In America’s darling of the dining scene, the world lands on your fork
written by Julie Lee
When the culinary scene in Portland amped up in the early 2000s, the keystone to international recognition was flavorful dishes that chefs created which were ingenious to anywhere but the Northwest. The secret to the recipe, though, was the collective passion to source local ingredients.
Of the more renowned chefs, Andy Ricker became internationally famous for what he could do with a chicken wing. Pok Pok was one of the first of many foodie favorites that started as a food truck, garnered international acclaim, and put Portland front and center on the gastronomic map for occasional diners and food snobs alike.
In the pandemic’s wake, the restaurant industry has suffered dearly, with decades of hard work and fame wiped out. While Portland lost some renowned chefs including Ricker, many food carts, restaurants and marketplaces are making it—serving up homage to heritage, offering a globe’s worth of authentic, diverse dishes. And that’s cause for celebration.
Here’s an invitation to the party. Consider this an amuse bouche—hardly an exhaustive list. We promise some greats are left for you to discover, too.
When the authors of Modernist Pizza deemed Portland the best pizza in America, Portlandia and New Yorkers alike went bonkers. Senti, amici: the Italian scene in Portland is fierce with competition with too many worthy entries to list, so here are just a few must-tries.
Simple is best, and owner Michael Cronin’s motto of “simple Italian cooking” proves it. Cronin is a long-hauler in the restaurant game, weathering many ups and downs in the past two decades, so when he realized this pandemic might be years not months, he got busy. Cronin has a mini-empire with three restaurants, so for his Northwest 21st locations, he played his hand and built an outdoor seating area for Bar Mingo, and turned Caffe Mingo into The Mercato, a European-style café and market. He played the cat-and-mouse game with openings and closings as dictated by the state with his Mingo in Beaverton. All locations are now thriving and healthy.
This longtime favorite recently reopened to the applause of the foodie community, offering seasonal multi-course seatings on select evenings. Newer to the scene is next-door sister restaurant Cicoria Pizzeria, with indoor and outdoor seating, a bar and award-worthy pizza.
Cathy Whims is a mainstay in the original rat pack of award-winning Portland chefs, and she has stuck it out through these pandemic years, luckily for us. With fresh mozzarella made daily, handmade gnocchi, and a Neapolitan pie that landed national accolades, Nostrana is l’ultimo.
DON’T MISS: Allora, Gilda’s Italian Restaurant & Lounge, Serratto Restaurant and Bar, DeCarli Restaurant, Gino’s, Piazza Italia, and if great pies are your thing: Apizza Scholls, Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Red Sauce Pizza and Lovely’s Fifty Fifty.
With so many heralded Vietnamese restaurants in Portland and surrounding areas, it’s hard to choose. So, we tapped the expertise of local Vietnamese food aficionado Hà Tống for a short list of authentic favorites.
For vegetarians, Mama Dút is the spot, serving gluten free and inspired vegan dishes. Named after a beloved, frequent dialogue between owner Thuy Pham and her daughter Kinsley, Mama Dút literally means “mama will feed you.”
Tân Tân Café & Delicatessen
This gem in Beaverton is well known for its extensive variety of authentic soups and rice dishes. “Be sure to try the vermicelli, and save room for crepes,” said Tống. This family-owned, local favorite launched a line of locally made Vietnamese sauces based on family recipes, including peanut sauce, Hoisin and the seriously popular Mom’s Hot Chili Sauce.
According to Tống, “Phở soup is a staple in Vietnamese culture, and Phở Oregon is a favorite—phở soups here are a good size and delicious.” Phở Oregon has nearly 100 menu items, so there is something for every taste.
Ha’ VL + Rose VL Deli
Ha’ VL is perhaps the most well-known and therefore worst kept secret in town for delicious Vietnamese food. Family patriarch William Vuong once worked for the CIA, and his American connections landed him in a Vietnamese prison for a decade. Now, his son Peter Vuong runs point as chef in a family business that has accumulated high fives from food writers across the country. Plan to arrive early or even line up before opening to strike gold and get a legendary, piping bowl of their daily soup, or if luck fails, head to nearby sister restaurant Rose VL Deli.
Mekha on Sandy Boulevard in Portland has the best Phnom Penh noodle soup (with rice or egg noodles), according to Tống. “Also good here is the crispy chicken with fish sauce,” she said. MeKha makes a fresh batch of broth daily and has a second location in the city on SE Division Street.
Utopia Restaurant and Lounge
If you crave a top notch spicy noodle soup (bun bo hue), fried rice, crispy chicken and cháo long (a traditional Vietnamese rice soup made with pork organ meats), you’ll reach utopia here. The setting is straightforward, and cred comes with a menu that has English translations in parentheses.
Phở Van is one of the originals in Portland, well known in the Vietnamese community but with food that leans toward a more American taste. “Ambiance is nice though, and they boast a very flavorful grilled fish,” said Tống.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Bambu Desserts & Drinks, Bui Natural Tofu, Cuốn (pronounced “coon”)—Vietnamese Street Food, Best Baguette and Banh Mi Up.
The New York Times inducted Portland as one of two cities (Los Angeles is the other) that stirred up America’s Thai food rebirth. With notable chefs such as Earl Ninsom, Nong Poonsukwattana and Andy Ricker showering the city with inspired Thai dishes for decades, Portland is blessed with a residual rainfall of great food carts and restaurants.
We weren’t sure which category to put Aji Tram under, as it’s the best example of Asian fusion to hit the Portland area, well, ever. Owner Eric Mann and his team blend tastes from diverse cultures to great ends. Off the beaten path in Lake Oswego, with stylish décor that isn’t overdone, Aji Tram is one of those restaurants you want to go steady with after the first date.
Tucked away in a strip mall near Ida B. Wells High School, City Thai is a linchpin for delicious Thai cuisine that isn’t overplayed. Simple, fresh, classic dishes grace the menu, and the pad Thai is a must.
The Goose Hollow neighborhood in Southwest Portland boasts one of the city’s best Thai restaurants. It’s a tiny spot with big flavors. Favorites here include holy crab as well as basil belly, a deep fried and roasted pork belly.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Thai Peacock, Langbaan, E-San Thai Cuisine, Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Fish Sauce, Tara Thai Northwest and Somtum Thai Kitchen.
Portland has a Mexican food scene that’s all it’s own, and it indisputably offers something for everyone. Traditional Mexican fare? Yes. Uber fancy Mexican cuisine for foodies? Totalmente. And everything in between.
The Matador intersects style and deliciously spicy as well as one of the last great happy hours in these pandemic years. They drew a line in the sandbox years ago by being a 21-and-over venue that isn’t dark and reeking of 1980’s stale smoke. The lineup of house-made margaritas is worth ticking down one at a time (in multiple visits if absolutely necessary). Two locations, one east side and one west side, for those who like to avoid bridges.
¿Por Qué No?
The perpetual lines out the doors of both locations are for three good reasons: tacos, tacos and tacos. Carnitas, pollo verde, carne asada, barbacoa, whatever fills your homemade organic corn tortilla, it evokes one word: más. Great catering options here too.
Tienda Y Panaderia Santa Cruz #2
When seeking authentic Mexican food, Tienda Y Panaderia Santa Cruz #2 cannot be left off the list. Located inside the back of a grocery store stocked with Mexican pastries and piñatas, this is a go-to for tacos, tamales and weekend specials like menudo, a traditional Mexican soup made with tripe.
ALSO WORTH VISITING: Chez José, Taqueria Nueve, Nuestra Cocina, Verde Cocina, Tehuana Oaxacan Cuisine, Raul’s Family Mexican Restaurant (great catering options here), Nacho’s House Mexican Kitchen.
The Japanese community in Portland dates back about two centuries. That history, along with a mutual love affair between the Rose City and Sapporo, its sister city of fifty years, inspires some fantastic Japanese dining experiences.
Bamboo Sushi took Portland by storm, introducing multiple locations in a few short years and shifting paradigms with a hard stance on sustainable sourcing, becoming the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant in 2008. Since then, it’s been through an owner change and some hard hit times during the pandemic, however the signature sushi rolls are still best in show. Five locations in all corners of Portland and Lake Oswego uphold the same standards, with great gluten free options, too.
This downtown Portland establishment has earned an enthusiastic fan base with its dedication to demanding the freshest ingredients.
ALSO TO VISIT: Momoyama Restaurant, Afuri Izakaya, Obon Shokudo, Ichiban, Fish & Rice, Zenbu Lounge, Tokyo Sando, Shigezo Izakaya.
MORE FROM AROUND THE GLOBE
If you are craving anything from just about any continent, Portland provides.
Nicholas Restaurant (LEBANESE)
Nicholas Restaurant is, by all accounts, the city’s first Middle Eastern restaurant. Established in 1985 before most foodies had heard of Portland, Nicholas Restaurant opened with a tiny location on SE Grand Avenue and has since grown into an empire, with a beautiful, newer location on SE Madison Street (be sure to check out the bar), and others in Gresham and downtown Portland. The kabobs are delish.
Gloria’s Secret Café (SALVADORAN)
Beaverton’s secret has been out a long time—Gloria’s Secret Cafe is a destination for anyone craving authentic Salvadoran food. Gloria herself cooks whatever she’s inspired to put on the menu, of this cash only, limited-table haunt, a staple.
ALSO TRY: Boriken Restaurant (Puerto Rican), Tango Crab (Chinese, Seafood), East India Co. (Indian), Two Brothers Rakia Bar + Grill (Mediterranean, Balkan), Top Burmese Bistro Royale (Burmese, served by robots), Pelmeni Pelmeni (Ukrainian), Kachka (Russian), Urdaneta (Basque & Spanish tapas)
Marketplaces are a fun way to explore the globe and enjoy imported beverages, mains and desserts under one roof. Portland and the surrounding areas have many options rich with around-the-world bites and sips.
Nicoletta’s Table and Marketplace
Dine in or take out options are abundant here, with fresh ingredients sourced directly from Italy. The patio lets you imagine you’re at a Trastevere trattoria on non-rainy days, and inside, the warm ambiance includes a terrific bar. Do both—eat there, then home something for later.
Citymaxx Food Stores
Authentic Eastern European foods at Citymaxx on SE 122nd Avenue can be taken out or enjoyed in a dining area surrounded by aisles and aisles of intriguing goods.
ALSO CHECK OUT: Izobilie Euro Foods, Barbur World Foods, Imperial Euro Market, Uwajimaya Beaverton, Fubonn Shopping Center, Hong Phat Food Center, Edelweiss Sausage & Delicatessen