We have already covered the icons of dining in Portland– Gabriel Rucker’s gutsy, bold cooking at Le Pigeon’s, Andy Ricker’s eccentic, captivating Pok Pok, and the brilliant innovative Alpine cuisine of Chris Israel at Gruner. Later this week we’ll add a fourth for a quartet of icons courtesy of the Lyonnaise bistro that Lyon itself would envy, St. Jack. I should add to the list the classic Pacific Northwest cuisine of Greg Higgins at his handsome Downtown dining room Higgins as another essential stop for a knockout housemade charcuterie plate or beautifully prepared salmon, though it has been two years since I last visited. It has also been two years since waiting for and enjoying the Neopolitan pizza at Apizza Scholl’s, who with Chris Bianco of Phoenix, and Totonno’s, Motorino, and Di Fara of New York create some of the most ethereal pizza that exists in this country.
Let’s now take a look at some of the other spots to eat in the Rose City that might not reach the heights of the legends, but all of them come close. Portland is not a city that allows for decent eating. Big, bold flavors abound from daring chefs who are much more interested in what goes on your plate than how they look on the Food Network.
The izakaya movement is sweeping across the country, a shift from focusing on Mediterranean small plates and tapas to the pure, simply flavored and adorned small plates eaten in Asia, mostly Japan. This is the inspiration for the now five year Biwa, one of the original new style American-Japanese izakayas courtesy of chef Gabe Rosen. Though Biwa is most notable for its late night hangover burger served after 11 pm adorned with barbeque pork and kimchee mayonnaise, the heart of the restaurant still lies in its yakitori offerings and some of the most pristine ramen and udon this side of Tokyo.
That udon in particular is something else, with the most al dente thick wheat noodles, in an umami rich hot soup bolstered by fragrant kamaboko ( a seafood flavoring similar to bottarga from Sardinia), mushrooms, egg, tofu, and green onion slivers. The much thinner ramen noodles impress equally, with a pork (chasyu) heavy broth that shows the beautiful depth of hours of pork bone and pork stock simmering. An addition of wakame (seaweed) is terrific for either noodles, but the smoked pork shoulder arrives a tad dry.
No meal should start without the excellent, ice colored hamachi sashimi, simply served with ponzu and a quail egg yolk in the middle of the sauce. Nor should diners pass up some of the juiciest pork gyoza with the softest of wrappers or the superb Japanese style fried chicken. Interestingly, the yakitori portion was the only clunker of the menu with stringy, limp fava beans and chicken hearts with a wonderful funk to the taste, but an overly leathery texture from a few seconds to long a char. Do take note of the exquisite sake list and the hauntingly excellent black pepper housemade soda.
With no reservations, prepare to wait if your party is over two and you don’t want to sit at the bar. The bar itself is an unappealing one since the view to the open kitchen is partially blocked from the too high ledge between diners and chefs. The M shaped room with a staircase in the middle can get quite loud and celebratory, especially after a few rounds of sake. Service remains constantly brisk to get quick turnover, but helpful. Only the host shows the stress of the place, never cracking a smile, and greeting you with all of the warmth of a DMV secretary. This is a fun place, the welcome should show that. Fortunately, for a smashingly unique burger and poetry worthy ramen and udon, Biwa is here for you.
Izakayas are one sweeping trend these days, anything having to do with Nordic cuisine is as well. Broder, however, provides actual Scandinavian cuisine, not the forage heavy, moss and beet root cuisine associated with René Redzepi. The thumb sized room in a vintage clothing heavy stretch of Southeast Portland can barely seat 20 patrons on its room long banquette and counter overseeing the two chefs at work in the open kitchen. Swedish meatballs, a juicy lamb burger, and a Stockholm dog wrapped in flatbread with a potato pancake are on offer here, with the main artery of Broder being the brunch/lunch preparations. Every other table seems to have some egg dish, whether adorned with smoked trout or fried apple fritters (with eggs…yes). The stand out comes in the Danish classic petite open faced sandwich trio of smørrebrød. The sweet-fishy herring is a thing of beauty, adorned with a hot pepper, transporting you to Tivoli. So too is the gravlax and the Danish dill and mayonnaise heavy salad called skagen consisting of the smallest plump shrimp in the North Sea.
Service, like Biwa, is brisk and efficient, always willing to discuss the differentiations of aquavit in Denmark. Do be sure to try aquavit while you’re here, an ouzo like liquor that comes in the ever popular bloody mary that runs out before noon, or plain in a house distilled variety (try the cumin-saffron for a real twist). If I were directing an upcoming documentary that reeks of Portland’s flannel shirt, brunch culture, Broder would be the set. Mostly so I could eat the smørrebrød each day.
The first thing you’ll hear about Toro Bravo and its brunch focused sister Tasty n Sons is that you will wait a long, long time to get in. Unless you line up at the end of lunch hour for dinner. Or, be like our party and come fashionably late after 9 pm on a weeknight and the wait is five minutes or less. Toro Bravo is an essential stop today on the foodie tour of Portland, though unlike Gruner and Pok Pok, it doesn’t really blaze any unheard of trails. The tapas and racionés have a little more of a chefly touch and creative flair to them than what you’ll find across Madrid, yet they still don’t really open your eyes. I wanted to fall in head over heels love with something and only could with the most basic of tapas, the addictive, ubiquitous bacon wrapped dates. You’ll need at least one per person to commence the meal and probably more when you realize the honey drizzle combined with the smokier than normal bacon makes these far above its competition.
Pacing becomes an issue, not surprisingly, as small plate after small plate arrives until there is no room left for the only fair cocktails and slightly below average, meager sangria. Wine is the route to take here. Out comes octopus grilled on the plancha, the Basque omelette known as piperade, and a magical, complex Moroccan Harira lamb and lentil stew. The tapas are the Broadway of Toro Bravo, like with most Spanish restaurants. The larger racionés can be hit or miss. Excellent paella and a manchego, bacon, and romesco laden burger exchange glances with a too dry Moroccan tuna over dried cherry couscous. Skip the patatas bravas, limp, undercooked fries that the table quickly will ignore.
Outside of the scatter shot pacing, service is excellent, and despite the open kitchen, communal tables and seductively dark lighting, the atmosphere never gets too loud or challenging to see what’s on the plate. The churros happen to be exquisite for dessert, though their chocolate dipping sauce is a touch too weak. Even better is the springtime special rhubarb and strawberry, emerging fresh from the oven. It smells so delightful you’ll burn your mouth eating it. It’s a good burn, though. Then you’ll order more bacon wrapped dates.
It’s a shock that more chocolate boutiques like Cacao don’t exist across the country. Cacao’s specialty is drinking chocolate, a rarity in this country, and something that I’ve only experienced intensively in Paris. Drinking chocolate is essentially a pure bar of chocolate melted. None of that watery, powdered “chocolate.” The drinking chocolate is served in two ounce shots and packs the gusto of a shot of espresso, nuanced, delicate, and authoritative. In particular, the 72% dark spicy chocolate brings the screeching of fresh cinnamon and clove to the palate in quite the peculiar zesty punch.
Cacao’s elegant, jewel box decor feels more like a London tea salon than Willy Wonka candy shop. We already know about Portland’s incredible wealth of microbreweries, coffee roasters, and restaurants. You didn’t know about their array of chocolatiers, displayed at Cacao. The Luscious Caramel truffle from Sahagun in the Pearl District evokes dreams of your first kiss. Not far behind is the excellent lavender salted caramel from Alma Chocolates. The most unique offerings are the bacon or olive oil dark chocolate bars from Xocolatl de David, or in particular the parmigiano reggiano chocolate bar as unique and thrilling as Portland itself.
You can always stand in line and get doughnuts at Voodoo Doughnuts, home of the (in)famous bacon maple bar. Or, go to these pair of doughnut purveyors, both adorned in a Princess like pink and purple color, that specializes in a blissful doughnut called the Coco. It’s the chocolate truffle of simple doughnuts, perfectly soft texture, dusted with cacao powder, and finished with dark chocolate bar shavings. There is no better way to start the day than with dessert.
Kenny and Zuke’s
The new age Jewish deli of Portland, housed in the corner if the impossibly hipster Ace Hotel just south of Central Burnside. Recently Kenny and Zuke’s has been receiving attention for its house brined, smoked, and roasted pastrami that indeed can compete with Katz’s in New York and Langer’s in Los Angeles. In fact, the marinade may even be superior. The pastrami on excellent house baked rye is the obligatory order here. Don’t pass up the babka, the cheesecake, or any baked good for that matter. Except the bagels, which I sadly discovered taste more like supermarket bread when I ducked in on a free bagel tasting day at the deli.
While most Jewish delis are old school with stern waiters, this is one big happy family type of institution in a grand, open feeling, window enclosed room. Any good deli needs to be strong at curing salmon lox. They do that here too as well as the pastrami. Just be like me and if you get the lox for your meal on the plane home, order it with rye instead of a bagel. I certainly was the envy of my seatmates.
Ken’s Artisan Bakery
There are bakeries and then there are the types of bakeries that exist everywhere in Paris and perhaps in a couple of American cities. Those latter bakeries specialize in everything dough that goes in an oven– croissants, cookies, baguettes, tartines, even pizza, you name it. The massive chocolate chunk cookies with intriguing vanilla and citrus notes at Ken’s are just the start of what is fantastic at Ken’s. The service deserves a round of applause too for keeping unusual cool amidst the classic 10 am bakery rush.
The cannelés are spot on, on the brink of being burned, full of vanilla flavor, and a lush interior. Best is the Oregon croissant, sweetened by flecks of pearl sugar, the sea salt of the sugar species, and the juiciest of fresh Oregon huckleberries. Bring the family for Monday night pizza here, a Portland ritual, or any night at Ken’s Artisan Pizza in East Portland. Ken’s is a Northwest Portland institution. You won’t see the sign behind the tree that blocks it, but you’ll know when you smell the smell of baguettes. Ah yes, those excellent baguettes. I could use a weekly shipment of them.
Salt and Straw Ice Cream
A terrific Portland success story, Salt and Straw started as a Northeast Portland food cart (this is the city of food carts let’s not forget). After last summer opening nearby as a brick and mortar shop, Salt and Straw has fully arrived at its second location, in new digs in the Northwest not far from Ken’s Artisan Bakery. The flavor combinations are unique without being bizarre à la Humphry Slocombe in San Francisco. Pear with bleu cheese is a beautifully balanced standout, as is the sweet heat apricot ale with candied peppers that combines the best of fruit with some spice, and touch of malt in the finish. Arbequina olive oil’s scoop still haunts me, with that enjoyable burn provided by a top tier olive oil. I’m torn on the signature strawberry, honey, balsamic, and black pepper, which is an excellent strawberry ice cream, but tastes nothing of its latter pair of ingredients.
Always, always go for the waffle cone, a rarity at ice cream parlors. Here, they stand up with the best waffles in this waffle mad city (seen by all the waffle carts). Friendly scoopers are gracious with samples, another rarity at popular ice cream shops such as this. No visit is complete without at least trying the vivid banana flavor, spiked with walnuts and Spicy Monkey’s caramel. It might be somewhat basic for Salt and Straw, but oftentimes in ice cream, basic can be best.
St. Jack Patisserie
St. Jack happens to be one of the best examples of a French bistro in this country at night. You’ll realize there is something special about this place from the first bite of steak tartare to the warm madeleines and hazelnut chocolate cakes at dessert. The latter is the emphasis in the day time when the rear dining room of St. Jack becomes a bakery and patisserie for excellent cannelés, macarons, and a ridiculously terrific chocolate financier, similar to a cornbread muffin that tastes like caramel corn. Despite their stiff, buttery competition, the pain au chocolats and croissants here may be the best in this bakery rich city.
Brunch is the official meal of Portland and residents are all too happy to wait two hours for eggs benedict and French toast after a late night at the brew pub or music club. Brunch in Northeast Portland is centered on Tasty n Sons, the sister of Toro Bravo, but the lines are just as long,a nd the egg scrambles just as good at the Tin Shed. That line actually moves surprisingly quick as you watch three foot wide breakfast burritos and mammoth French toast slices devoured by patrons.
Tin Shed is indeed a part indoor cafe, part outdoor patio covered with a tin roof. The interesting specialty of the house are unusually excellent cream biscuits, served with a terrific housemade raspberry jam. Tin Shed also seems to minor in the art of potato cakes, particularly strong when doused in the smoky, apple wood bacon heavy gravy over eggs and sausage in the “Roll Over.” Service is very friendly, but like with most brunch spots, you’ll wait as long for the food as you waited in line.