It’s hard to say what dish truly represents the eclectic nature of Portland, Oregon’s dining scene. It could be a bacon maple bar from Voodoo Doughnuts, an cult favorite long before bacon in desserts was in vogue. It could be a salmon dish prepared in the capable hands of Greg Higgins, quite possibly the father of modern Pacific Northwest cooking. That’s not a dish, though. It’s an ideology.
Most people would call beer not a dish per se, but it is liquid bread after all. Everywhere in Portland you can find hop forward, spectacular IPAs. But there are two modern pioneers now in Portland, as passionate for quality and seasonal cooking as Oregon’s famed son James Beard, combined with the daring nature that led Lewis and Clark west to Oregon over two centuries ago.
There are millions of restaurants in this country, of which far too many seem to not care about being unique or consider themselves unique by copying new concepts. A pair of chefs in Portland are running restaurants that simply cannot be repeated. Their voice is too strong in an innovative concept for somebody else to fully be able to replicate. Andy Ricker’s truly authentic Thai cooking at Pok Pok in the Southeast of town and Chris Israel’s Alpine Central European cuisine in a handsome, quaint dining room in the West End of Downtown are truly trail-blazers in a town that knows a thing or two about that subject. It’s impossible to go wrong with any dish from either chef, yet it’s a…hamburger and…chicken wings that are not just the deservedly iconic dishes of the restaurants, but also the iconic dishes of the Rose City.
Israel opened Gruner a little over two years ago, in collaboration with the Portland restaurant incubator ChefStable. After garnering several awards for his more Mediterranean inspired cooking at Zefiro and Asian inspired fare at Saucebox in the 1990’s, Israel took a few years off to study graphic design in New York before returning to Portland to receive more accolades at 23 Hoyt. Then came the mountainous challenge of translating the Alp’s cuisine into something lighter and intriguing for Portland diners, instead of the heavy, greasy plates of meat and hearty fondue associated with Northern Italy, Hungary, Germany, Alsace, and Austria.
Israel’s feathery soft spaetzle is not to be missed, whether served simply as a side with a light dusting of cheese or the Michelin refined version of braised chicken Alsacienne with morels, crème fraîche, and of course the region’s noted wine, riesling. Choucroute garnie and the Alsatian pizza called tarte flambée topped with sweet onions and smoky bacon might sound like afterthoughts, but not in the hands of a skilled artist. This is not alpine fare you’ll find at a tavern after skiing in Interlaken.
The Gruner burger is what brings in the crowds, however. To clear the air now, it is indeed that good. It is incredibly juicy and incredibly greasy in the way that a rich dessert makes you swoon and giggle for a few minutes, then you realize the joyride is over and you just wish there was one more bite, even if you don’t really need it. The housebaked potato bun comes topped with poppy seeds, a bun so soft and fresh it could be sold at Gruner’s bakery if they ever create one. Fortunately the softness works in tandem with the thickness of the bread, so the juice leaves a dipping pool in the center of the plate, without rendering the bun into a sodden mess that forces the burger to be eaten with a fork.
The eight ounce meat patty is noticeably seasoned with a judicious handful of salt, accented by the poetic twang of a bonafide grilled char. Smokiness comes courtesy of the Nueske’s bacon and creamy fontina cheese provide supporting flavors and moisture, enhanced by a subtle aioli and bitter arugula to counter against the smoky bacon. There is crunch, smoke, some sweet, some salt…a little of everything in here that leads to a five napkin mess on your hands. Do note the superb fried smashed potatoes, French fries through the eyes of Pierre Gagnaire, and dip them in the curry heavy housemade ketchup. Pickled onions and sweet bread and butter pickles on the side can function as the palate cleanser or another layer in this masterpiece of a burger.
Ultimately, the burger itself, as in the meat is what does the trick. It really is a $40 filet mignon in disguise. It’s the whole package that makes this the iconic dish for this iconic restaurant.
Excellent service and the suave, urbane ambiance complete the experience that makes Gruner such a destination. I didn’t even mention the outstanding next door cocktail bar Kask next door for before or after dinner, also owned by Gruner. For dessert, don’t even think of leaving without the hazelnut powdered doughnuts that arrive crisp and warm to the table. A dipping sauce isn’t needed, yet the warm chocolate sauce could stand with Paris’ best hot drinking chocolates.
The only slight flaw are the run of the mill housemade sodas, so why not take this opportunity to explore the Alpine region’s wines? You’ll end the meal with a pool of hamburger juice on your hands and a cloud of powder from the doughnuts on your shirt. It’s o.k., everyone in Portland will recognize where you just ate and will be very jealous.
You’ll need several napkins and hand washing sessions across the Willamette at Pok Pok too after eating the iconic Ike’s Fish Sauce Chicken Wings. We covered the wings’ recipe earlier for a Tuesday project. The key is the palm sugar and the fish sauce achieving the perfect marriage marinating the crisp fried chicken. It’s a dish that is finger licking good where the finger licking is actually obligatory.
Ricker has now expanded Pok Pok to New York, but the flagship stands as strong as ever. The charcoal roasted game hen comes just as moist as the chicken wings, with a sweet and sour and a tamarind dipping sauce that demand to be finished on extra rice. The lunchtime special of the hen with the spicy shredded papaya Pok Pok salad is a downright steal. Ricker has spent many months each of the past few years studying Thai cuisine in Thailand with the fervent intellectual hunger of a young jedi learning from Yoda. It shows everywhere on the menu. You can’t go wrong.
Pok Pok is the type of place people decide to do projects on and eat every item on the menu because everything is thought-provoking, yet also downright delicious food for a down and dirty feast. The boar collar meat glazed with soy and rubbed by coriander root is easily one of the most unique meat dishes I’ve encountered. At lunch, one plate rice and noodle dishes are available and should be considered seriously, such as the phat si ew with thick, al dente noodles paired with Carlton Farms pork and Chinese broccoli, stir fried in a wok to achieve an exceptional char, not far actual from the Gruner burger’s char.
I’ve never been a fan of the smorgasbord of multi-level open air tents and the tiny, loud dining room that are much more pleasant during the day. Service is efficient and helpful, but you can’t help but be annoyed by the walkie talkie radios each waiter has as if they are the security force at a concert. It’s the first thing I noticed dining at Pok Pok my inaugural time two years ago and the first thing I still notice today. Why Pok Pok is the only restaurant in the country that does this is beyond me.
Drinks should somehow revolve around Ricker’s famed drinking vinegars, similar to soda, but a bit more sour. They’re great on their own–skip the too tame tamarind, go for lychee or raspberry, or better yet have crafted into some of Portland’s premier cocktails. And this is a city that knows cocktails. Dessert? With all of this unique, daring food that provides some of the most distinct flavors and spices you’ll ever find, don’t skip the sticky rice with durian accented coconut-palm sugar custard. Yes, the chicken wings and the Gruner burger are that good. No, the durian custard doesn’t smell as bad as you think. And it tastes far better than you’d ever imagine. It may not be the iconic dish of Pok Pok, but then again there’s nothing in Portand that can quite match up with Gruner’s burger and Pok Pok’s fish sauce chicken wings, nor are there any restaurants as innovative and now iconic as these two.