Some might say it’s a “grass is always greener” scenario, but I remain quite enamored with the Portland dining scene. Compared to Seattle, it’s simply a little more experimental, a little edgier, and (partly due to lack of tax) a little less expensive. I still stand by most of the picks in my “Three Delicious Days in Portland” piece from three years ago, though I like to provide an annual look at what’s new (and still noteworthy) each year. Here’s my 2017 report.
It’s always ideal to stay downtown when visiting Portland, which puts you in close proximity to my two favorite wake-up spots: Blue Star Donuts and Courier Coffee. Ah, Blue Star Donuts. I’ve said it before and will say it again: Go to Voodoo to look at the donuts (and perhaps the people buying them), but go to Blue Star to eat the donuts. (Besides, Blue Star’s donuts are also a sight to behold!) Customers come in waves, so it can get crowded, but the donuts are well worth the wait. This time around, I sampled smoked grapefruit and paprika, lemon poppy buttermilk (my favorite of the trio), and matcha latte.
Not far away, and usually far less crowded, you’ll find Courier Coffee Roasters. The atmosphere is no-frills, and that’s fine by me. What counts here is the coffee. There’s always a menu listed several bean choices, with pour-over the preferred way to go. If you can, sit by the record player and do actual coffee talk with the baristas. You’ll learn a lot. You’ll also see that they bake a select number of items on-site. The canelé is one of the best in the Northwest. Pour-over prices are reasonable, as are bags of beans that you can get in various sizes.
For lunch, I checked out three Asian options. Best of the bunch is Hat Yai, the new place from the acclaimed Langbaan crew. If you don’t have a Langbaan budget, this is a great way to explore their bold flavors in an economical way. The fried chicken is simply superb. It’s crispy and comes with sticky rice or curry and roti if you choose the set. But don’t overlook Hat Yai’s other offerings. Everything on the menu is tempting, and I enjoyed the turmeric curry. The bowl contains a generous amount of mussels and herbal essence from betel leaves, and is satisfyingly spicy. Along with jasmine rice, you also get a handful of raw vegetables. (I wish we had something like Hat Yai—and simply more diverse Thai restaurants—in Seattle.)
Unfortunately, my meal at Marukin Ramen disappointed me. Last time to Portland, I picked the wrong day to visit Pine Street Market, as shoyu (my preferred type of ramen) is not on the menu daily. With better planning, I finally got that bowl, but it didn’t live up to the hype. It’s not that the bowl was bad; rather, it was simply bland, lacking in shoyu flavor—reinforcing why this is the type of ramen that is perhaps hardest to get right (and therefore offered the least). I’d suggest AFURI as a better choice for ramen. I’ve enjoyed this place several times in Tokyo, and I’m jealous of its presence in Portland.
The antidote to noodle disappointment at Marukin? It wasn’t far away: a short walk to the Alder Street Food Cart Pod. I’d previously been frustrated by the inconsistent hours at the Noodle House cart, but fortunately they were open in my time of noodle need. Seafood noodles here would hit the spot, chewy and satisfying with some shrimp and even more squid. Nothing fancy, but a pleasant surprise instead of an unpleasant let-down.
The toughest decision of the weekend was whether to choose Coquine or Tusk for my open dinner slot. Coquine is a tough dinner reservation, so it got relegated to my other lunch slot. With a lunchtime focus on soups, salads, and sandwiches, I knew I was likely missing out on the best experience there, but it was a way to give it a try. The experience was a little lackluster, with a number of service issues that I later discussed by email with Coquine’s owner/manager, who welcomed the feedback and in an unsolicited gesture refunded my lunch cost. Flavors were generally good, even if the portions and plating were a little precious. Highlights included roasted beets with blood orange as well as the slow-roasted pork shoulder sandwich, enhanced with housemade sauerkraut and two types of mustard. After holding a famed Coquine chocolate chip cookie (and holding out on my hunger to try it) in hand while awaiting a table (part of the awkward service), I eventually enjoyed it—though I can steer you to other such cookies in Portland and Seattle that I like a little more.
Tusk was one of my two dinners, the night of the Coquine lunch, and upon on-schedule arrival I was greeted with another service glitch. Seems that they gave my table to a walk-in group, with the staff immediately acknowledging the issue and offering a round of free drinks. And when I was willing to accept seats at the bar (perhaps the better choice if you want to avoid having to scream to your dining companion, as the front dining room is very noisy), they were kind in sending out a couple of extra small plates, affirming their quest for quality customer service. Tusk serves up Middle Eastern fare with decreased emphasis on meat. And it’s delicious. I enjoyed my hummus, even if the pita fell a little short of the high bar set by Shaya in New Orleans. The middle section of the menu has a variety of bowls featuring grains, vegetables and fruits; my choice of pears, sunchokes, celery, peanuts, puffed rice and fermented chiles was fascinating (and fantastic!). The best dish of the night, though, was kibbe naya: raw lamb with green wheat, apples, turmeric yogurt, romaine and chips. Wonderful flavors. After a few grilled skewers, I was full—and quite fulfilled.
As for the other dinner slot, it went to SuperBite. I enjoyed an amazing media lunch here at the start of last year’s Feast Portland event, and I was anxious to return for more. Happy hour arrival afforded the opportunity to have a bunch of small bites at bargain pricing, with beef tongue “spam” musubi the highlight with its tender texture and pop of spicy Chinese mustard. Gorgeous (and delicious) was a chicken liver mousse millefeuille with nigella seed phyllo crisps, fresh thyme leaf and fig. From the happy hour menu, Nashville hot cauliflower made me smile with its super spiciness. The chefs impressed me with their grilled koji-marinated pork with seared napa cabbage, smoked scallop xo sauce, bosc pear, peanut and mint (loved the Asian flavors!), and I ended the meal with their double-stack cheeseburger, which combines ground beef and shiitake mushrooms (along with fontina and cheddar cheeses) for an umami punch.
SuperBite is just a stone’s throw from the Sentinel hotel, which was kind to host my two-night stay. Sentinel is the newest Portland property in the Provenance Hotel family, though the building dates back to 1909. It’s worth strolling the building to see the historically famous people depicted in the photo collection, along with other fine artistic touches. I enjoyed a Corner Premier King room complete with a fireplace and large table (in a large space) where I could spread out papers and relax. Or simply look out the window at the action of the Alder Street Food Cart Pod, salivating in anticipation of my next meal.