granita, and cucumber “caviar”—no seafood involved. Mezcal from San Luis Potosí, a jalapeño-growing region, carried the bite of fresh jalapeño despite containing none. Paired with a quesadilla, it tasted like a chile relleno.

Image: Thomas Teal

“It’s like an adult Disneyland,” my friend said as we scooped up bone marrow caramel with mezcal-soaked apples, tamarind syrup, and crema ice cream. Tasting menus are uncommon in this casual-dining town, but this one is a feast—for the taste buds, for knowledge of food history, for the emotional connection we have with food. If República did nothing more than its evening tasting menus, it would be a knockout, using Mexican ingredients like no other Portland restaurant. But the restaurant also serves standout pan dulce—funfetti conchas to roasted pineapple empanadas—plus champurrado and pozole for breakfast and cochinita pibil–filled tortas for lunch. We’re floored. 721 NW Ninth Ave #175,, @republicapdx

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