Year in Review

Portland's Most Obsession-Worthy Dishes in 2021

Breakfast champions, fast-food makeovers, and game-changing tasting menus top our best dishes of the year.

By Karen Brooks and Katherine Chew Hamilton December 28, 2021

Marvelous yet simple French toast from Sweedeedee

Image: Karen Brooks

What are the best dishes of the year? The answer is highly personal—it's an art, not a science. Consider this: Which dishes are you still dreaming about the next day? Did anything change your perception of what something familiar can be, be it French toast, a tostada, or the humble green bean? What broke your food brain—flying-ant mayo, a fish-sauce pork patty, wine lees ice cream? What are you telling your friends they Must Eat Right Now, hell or high water? 

PoMo food writers Karen Brooks and Katherine Chew Hamilton have reached their conclusions. They might surprise you.  

Karen's Picks

Best Holy Shit Bite: French Toast at Sweedeedee 

The famed corn cakes are RIP. Moan if you like. I'm still wailing. But at this reborn North Portland gem, a new morning glory has risen: French toast in full beast mode. Behold, three triangles of custard-soaked bread, hot-seared until every inch is thunderously toasty and charred. Chunky house berry jam, seeds and all, erupts over the top like a rogue berry cobbler. The whole plate shimmies with raw, smoky Okinawan sugar beads scattered everywhere. And yet, nothing is too sweet. Killer. 5202 N Albina Ave,

Sandwich of the Year: Soft-Shell Crab Sandwich at Scotch Lodge 

A showstopper of a soft-shell crab sandwich

Image: Karen Brooks

What makes a sandwich worth a drive across town, something so good you taste it in your sleep? Flavors that make the neurons bristle—sweet, heat, funk. acid? Absolutely. But textural contrasts seal the deal—that blissful moment when hot/cool/creamy/crispy delights are revealed through soft, teeth-sinking bread. And then there's life's eternal ingredient: Kewpie mayo. All of this comes together, improbably, in a bumping whiskey cave—uber-crispy soft-shell crabs, two per sandwich, protruding claws and all, on a cloud of milk bread. Inside is a flavor/contrast double-down: plentiful fried shallots and a burst of white kimchi slaw bound in Kewpie, pickled shallots, and hot Chinese mustard. Portland's next great sandwich is here. 215 SE Ninth Ave,

When Green Beans Ruled Portland: Haricots Verts at St. Jack 

The humble green bean takes the spotlight at St. Jack

Never have I ever witnessed people injected with dog-drooling excitement over the prospect of string beans. Until last summer. That's when a dowdy icon of chlorophyll became a gorgeous object of desire, leading otherwise sane people to mumble, “Have you tried the haricots verts at St. Jack?” Count me among them. Under the restaurant’s newly appointed Paris-fresh chef John Denison, the slender French beans were swirled, tornado-like, around an eye of cream-thick Brillat-Savarin cheese, which we stirred in like a decadent, DIY cheese sauce. For winter, the kitchen—one of the year's best —is whirling Brie into an endive gratin. 1610 NW 23rd Ave,

Best Batting Average: Oma’s Hideaway 

Caramelized spare rib tips from Oma's Hideaway

Image: Karen Brooks

Dish for dish, no place had more home runs than this Chinese Malaysian–meets–stoner food menu. Every week since opening in July, when we called it Portland's Most Exciting New Restaurant, Oma's drops a new infatuation: intricate wonton mee noodles; exuberant spare rib tips enveloped in dark fish sauce caramel; sambal-coated prawns, heads and all; a blazing steak tartare rethink, capped with candied anchovies. That doesn't count the aptly named Oma-Zing burger or the curry fries, supercharged with Tang. If you haven't tried Oma's roti yet, we can't help you. 3131 Division St,

The Breakfast Sandwich that Will Take Over the World: Matta 

Move over, McDonald's

In another life, Richard Le is aproned up in a corporate fast-food lab, getting paid a gazillion bucks to hypnotize brains, wallets, and Bill Oakley. Instead, with his B Boy bravado and Vietnamese -American lens, Le has slayed the fast-food giants … from a food cart. The building blocks of his breakfast sando are familiar, but every element is flavor-jacked, with its own mission statement—the fish-sauce pork smashburger, a just-runny egg, the crackle of curry-spiced hash browns tucked inside, and a lime-green pandan bun made by Le's baker wife, Sophia. It's a marvel of swoon and ratio, backed by cheese drip, hot honey, chives, and đặc biệt sauce (cart-made ketchup and spicy mayo). Even Le agrees, noting after he finished one on a lunch break recently: “Fuck, that is delicious.” 4311 NE Prescott St,

One Dinner to Top Them All: Berlu  

Nguyen's creations, like the shallot cake, often straddle the line between dinner and dessert.

Image: Karen Brooks

Some of my favorite meals this year fell on my soul like a bear hug. But this one was pure excitement, as chef Vince Nguyen charted a new direction for Vietnamese cooking—for himself and for us. Not every course works on his new Vietnamese-forward tasting menus. But the highs are plentiful, led by fresh ideas and combinations not seen before—some of them featuring cakes and custards that skirt the line between dinner and dessert. I'm still thinking about those baby turmeric-stained banh xeo (rice pancakes) presented like shrimp ceviche tacos and shrouded in a thousand sprouts and scallions. This is the place to watch, in Portland and beyond. 605 SE Belmont St, 

Katherine's Picks

The Dish that Inspired Childlike Wonder: Kanpachi and Chicatana Tostada at República


When’s the last time you opened a smoke-filled glass dome to find a kanpachi tostada inside? Lauro Romero’s cheffy play on the classic antojito was a high point on my favorite tasting menu of the year, not just extremely delicious but bold and dramatic. Romero deploys ingredients in multiple creative ways—the seasonal flying ants, a delicacy in Mexico, are both ground into an aioli artfully dabbed on top and used to smoke the kanpachi. With a constantly changing tasting menu boasting courses like this—plus things like stone fruit ceviche and bone marrow caramel with mezcal-soaked apples—it’s easy to see why República is PoMo’s Restaurant of the Year 2021. I can’t wait until next year’s flying ant season. 721 NW Ninth Ave #175, 

A Feat of Timing and Texture: Cochinita Pibil Panuchos at Loncheria Los Mayas

Panuchos and a taco from Loncheria Los Mayas

When a panucho craving hits, it hits hard—especially if you’re familiar with the pinnacle of panuchos served at Loncheria Los Mayas. This weekdays-only cart perfects this dish where timing is of the essence: the handmade corn tortillas are plucked from the deep-fryer, then quickly stuffed with creamy black beans and sealed while the tortilla is still soft. The slow-cooked cochinita pibil is the best I’ve had in Portland, bathed in a velvety, citrusy sauce and topped with fiery pickled onions. When the panucho meets the cochinita, it’s a melding of crisp textures, melt-in-your-mouth meat, and bright avocado and onion—something that transcends the sum of each of its (very good) components. 4212 NE Prescott St, 503-754-3059

Best Drinking Snack: Rose Ddukbokki at 1st Street Pocha

Rose ddukbokki and corn cheese

I hauled ass to Beaverton immediately when I saw this menu item alongside 1st Street Pocha’s main draw, the fried chicken: rose ddukbokki, a cream-sauced version of the classic rice cakes seen in Squid Game, with the addition of bacon and hot dogs. It’s a different beast from the original, maybe more along the lines of a chewy carbonara with the added nostalgia of crispy-edged hot dog slices. Why stop there? Add a handmade Korean corn dog, some chicken wings, and the requisite soju and beer. 12590 SW First St Suite B, Beaverton, 503-567-1322

Most Memorable Finish to a Themed Tasting Menu: Wine Lees Ice Cream at Verdant

Wine lees ice cream is a surprisingly satisfying end to a wine-themed tasting menu

When I heard that Verdant, the new pop-up by former Holdfast chef Will Preisch at Abbey Road Farm in Carlton, was doing a tasting lunch featuring Abbey Road’s wines throughout the menu, I didn’t expect that the course that dazzled my taste buds would be the dessert—much less a wine ice cream. Nor did I expect that wine lees, a byproduct of the winemaking process that’s often thrown away, could be so tasty—hints of grape, a little yeasty funk, and a surprising savoriness combined with a super-creamy custard. Another surprise: the wine gelee on top, which I had pegged as a pretentious annoyance, was bouncy and bright, like one of those lychee jelly candies. Little frozen wine grapes as garnish tied the whole thing together—an unexpected finish to a thoughtful, must-try tasting menu. 10501 NE Abbey Rd, Carlton,

Filed under