For at least the past couple of decades, Portland’s food scene has nurtured a well-earned reputation as among the best anywhere, thanks to an all-too-short era where rents and real estate were cheap and chefs flocked to The Rose City to try a new thing. Much has changed (especially those rents and real estate) and some 200 restaurants closed during the pandemic. Like new sprouts after a wildfire, a delectable array of eateries are taking root, and plenty of old favorites survived the carnage of 2020.
MAKE IT QUICK
If Piccone’s butchery and osteria were just a marketplace offering a carefully curated selection of house-made gardenaire and locally sourced pasta and marinara sauce; if it were only a butcher shop with locally sourced beef, lamb, chicken and pork from sustainably raised hogs from its own Wallow and Root Pasture Farm, Piccone’s would be worth visiting at least a couple times a week. Director of Operations Anna Josephson does breakfast, lunch and dinner six days a week, serving up burrata salad, handmade pastas, grilled tenderloin pork cuts served with figs and much more. For the savvy picnicker, Piccone’s is the spot for all sorts of grab-and-go options: house-smoked ham and cheese and fried eggplant sandwiches, smoked meat plates, Castelvetrano olives stuffed with house sausage, to name a few. The shop also has a fine if small selection of bubbly, white, pink and red wine, alongside easy-to-tote cans of beers and ciders.
SEE AND BE SEEN
If old Portland dresses up and hits Portland City Grill on a Friday night, for the hip crowd it’s Departure. Partly because the panoramic rooftop patio has one of the best views in Portland, the pan-Asian joint is a regular stop for celebrities from visiting NBA players to Billy Joel. It floats on the 15th floor of the swank Nines Hotel in the city’s landmark Meier & Frank Building, and it offers an ambitious tour of the Far East, employing the Pacific Northwest’s bumper crops of fresh vegetables and sustainable seafood. Departure is not a sushi restaurant, but to skip the crunchy crab roll with fresh Dungeness crab would be a mistake. Rounding out the menu are northwest oysters, an Ishiyaki steak with wagyu beef, the duck confit miso ramen, and a robust dim sum menu, all washed down with the city’s longest sake menu.
HOLD THE MEAT
MEC isn’t by any stretch a vegetarian restaurant, as anyone who’s gnawed at the best lamb chops in the city knows. But when this elevated Middle Eastern street food joint does vegetarian, it does so expertly. Both the fennel salad with charred lemon vinaigrette and radicchio salad are standout starters, and a hamachi crudo with smoked eggplant, tamarind soy vinaigrette, black harissa mayo and crispy ginger is a burst of flavors and textures. From there it’s fried cauliflower dipped in house-made labneh, fried brussels sprouts nestled into excellent hummus, a rich, roasted baked feta and squash dish with a pumpkin seed dukkah sprinkled on top, carrots grilled with a divine Hawaij spice. MEC is part of the Sesame Collective restaurant group, and if it’s booked, Shalom Y’all on the east side and the newest offering, Dolly Olive, offer similarly solid vegetable fare.
IF IT AIN'T BROKE
As the restaurant business goes, staying open for 14 years in a town as dynamic as Portland is no small feat, especially with new offerings cropping up every month to tempt fickle eaters. Bamboo has not only survived but expanded since its first sushi restaurant opened in 2008, on the strength of its top notch sustainable seafood, which was the first in the U.S. to be certified by the Marine Stewardship Council. There are now four Bamboo restaurants in Portland, two in the suburbs, one in Seattle, another in Denver and two in the Bay Area. Standout dishes include the tofu agedashi, the spicy salmon crispy rice, the kanpachi Aguachile and oh, so many excellent nigiri, sashimi and signature rolls. The Green Machine is a crowd favorite. The best part: Bamboo serves real shaved wasabi grown on the Oregon Coast (upon request.)
START ME UP
Brunch is a polarizing topic in Portland, with exactly half the city refusing ever to endure long wait times and food that can be prepared at home by even the most mediocre of cooks, the other half waking up with drool already forming at the idea of lurching out of bed and socially appropriate day drinking. Toki, the playful sister eater of Peter Cho’s Han Oak, threads the needle deftly, with a brunch offering that doesn’t often require a wait, and with innovative twists on the meal that are harder to replicate. Toki goes from breakfast sandos on baked bao buns to omurice, a kimchi fried rice and pork belly topping a “tornado egg” and scrumptious kkwabaegi (twisted donuts) that come in either golden milk glaze with toasted coconut, milk tea sugar or a dulcey glaze and corn flake. Even the coffee options are creative: a Dalgona coffee is sweet and whipped, served hot or cold with whole, oat or coconut milk. It’s well worth not waiting in line.
THE HOT SPOT
Republica almost qualifies as dinner theater, as Mexican food like you’ve never had Mexican food. Each dish in the five-course tasting menu served twice-nightly is an homage to the cuisine’s indigenous roots, as the storytellers-cum-servers eloquently explain. “We get to share our culture, our history, in every beautiful dish prepared by our team,” co-owner Angel Medina proudly describes in a soaring video, “a bridge to a conversation, a marriage of the old world and new world.” The five-course menu changes daily, to allow for changes in local ingredients, caches of the day, and chef’s creativity. It’s hard to imagine what a bad night might look like.
UNDER THE RADAR
The casual ambience of this seafood market expanded into a first-come, first-serve dine-”in” offering (most of the seating is outdoors) belies just how good the grub is, built on a foundation of some of the freshest, most sustainable fish, oysters and shellfish in the city. Almost daily, the restaurant publishes “The Fresh List,” littered with “wild” and “Pacific Ocean” in most descriptors and farm-raised only when it’s a sustainable option, like the Ora King Salmon from New Zealand or the steelhead from Washington. There’s sushi-grade ahi and ono, eight different kind of Pacific Northwest oysters available at any given time and preparations that never mask the potent flavors, whether it’s the Caesar salad with pine nut-anchovy dressing, the sockeye salmon poke or the Ora King salmon crudo. The oyster platters are a must.
ONE FOR THE FEED
It’s not often you’ll find a restaurant of any stripe inside an outdoor gear and clothing store, so you’d be forgiven for assuming the Japanese izakaya Takibi tucked into Snow Peak’s U.S. flagship store is an Ikea-style gimmick, snacks to keep shoppers satiated while they ogle the brand’s stylish apparel, bombproof stoves and tents. But the food at Takibi is leaps and bounds above an afterthought, from the charcoal grilled black cod with chickpea miso to the sweet shoyu marinated McFarland trout, it’s creatively envisioned both as nosh and work of art. With cocktails from a bar Esquire named one of the top 25 in the U.S., it’s perfect for the Instagram set.
Ten years ago, it was Beast or Renata or Le Pigeon that ruled the “fancy” roost, but with the first two shuttered during the pandemic and the latter a restaurant any Portlander worth her salt should already have visited a few times by now, the place to take your parents (because they’re paying) in 2022 is definitely the live fire restaurant Kann. Top Chef star and James Beard winner Gregory Gourdet built this concept from one of his favorite childhood memories in Haiti, where he’d listen for sugar cane (“kann”) vendors to come by with wheelbarrows overflowing with the freshly-harvested snack. The food is an homage to his Haitian roots and a concerted effort to staff a restaurant with people of color and not just white dudes with interesting facial hair. Kann’s food is unlike anything else Portland has to offer, and that’s saying something in a city with at least one great example of just about every kind of food on the planet. The pekin duck, glazed with cane syrup, pineapple and tamarind, is not to be missed, nor are the peanut-creamed collard greens, or the coal-kissed butterfish.
LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING
“The menu reads like a poem,” as a recent patron to this literally hidden gem in downtown Portland put it, but to get to that poem requires navigating to the right address, swinging open the doors to the the historic Morgan Building on the faith that you’ve found the right place and then traversing a lobby and an interior elevator before emerging at Tercet’s front doors. Before the pandemic, this space housed Roe, another excellent prix fixe restaurant where head Chef John Conlin whipped up Michelin-worthy seafood-based creations. Tercet is Conlin’s chance to write his own story — or poem. (Tercet means three lines of poetry!) And the tasting menu ($150) is a start-to-finish work of art. While it changes daily, you’ll find such gems as kuri swash with albacore, fenugreek and buttermilk vinaigrette to a goat sugo crafted with tagliatelle, fig leaf oil and parmigiano reggiano.
ON THE STREET
The underpinning of Portland’s food scene, the garden in which so many excellent restaurants have sprouted, are its food carts. There are so many exquisite options that choosing a favorite feels impossible. But it’s hard to argue with Desi PDX, a cart on Portland’s chic North Mississippi Ave., which does Indian food so well it’s hard to imagine why anyone bothers with the brick-and-mortar rigamarole. The cardamom Chai chicken is a pound ($13) or two ($24) of Mary’s free range organic drumsticks, tea brine, tea steamed then deep-fried, tea glazed and finished with cardamom salt. The aloo kaddu chaat is a nicely spicy green and tamarind date chutney atop crispy potatoes, chaat masala, fried winter squash and tandoori yogurt. Rounding out the menu are a series of bowls and plates crafted from chicken tikka, Fenugreek marinated shrimp, masala pulled pork, ground Oregon lamb and kale and tempeh, all so good it’s hard to imagine they come from the same tiny kitchen.
Portland dive bar lineup is flagging, as the city “grows up,” but this sleeper of a spot in the proudly gritty neighborhood of St. Johns is still standing, and standing tall. Where the best you can expect from a typical dive bar is a solid burger and fries, Slim’s outdoes itself, the Japanese and Saudi Arabian owners (who met in ESL class in the 1990s) conspiring on everything from delicate Agedashi tofu to red coconut curry since they purchased the restaurant in 2006. The burger is also on the level.