Portland Cheap Eats: 10 Great Dishes Under $10


[Photographs: Mai Lynn Miller Nguyen]

In Portland, you can have your cake and afford it, too. Not only does the Oregon city rank high in the quality and creativity of its food, but prices are relatively easy on the wallet. Just ask the ex-New Yorkers and San Franciscans who have migrated in search of more economical lifestyles. Long-term Portlanders bemoan the days when money stretched even further, but there's still plenty of bang for our buck.

For those looking to dine on the cheap, the city's countless food carts provide the obvious solution. But there's also no shortage of sit-down places with stellar dishes for under $10. Good value can be found all over the city, including table-side at some of Portland's most celebrated restaurants. In fact, the difficulty isn't in seeking out bargains, but rather narrowing down the bounty of options. Here are ten of our favorites.

Oatmeal from Canteen

On Portland's snowiest day in years, I trekked for half an hour to reach Canteen in time for breakfast. That's how addictive this oatmeal is. I grew up on microwavable Quaker Oats, with a bit of brown sugar and a pat of butter. My feelings toward oatmeal were much like its temperature: lukewarm. But Canteen made me reevaluate that indifference. The vegetarian café adds goji berries, currants, cacao nibs, and hazelnuts, for a crunchy, chewy texture, with sweetness from fresh strawberries, a splash of coconut cream, and some maple syrup. Unlike the watery oats of my childhood, this $5 version is robust enough to fuel me for hours—even a blizzard can't keep me away.

Croque Portobello from Ken's Artisan Bakery

You can't discuss bread in Portland without mentioning Ken Forkish. Author of national bestseller Flour Water Salt Yeast, Forkish offers the finesse of a European bakery in Portland's own backyard. Ken's Artisan Bakery offers expertly crafted breads by the loaf, as well as sandwiches that highlight his baked goods. The country bread used in the Croque Portobello ($9) has a faintly sweet airy, chewy interior, covered by a firm, browned crust. A vegetarian reinvention of the croque monsieur, the sandwich is served open-face, topped with portobello slices, sharp Gruyère, and creamy fromage blanc, with a finishing sprinkle of fresh thyme.

Turmeric Soup from Ha VL

If you think that beef pho is all that the Vietnamese kitchen has to offer, Ha VL will prove you so very wrong. From the outside, Ha VL looks like any other Vietnamese family-run joint along 82nd Avenue. But not every place has its walls and tables plastered with rhapsodic food reviews. The restaurant owes that acclaim to its noodle soups, which come in two different daily options. My soup of choice is served on Sundays; laden with several cuts of pork and shrimp, the Mi Quang comes with golden turmeric rice noodles, a tart pork broth, crushed peanuts, and a crisp sesame rice cracker. Ingredients are collected from the markets daily, and its evident in the soup's vivid flavor. At $9, the dish is one dollar more than the other soups, but the amount of meat and shrimp makes it a great value for carnivores.

Khao Man Gai from Nong's Khao Man Gai

The chicken and rice dish at Nong's Khao Man Gai draws a steady congregation of office workers and food critics alike. A full-service restaurant is in the works, but Thailand-born Nong Poonsukwattana's present empire includes two food carts and a takeout storefront. Inside the cozy storefront, Thai music crackles from the speakers and bright plastic stools evoke the essence of a Bangkok street stall. Although the menu includes pork and tofu additions, the classic Khao Man Gai ($8) is still the star. Boiled, tender chicken with ambrosial Jasmine rice and a tangy ginger sauce, this is Thai simplicity at its best. Everyone raves about the sauce, but for me, it's all about the rice, cooked in chicken fat and stock with garlic, ginger, galangal, shallots, and pandan accents.

Supra Plate from Kargi Gogo

In the southeast European country of Georgia, a supra is a feast which draws friends and family together for an abundance of food and drink. Traditional supras may be hard to come by in Portland, but the Kargi Gogo food cart offers a quick fix. Run by two former Georgia-based Peace Corps volunteers, the cart serves a selection of their favorite street foods made with imported Georgian spices. Sample everything with a Supra Plate ($8), featuring Khachapuri cheese bread, Lobiani bean, and onion bread, Badrijani eggplant rolls with garlic and walnut purée, garlicky tomato and cucumber village salad, and juicy beef and pork dumplings. Vegetarians can skip the Khinkali dumplings for larger vegetable portions. Amongst the medley of flavors, the puffy quesadilla-like Khachapuri stands out for its oozing sulguni and feta cheese stuffed into a thin crust. Even without a full supra gathering, the rich taste is a celebration in itself.

"Tuscan Cavalry" Salad from Roman Candle

Oh, kale. You've become ubiquitous—especially in health-conscious Portland—but you never fail to delight me. At a href="http://www.romancandlebaking.com" target="_blank">Roman Candle, the latest venture from Stumptown Coffee founder Duane Sorenson, the uncomplicated take on a kale salad is a beautiful thing. Curly leaves of cavolo nero, otherwise known as Tuscan kale, are served raw. Garlicky breadcrumbs and a light dusting of SarVecchio cheese provide gentle enhancements, while chili flakes and a squeeze of lemon deliver a spicy, zesty finish. The fresh ingredients speak for themselves, with a collective effect that's anything but underwhelming. Created at celebrated sister restaurant Ava Gene's, located right next door, the salad's lower price of $7 on the Roman Candle lunchtime menu makes for a relative steal.

Kati Roll from Bollywood Theater

Though I'd dabbled in samosas and tandoori chicken, my travels in India broadened my culinary horizons beyond anything I'd tried in America. Luckily, Bollywood Theater has reunited me with some of my favorite Indian discoveries. On the menu of Mumbai street food dishes, the Kati Roll ($8) is the unofficial signature dish, and for good reason. Flaky paratha flatbread is stuffed with beef, chicken, or paneer cheese, then rolled together with egg, chutney, and pickled onions. The piquant spices are a challenge to faint palates, but mild yogurt sauce tones it down. And with the recent opening of Bollywood Theatre's Southeast location, Portlanders now have double the opportunity to give it a try; like the Northeast original, the space captures the aesthetic experience of India, with metal plates and cups, colorful knickknacks, and faded Bollywood film posters.

Vegetarian Key Wot from Enat Kitchen

Situated on a block of North African restaurants near Portland State University's eastern campus, Enat Kitchen stands out for its consistent, well-spiced cuisine. Newbies to Ethiopian food need not hesitate—the family-owned restaurant's menu provides dish descriptions and its servers are willing to elaborate even further. The foundation of Ethiopian food is the wots, traditional stews featuring either meat or vegetables. Although it's best to eat family-style with a group, my favorite individual item is the vegetarian Miser Key Wot ($9). Ginger, garlic, onion, and berbere chili powder add a kick to the stewed lentils. The fun part is eating with your hands, tearing off strips of the spongey teff grain and barley crêpe known as injera, and scooping up the assertively seasoned wot.

Meatball Hero from 24th & Meatballs

Elementary school humor never gets old. The cheeky puns painted on the walls of the 24th & Meatballs micro restaurant are guaranteed to raise a few snickers—"Portland's Tastiest Balls!," for instance. But jokes aside, these meatballs are indeed the real deal. Customers have the option to choose just how they want their, erm, balls, with options for type of meat and sauce. The most popular serving is the Hero Sandwich ($8.50), with three classic Italian meatballs, melted cheese, and tomato sauce that leave little to argue with. For a more atypical combination, add the walnut pesto sauce, which brings a lighter dressing to the hefty veal, beef, and pork meatballs. Soft inside and slightly brittle on the outside, the thick bun calls for big bites. No matter your age, eating meatballs always summons a childish joy.

Abituale Pasta from La Buca

The Abituale pasta has been my go-to at La Buca since even before I realized the name fittingly translates to "habitual" in Italian. One of Portland's perennially popular neighborhood restaurants, La Buca has been serving casual Italian classics for over 15 years. Although I've sampled many a bite of my dining companions' orders and found each of them tempting, I continue to come back to the Abituale ($9.50). The combination of spicy Italian sausage, roasted garlic, Parmesan, and tomato cream sauce is unpretentious but never dull. Cooked to a perfect al dente, the penne is doused in just enough sauce that each noodle is coated, not drowned. It's the type of straightforward comfort food that you might be able to recreate at home, but you're happy you don't have to.