Best Restaurants 2021

In the Portland Dining Scene, These Little Lights Really Shine

The city’s sweet spot has always been the small, the intimate, the passionate—and no two alike.

By Karen Brooks November 30, 2021 Published in the Winter 2021/2022 issue of Portland Monthly

Image: Johnny Le

'Go big or go home' doesn't work in Portland. The city's sweet spot has always been the small, the intimate, the passionate—and no two alike. Our latest crushes: a fearless anti-somm wine den, two brothers reimagining their family's pho shop, a chef-driven brunch, and a vegetarian takeout crib fighting for a more just world.


Vietnam’s wonder bowl of beef broth and silky noodles is an enduring Portland food crush, right up there with tallboys and doughnuts. You’re not a local if you don’t have a top three phở list to defend, and Thơm, opened in August, belongs in the conversation. The house broth—a head rush of slow-cooked marrow bones under flaps of melting tenderloin—may win the championship belt. It tastes like passion, care, commitment. Plus, nowhere else will you find a cooler custom-made haunt to consider an old-school phở bò. The feel is of stepping into a hidden studio in a midcentury home, illuminated by Isamu Noguchi’s Akari light sculptures. They hang over the space like eternal paper moons.

Every inch of this little room was built or designed by Johnny Le, a Los Angeles photographer. He’s also a member of the Phở Lê clan, one of Vancouver, Washington’s first phở spots, still steaming after 30 years. In the kitchen, 32-year-old younger brother Jimmy is honoring dishes learned at his father's side—a journey since age 5. Together, the brothers are starting a new chapter, looking to the past and the future to create what Johnny calls a space for “remembrances, reinterpretations, and spontaneity.” The menu’s four dishes are drawn from Phở Lê signatures, but already Jimmy is putting his stamp on family tradition. The roasted chicken skin on his cơm gà (chicken and rice) is a beaut, all deep, dark sweet soy and tender chew. He loves cloves, perhaps a little too much—they overpower an otherwise delicate vegan phở. Thơm’s most popular dish is “Dad's Barbecue Pork Noodles,” a comfort classic of sweet grilled pork and bouncy noodles, all the details fine-tuned and of good quality. As always, father knows best. 3039 NE Alberta St, @thom.pdx 

Image: karen brooks

Coquine Market

Increasingly, restaurants are becoming our favorite grocery stores, as chefs reveal choice ingredients and insider finds on makeshift shelves erected like shrines in corner spaces. Now comes the opposite: a petite, chef-driven grocery store that also houses a coffee bar with a dedicated barista, rustic pastries, and take-out and patio brunch—one of the city’s best. Coquine Market, opened in August, is the soulmate of Coquine restaurant next door, known for high-end homey cooking and a fierce commitment to small farms, with owners Katy Millard and Ksandek Podbielski as our personal shoppers. If life were truly just, every neighborhood would have a place like this—happy eggs, French butter, house breads, good affordable wines, farm produce, and a dialed latte flashing Coava beans, a Danish, and a major chocolate chip cookie.

Prepandemic, brunch was a Coquine signature. Now, it lives again at the market (Friday–Sunday), with plans to eventually move back next door. Seasonality is still a focus—perhaps chanterelle mushrooms piled over hash or some roasted carrots and turnips swaddled in date vinaigrette. Regulars still pray for the yeasted barley flour waffles glazed in salted maple butter and burnt cinnamon. The red acorn bread takes shortening seriously—100 percent bacon drippings and rendered chicken fat. It’s thinly sliced, crisp-griddled on both sides, and served with schmears of soft thyme butter. Killer. And let’s talk about those triple-fried french fries, a labor-intensive process pioneered by legendary British chef Heston Blumenthal. Veteran Coquine cook Greg Redfield took up the cause. Arguably, these are Portland’s best fries—served, natch, with a side of ranch. 6833 SE Belmont St,

Image: Thomas Teal

Meals 4 Heels

In just two years, cook and activist Nikeisah Newton has been called a hometown hero and a revolutionary in America’s strip-club capital. In 2019, she broke new ground with Meals 4 Heels, a grain-bowl delivery service for sex workers—a community often cast aside and exploited, and without access to nutritious food late at night. With the pandemic temporarily closing many strip clubs, she shifted her focus away from solely sex workers and began also serving Portland’s broader communities, without taking her eye off her mission to fight for a more just world. “I’m formerly incarcerated. I’m a college dropout. I’m Black and I’m gay,” says Newton. “That’s a lot of resilience.” 

Her T-shirt says it all: Pro Black. Pro Brown. Pro Trans, Pro Science, Pro Hoe. It hangs in the Meals 4 Heels takeout crib, opened last May as a 150-square-foot “restaurant in residence” at the Redd on SE Salmon Street. Each bowl (all vegetarian; vegan or gluten-free by request) tells a different flavor story. One jumps off Ethiopian mushrooms; another pops with black-eyed pea fritters, sweet chowchow, and buttery corn bread. GTP (Gettin’ That Paper) is a happy jumble of tom kha cauliflower, tamarind sweet potato glass noodles, truffled tomatoes, and toasted coconut. “No one makes cauliflower like this,” moaned Feast Portland’s Mike Thelin one afternoon. No one makes anything like Nikeisah Newton. 831 SE Salmon St,

Image: Thomas Teal

Le Clos

In case I was misled, confused, or otherwise out of my mind, Jeff Vejr recently texted me to clarify: “I am not a sommelier. I have never taken one of their classes.”

Not to worry. Vejr is many things: funny, brainy, loquacious. He’s a winemaker, a walking encyclopedia of Oregon wine history, and a dogged explorer of grapes from unheralded centers like Croatia and Georgia. But Vejr is best known as cocreator and raconteur of Les Caves, which has the vibe of a bohemian rock club.  If anything, he’s the anti-somm. “Don’t drink what a sommelier tells you to drink,” Vejr tells me. “Drink rebelliously; be fearless.”   

This impulse rules Le Clos, Les Caves’s new permanent patio room, which seats 20 and is carpeted, hilariously, in Astroturf, floor to bar. You lounge on couches or church pews or chairs the color of a smiley face. Your server dons an Elvis tee. In this wine lover’s paradise, sweatshirts and Champagne are one, at last. We sip from a list unlike any other, worldly and knowing, unconventional to the core, built for discovery and spilled into chic, curvy glasses, full or half pours, as you like. “This is a true ‘dartboard list,’” says iconic wine writer Matt Kramer, whose picture hangs at Les Caves. “Whatever the dart lands on is a profoundly pleasing choice. A wine list just can’t get any better than that.”

Portland is game for anything. Hence, the popular order is the mystery pour, which might be a rare Turkish wine or a juicy, carbonic gamay from the Loire Valley. Roam the list to find a rosé full of great refreshment and replete with wild cherry and watermelon pings—from Slovenia. Or discover a suave and supple malbec from Patagonia, backed by the only food in the house, golden grilled cheese sandwiches. I’m a fool for the Alsatian, plied with Munster and ham, its exterior thinly coated in mayo and mustard powder, then bronzed in a panini press. But all are good, and happily cut for sharing. The brilliance lies in their truth: grilled cheese is perfect food.  “I want people to drink wine freely, like they eat freely, like they drink beer freely.” says Vejr. “I felt Portland was missing that.” Not anymore. 1719 NE Alberta St,