It’s easy to be envious of the Portland restaurant scene. Sure, there’s a grass-is-greener dynamic at play, and I’m sure that if I was a Portlander planning a weekend getaway to Seattle, I’d find the Emerald City scene just as scintillating. But right now in Portland, everything’s coming up roses. From farming to fishing, there’s a bounty of great products so close to the city. Low rents lead to interesting spaces (including food carts) and lots of intriguing experimentation with food-and drink. Meals can be relatively inexpensive, and yet still creative and of high quality. Craftsmanship and community are important virtues in Portland, helping to build the Portlandia stereotype that’s sometimes laughable but irresistibly lustworthy. While we have phenomenal farmers markets in Seattle, nothing approaches the splendor of Saturdays at the Portland Farmers Market at Portland State University. And then there’s Feast Portland, returning for its third year and again forging a food frenzy that draws both locally and nationally.
Downtown Portland is compact and supremely walkable, enabling easy exploration of its restaurant renaissance. Beyond downtown, some of the better restaurants are out in the unique neighborhoods of the city. Portland’s food scene is quite fluid, with new places opening as quickly as they do here in Seattle. So, where to dine? Based on numerous trips I’ve taken in recent years, here’s a current eating itinerary that will provide pleasure to adventurous and ambitious food lovers seeking satisfaction from breakfast to late-night meals, with snacks and coffee for good measure to fill in the empty stomach spaces.
Start your day with breakfast at the bustling Tasty n Alder, where both small and large plates are global in nature. You can’t go wrong, for example, landing in Korea for a version of that country’s fried chicken with kimchi, or some bim bop bacon and eggs. If you’re looking for something sweet and coffee to follow, my favorite doughnuts in the Pacific Northwest are at nearby Blue Star Donuts, with a menu that ranges from the fantastic Valrhona chocolate crunch to the imaginative blueberry, bourbon & basil. Blue Star serves fine Stumptown coffee, but even better is Courier Coffee, just a few steps away, for a pour-over using a variety of their carefully curated coffee beans.
After exploring Powell’s City of Books (let’s face it, you can spend hours there), it’s back to the street for a stroll through the Alder Street Food Cart Pod (between Southwest Alder and Washington streets, from SW 9th to SW 10th Avenues). There are food cart pods like this throughout Portland, with Alder Street being the biggest downtown, featuring diverse offerings that will make you feel like you’re taking a tour around the world. Recently there’s been food from such far-flung places as Fiji, Romania, Baghdad and the Georgian Republic, but my favorite is the Thai dish from Nong’s Kao Man Gai. Nong is proof of the power of preparing just one item, and making it perfect. Her poached chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth is at once simple and complex. It comes with soup on the side, along with a fermented soybean sauce that packs a lot of punch.
The afternoon allows time to visit the Lan Su Chinese Garden, as well as to do some downtown shopping. Then, for dinner, a decision. Downtown is Little Bird, a French bistro with delectable dishes, such as the amazing charcuterie plate that typically includes an over-the-top foie gras brulee. But if you really like foie, you might consider crossing the Willamette River to dine at Little Bird’s big brother: Le Pigeon. Sit at the counter and let James Beard award winner Gabriel Rucker feed you, but be sure you like meat. Le Pigeon is a carnivore’s paradise, where your meal might start with blood sausage and end with foie gras profiteroles. If, after this gluttony, you’re up for more food, close-by is Biwa. This izakaya is a perfect evening stop for late-night sake and a Japanese small plate or two, though the best deal is the remarkable ramen that’s only $5 from 9-10 at the counter.
While downtown Portland has many delights, it’s time to get out to the neighborhoods for more incredible food, and today is all about Southeast Portland. Breakfast is at Broder, which will transport you to Scandinavia with its Swedish sensibility-and menu items. Try the pytt i panna (Swedish hash) with smoked trout, or the aebleskivers (Danish spherical pancakes) that come with choice of lemon curd, lingonberry jam, homemade applesauce, and maple syrup. Continue the theme by getting coffee at Heart, known for its light, Scandinavian-style roasting. Or try coffee at Coava, inside the beautiful showroom of Bamboo Revolution, where you can sip while checking samples of unique bamboo products.
If you didn’t get enough of Powell’s, indulge your love of food by visiting Powell’s Books for Home and Garden on Hawthorne Boulevard, which has a large concentration of cookbooks and other food-related books. This Powell’s shares location with the Pastaworks gourmet grocery store, where you’ll whet your appetite for lunch at Evoe*, its eat-in space with a chef’s counter. You can watch the chefs shop and prepare the freshest of food for your meal. Soups and salads are special, and sandwiches like the prosciutto panino and little bo peep are worth the trip. For something sweet, travel on to a nearby Salt & Straw scoop shop. I especially recommend the honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper ice cream.
After walking off some calories at Mount Tabor Park, it’s time for another dinner decision. One of my top picks in Portland is Tanuki. This funky izakaya is not for everyone (and it’s certainly not for kids), but the Japanese food with Korean and other Asian influences is superb, and there’s a wide variety of shochu and sake to pair with your reasonably-priced omakase (chef’s choice tasting menu, again the best way to go) meal. Flavors are bold and brilliant. For an alternative tasting menu, leave Southeast for Northeast Portland and try Toro Bravo. Here, $30 buys a filling number of Spanish-style tapas. Be sure to request a French kiss: a brandy-soaked prune stuffed with foie gras.
My late-night pick in Southeast is the Whiskey Soda Lounge. It’s across the street from Pok Pok, serving the same legendary Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings without a wait in long lines. Whiskey Soda Lounge has a Thai street food feel, with drinking vinegars available for those not consuming alcohol.
Today takes you further afield to a hodgepodge of places, starting with a top pick of many Portland chefs: HA&VL. The sign touts Vietnamese sandwiches, but the soups are what really shine here. Seattle has lots of pho joints, but HA&VL is special in offering a different Vietnamese soup daily, with two choices on weekends. They’re so good that you’ll want to taste all of them.
For your coffee break, try Sterling, a microroaster with a tiny but charming, dollhouse-like shop. This puts you in the charming Pearl District with its stylish boutiques and galleries, and then it’s easy to walk back downtown to Lardo for lunch. The sandwiches are great (look for both porchetta and the Vietnamese banh mi), and are even better with a side of dirty fries-amped up with pork scraps, marinated peppers, fried herbs, and parmesan. After these savories, walk to the new Maurice for dessert. I recommend it sight unseen (it’s opened since my last visit to Portland, and will be my first stop when I return!), as I know that Kristen Murray’s treats are spectacular. She’s unique in wisely incorporating savory elements to some of her sweets, as in the black pepper cheesecake.
After an afternoon in nature (perhaps a trip to Multnomah Falls and some hiking in the area?), it’s off to Ox for dinner. Here, Argentina meets Portland with amazingly grilled meats and more from the impressive Infierno. The “Asado Argentino for 2″ is a good choice, as it gets you short ribs, house chorizo and morcilla, sausages, skirt steak, sweetbreads, fried potatoes, and green salad. (Be sure to leave room for some fabulous dessert.) Ox offers a feast, but if you still have room, come back downtown to Oven & Shaker for late-night happy hour pizza to ward off the midnight munchies. Then head over to the rooftop deck at Departure for a nightcap-and maybe some final Asian bites? Here you’ll enjoy stellar views of the city, making you reflect upon your stay and perhaps plot your return to the food mecca known as Portland.
[Note: For restaurants not represented by photographs here, do a website search or check the Gastrolust archive for Portland for more information.]
*Sadly, Evoe is now closed.