A Chefs' Guide to Eating Out in Portland, Oregon

Tusk, Portland

Dina Avila

Compared with cities like New York and Los Angeles, Portland, Oregon, is relatively small—which only makes its sheer density of destination-worthy restaurants more impressive. Where else can you find a spot for Russian comfort food, a fabulous Thai tasting menu behind a secret door in another restaurant, and pizza made with freshly milled local flour, all in the span of a few miles? There are so many renowned places to eat, including breweries and fine-dining establishments, that even locals have trouble deciding where to sit down for their next meal.

Since you can’t try them all without picking up and moving to the City of Roses (which, honestly, you wouldn’t be crazy for considering!), we’ve turned to a few experts to point out some tried-and-true neighborhood gems. 

We polled seven knowledgeable chefs—Carlo Lamagna of brand-new Filipino destination Magna; Sam Smith of upscale Middle Eastern restaurant Tusk; Bonnie Morales, the chef-owner of Russian restaurants Kachka and Kachinka; Nong Poonsukwattana of Nong’s Khao Man Gai; Katy Millard of celebrated French restaurant Coquine; Maya Lovelace of Southern restaurants Mae and Yonder; and Earl Ninsom of beloved Thai hot spots Langbaan, Hat Yai, PaaDee, and new Thai/American barbecue mash-up Eem—to learn their favorite places to eat and drink in Portland. 

Below, you'll find their picks for late-night eats, which are shockingly hard to come by in Portland (and yet the dive-bar fried chicken couldn't sound better); excellent cocktails, un-shockingly very easy to come by in Portland (we’re making a beeline to the sunken bar at tiki lounge Hale Pele...right after we check out the rare bottles at Scotch Lodge and natty wines at Sardine Head); splurge-worthy menus; and the dish you can't leave town without trying. Spoiler alert: This last one was the hardest for everyone to answer, because, well, the options are just that good. 

Best Late-Night Eats

Seems like the entire city of Portland turns into a pumpkin around 11:45 p.m....with the exception of these inviting late-night options. 

Lúc Lác Vietnamese Kitchen

Luc Lac
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Portland isn’t like New York, where you have a lot of places open 24 hours. But Lúc Lác is open until midnight on weeknights, and until 4 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. It's a very nice, cozy, modern family-run Vietnamese restaurant and bar with great recipes.

My favorite dish is the combination vermicelli bowl. Vermicelli bowls are called bún, and the combination bún comes with grilled shrimp, grilled chicken, barbecued pork, and fried rolls on top. My favorite part is the fried roll—I don't know what's in the stuffing, but it has a sweet and salty flavor and nice texture. I eat Vietnamese food a lot, and Lúc Lác makes the best bún, hands down.

—  Nong Poonsukwattana, Chef-owner of Nong’s Khao Man Gai

Lúc Lác Vietnamese Kitchen, 835 SW 2nd Ave, Portland, OR   97204, 503-222-0047

Expatriate

Expatriate
Photograph: Dina Avila.

I think Expatriate has the best cheeseburger in the city, or at least one of them. They call it the American Standard, and it's really simple. You actually get two of them to an order—they're a little bit bigger than sliders—with just ketchup, mustard, onion, and American cheese on these nice, tiny, soft buns. 

But the menu’s really inventive: They also do a steamed pork bun called "Who the Fuck Is David Chang?" that’s pretty great (they're friends with him, so it's not an actual dis). There’s an awesome shrimp toast, and a tea leaf salad. And after 10 p.m., the thing to get is their Expatriate Nachos, which are wonton chips with Thai chili cheese sauce and lemongrass beef. 

They keep it really dark in there, which I like, and all they play is records, so whoever’s bartending is basically curating the vibe for the space based on what type of music they're picking. The cocktails change fairly often, but there's always a really good mix of boozy options and ones that more or less taste like fruit punch, with some fun ingredients. They have a decent wine list as well. It's mostly a bar, but the kitchen's definitely legit. I like it because you can go and get a salad, but you can also just get a big plate of sloppy nachos if you're feeling kind of gross. It's a good mix. 

—  Sam Smith, Chef of Tusk

Expatriate, 5424 NE 30th Avenue, Portland, OR   97211, 503-805-3750

Reel M Inn

Reel M Inn
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Reel M Inn is basically a late-night dive bar that has awesome fried chicken. That's all they do. They have corn dogs and things like that, too, but the fried chicken is what you go for. It’s one of the few places that are open super late in Portland and don't offer the usual burgers and fries and stuff. For the longest time, they've been cranking out great food at an affordable price for us late-night cooks who have no place to go after work.

It's dark, and there's a lot of handwritten notes all over the entire place, from head to toe, basically. There's only one bartender that works at a time, and that bartender also fries the food, buses tables, serves drinks—does everything. They're pretty amazing. Honestly, they just know how to do it. The chicken is super simple. They don't share their secrets, but it is one of the best. It’s just super juicy inside and crispy on the outside.

—  Carlo Lamagna, Chef-owner of Magna

Reel M Inn, 2430 SE Division Street, Portland, OR   97202, 503-231-3880

Best Drinks

In a city saturated with cool bars, you’ll almost have a hard time finding a bad drink. But these four spots offer something extra special. 

Sardine Head

Sardine Head
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Sardine Head used to be a pop-up, but now it resides in a neighborhood café called Sweedeedee. At night, it’s a wine bar with light bites and actual table service, but during the day, it's just a pastry case and a counter with breakfast-y food, and very casual. 

The food at Sardine Head is Mediterranean-inspired, with a really nice selection of cured fish that they serve with bread and French cultured butter and salt. There are pickle-y things, and snacks like deviled eggs and baby-corn elotes. The wine program is headed up by a guy named Simon Lowry, who I think is kind of a genius. His sense of hospitality is also really spot-on, and he curates a really nice, comfortable experience, without making anything feel stuffy or over the top. He's really smart with flavors and with wine, and is just an encyclopedia. 

The wine list is really nicely put together, in that it includes the variety and the name of the wine, and then a quirky, funny, witty description. Sometimes it will be tasting notes, or a metaphor that compares the wine to a song or a band he really likes. 

—  Katy Millard, Chef and co-owner of Coquine

Sardine Head, 5202 N Albina Ave, Portland, OR   97217, 503-209-2091

Eem

Eem
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Eem is this delicious mash-up of Thai food and American barbecue. The food is super fresh and super vibrant—combining deep smokiness and long-cooked meats with Thai flavors and cooking traditions adds a deep base note of intensity to the food. They also have lots of really fun cocktails, including the best piña colada I've ever had in my entire life. I actually just had one yesterday, and I'm still reeling from how wonderful it was. 

Eem is also a great place to be able to go and get, like, a bomb nonalcoholic drink and still feel like you're celebrating and having something fancy. The other drink of theirs that I've really been enjoying lately is one that's called "Drugs"; it's a combination of bitter pineapple, coffee, rum, coconut, and orange. 

It's always really, really busy, and kind of loud—it's popping. The food comes out really quickly. The drinks come in ridiculous tiki vessels or bowls. And it definitely feels like a party. It’s a very celebratory atmosphere. On nights when I want to be around a lot of energy, it's really fun to go there.

—  Maya Lovelace, Chef-owner of Mae and Yonder

Eem, 3808 N Williams Ave st 127, Portland, OR   97227, 971-295-1645

Hale Pele

Hale Pele
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Everything about Hale Pele makes me happy. The atmosphere is really unique, with tons of vintage tiki touches—even a sunken bar. The drinks are a great mix of classic tiki cocktails, like mai tais and piña coladas, and modern creations original to the bar, like the Tico Tico (cachaça, pineapple, lime, curaçao, and ginger). Lots of the drinks come flaming, and they throw cinnamon on the flames, so the room always has an aroma of toasty cinnamon.

The menu includes a diagram of what each cocktail looks like, which is a really nice touch. I always try something different, so I don't necessarily have a go-to, but the Krakatoa is one I've come back to a few times. It's a really fun combination of tropical flavors, with some coffee for balance—it’s a blend of rums, grapefruit, cinnamon, and cold-brew coffee. I also like Three Dots and a Dash, which is a classic cocktail that’s really rum-forward, with a blend of rums, allspice, honey, and citrus. 

Speaking of which, they have this Rum Club you can join, where you can learn all about all the different rums out there. There’s a private booth in the back, under a thatched roof, that’s perfect for larger groups; it's called the Chieftain's Hut, and it makes for a really special night out.

—  Bonnie Morales, Chef and co-owner of Kachka and Kachinka

Hale Pele, 2733 NE Broadway St, Portland, OR   97232, 503-662-8454

Scotch Lodge

Scotch Lodge
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Scotch Lodge is sort of a hidden location. It’s a speakeasy—it feels like you’re walking down into a basement, and there’s no sign, and it looks closed up from the outside. But if you know it, you know. It was opened by one of the best bartenders in the city, Tommy Klus. He’s been collecting Scotch for a long time—you really can’t find anything like his collection anywhere else in the country. He travels the world personally collecting Scotch-style whisky for his bar, and you can have classic cocktails made with your choice of cheaper or very, very rare Scotch.

—  Earl Ninsom, Chef-owner of LangbaanHat YaiPaaDee, and Eem

Scotch Lodge, 215 SE 9th Ave Suite #102, Portland, OR   97214, 503-208-2039

Best Brunch

Start your day with dim sum, classic French, or Mediterranean meze.

HK Cafe

HK Cafe
Photograph: Dina Avila.

HK Cafe is a Chinese restaurant that serves great dim sum. They're open early, like 9:30 a.m. On the weekend, it's really busy. The vibe is really loud and vibrant and fun. Portland isn’t known for its diversity, but when you go to HK Cafe, it’s all Asian people and Asian families.

When I go for dim sum, I usually order the siu mai, which is a wonton wrapper stuffed with ground pork and shrimp, and the har gow is also nice. I like the barbecue spareribs, and the chicken feet are really good. It’s a really authentic place, and everything is made super fresh.

—  Nong Poonsukwattana

HK Cafe, 4410 SE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR   97266, 503-771-8866

Cameo Café

Cameo Café
Photograph: Dina Avila.

I'm a huge, huge fan of a greasy-spoon, hole-in-the-wall-type diner. This place is actually near my house; I discovered it driving around one day when I was looking for breakfast/brunch. It's like walking into Grandma's house, if your grandma happens to be an older Korean lady. When you look at the menu, you’ll see the typical diner stuff, but then you’ll also see things like a galbi or kimchi omelette. 

It's just this perfect mix of down-home American diner food, with touches of Korean flavor. Their crab and shrimp omelette is huge and so good. They call their bread "strong bread." I have no clue what it is, but it's delicious. Think of it like whole-grain bread on steroids. Everything’s made in-house, and it's all phenomenal. 

—  Carlo Lamagna

Cameo Café, 8111 NE Sandy Boulevard, Portland, OR   97213, 503-284-0401

Tusk

Tusk
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Tusk is a very stylish, modern restaurant that focuses on flavors of the Levant, but expressed through the Northwest's most beautiful produce. Everything is so fresh. I think that it’s best enjoyed during the day, because of the abundance of natural light that floods into the modern dining room through large windows on two sides. 

The brunch menu changes quite a bit, but I always get the LaMama breakfast, which is a breakfast board with a little bit of this and that—things like olives, feta, eggs, yogurt, toast, nuts, and fruit—or The Cypriot, which is sunny-side up eggs, halloumi, sausage, peppers, and roasted tomato, because I just can't get enough halloumi in my life. Another really nice touch is that the creamer for coffee has cardamom in it, which makes a morning there that much more special.

—  Bonnie Morales

Tusk, 2448 E Burnside Street, Portland, OR   97214, 503-894-8082

Coquine

Coquine
Photograph: Dina Avila.

I'd go to Coquine for brunch any day; you can’t go wrong. The chef, Katy Millard, worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in San Francisco and France, and she's one of the best chefs in the city. Her menu looks simple, but it’s very creative. Even something like a simple Little Gem salad gets a twist. 

It’s influenced daily or weekly by whatever's local and seasonal, so the menu's always changing, but I've really liked brunch dishes like grits with roast vegetables and pork ribeye. She served that with house-made sriracha.

Honestly, anything you order off the menu is going to be great. It’s a small place, probably 30 seats or fewer. During the summer, she has a patio open, too, that adds maybe six or seven more tables. Outside is perfect, not too hot or sunny, and it’s right next to Mount Tabor Park. So you can walk up the mountain to enjoy some nature after the meal, or come to the restaurant after walking.

—  Earl Ninsom

Coquine, 6839 SE Belmont Street, Portland, OR   97215, 503-384-2483

Best Splurge

"Splurge" means different things to different people, but price tag aside, these four spots are all great choices for a celebratory meal. 

Erizo

Erizo
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Erizo is a really fantastic restaurant. They do a 20-ish-course tasting menu that’s focused on sustainable seafood from the Oregon and Washington coast. They have foraging and fishing licenses, so at the beginning of every week, the two owners go out to the coast and forage limpets, different kinds of barnacles, and other things you can’t actually buy. So they have this great, ever-changing cast of weird sea creatures that they prepare for you. A lot of it's raw, but there's also a lot of fermentation. They make a lot of different garums, which are basically fish sauces, with all these different ingredients. 

They bring some really cool local produce into play, but overall, it's very shellfish- and seafood-heavy. The atmosphere there is very, very clean. It has a cork floor, a lot of clean white and wood, and it's just this lovely, quiet, calm atmosphere for you to devour delicious sea creatures and drink amazing wines. It's really rad. They're doing something that I've never seen anywhere before. The closest thing that I could compare it to would be Willows Inn up in Washington. It's just really fascinating stuff.

—  Maya Lovelace

Erizo, 215 SE 9th Ave Suite #101, Portland, OR   97214, 503-206-8619 [closed]

Langbaan

Langbaan
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Earl Ninsom has a few excellent Thai places in town, including PaaDee and Hat Yai. Langbaan is tasting-menu-only, and you enter the space through PaaDee. You walk around the back, and a bookshelf opens up, and you go through that, and it goes into this tiny tasting-room area. He always has a different theme, which changes every month. It might be Bangkok Chinatown, or a specific region of northern Thailand, or something like that. (Right now it’s inspired by Thailand’s working class.)

You get around a dozen courses, with awesome nontraditional beverage pairings, like cocktails and sakes. The food is always really inventive, and it's cool to see something that's based in tradition but also playful and new.

—  Sam Smith

Langbaan, 6 SE 28th Ave, Portland, OR   97214, 971-344-2564

Nimblefish

Nimblefish
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Nimblefish is a sushi restaurant. Dwight, the chef there, is very classically trained, but his restaurant feels a little bit more rock-and-roll than other Portland sushi places. They have incredibly high-quality fish—they work directly with producers and with fishermen, and are getting the varieties that are most in-season and fresh. They have a really nice selection of stuff from the Pacific Northwest, but also from Japan and Hawaii. You get the best of the best of whatever there is. 

They often have several varieties of uni that are all just amazing and beautiful. My just-turned-five-year-old loves raw fish, so he loves this place, and we both really, really love the tamago. There’s also stuff that’s a little off the beaten path—the last time I was there, they had this white fish and seaweed broth, with white fish and shrimp dumplings. It was a Japanese technique for sure, but it was something a little different. 

And I like that it's splurge-y and feels special without being stuffy or white-tablecloth. It feels comfortable, which is more my vibe when I go out to eat.

—  Katy Millard

Nimblefish, 1524 SE 20th Ave, Portland, OR   97214, 503-719-4064

Ataula

Ataula
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Ataula is magical. Chef José Chesa is one of the most underrated chefs in Portland. Chesa’s approach to Spanish food falls along the lines of traditional-meets-modernist technique. And the vibe of the restaurant really reflects his personality. He's a very outgoing, gregarious individual, but serious in the kitchen. The decor is super bright and lively—a perfect place for a date night.

People get confused because they think it's a tapas bar, but it's really not a tapas bar. He does have pintxos and tapas, a little bit of that stuff. But he showcases his technique and his talent with what he makes. 

There's a dish called the Xupa-Xup, which is basically two pieces of salami that are filled with goat cheese, on a lollipop stick. His patatas bravas is probably the signature dish that kind of best describes what he's doing. It's just a simple dish, but he elevates it to this next level. He slices a potato paper thin and puts it back together. I think he cooks it sous vide and then cuts it into these little bite-size pieces that he fries. It's pretty amazing. 

To me personally, it's the number-one restaurant in the city right now.

—  Carlo Lamagna

Ataula, 1818 NW 23rd Pl, Portland, OR   97210, 503-894-8904

Can't-Miss Bites

If you’ve got time for only one meal, go to one of these spots to really get to know what Portland is all about. 

Nong’s Khao Man Gai

Nong's Khao Man Gai
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai is definitely the place that I go to most in Portland. It’s a counter-service spot, and Nong does a Hainanese chicken and rice that's basically the main thing on the menu. You get poached chicken, steamed rice, and this garlicky chili-soy sauce to dump over it. My go-to order there is the steamed tofu with peanut sauce and rice, and I get a side of pickles with that. 

It's definitely the one spot where, if anybody's coming to town, I'm like, "You have to go to Nong's for lunch." The rice is so, so good. You don't really hear people talk about how good plain rice is, ever. But that's my favorite thing there. The other stuff is good, and the sauce makes it and ties it all together, but I could just eat balls of that rice on its own.

—  Sam Smith

Nong's Khao Man Gai, 609 SE Ankeny St, Portland, OR   97214, 503-740-2907

Lovely’s Fifty Fifty

Lovely's Fifty Fifty
Photograph: Dina Avila.

The "Fifty Fifty" in Lovely’s refers to pizza and ice cream—two of the best things in the world. It's basically the most Portland restaurant I can think of. Everything there is 100% locally sourced. Even the flour, which the chef there uses to turn into this ridiculous sourdough bread that she then just basically puts pizza toppings on, is freshly milled. It's not a typical pizza place at all. They don't use tomatoes unless they're in season or unless they preserve them.

One of my favorite pies that I've had there was Sungold tomato, corn, and peach with fenugreek greens and Taleggio. All of that on top of pillowy, tangy, gorgeous sourdough. The chef, Sarah Minnick, buys from a lot of the same farms that we do. It's really nice to see the same produce that we use in a completely different light. 

She also makes these fantastic flavors of ice cream, like toasted fig leaf and vanilla. There’s a caramel-miso ice cream that's really good. And her rum raisin is probably the best thing in Portland. She makes a legit rum raisin ice cream that has two bottles of rum in it—one in the custard and one that she soaks the raisins in. So it's a 21-and-up ice cream. She even makes her own raisins—she gets these gorgeous grapes and then dries them herself. I always tell people about this place, because everything is just so detail-oriented, and there's so much care taken with every single ingredient.

—  Maya Lovelace

Lovely's Fifty Fifty, 4039 N Mississippi Avenue, Portland, OR   97227, 503-281-4060

Pinolo Gelato

Pinolo Gelato
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Pinolo is great—oh my gosh, so great. It’s a classic Tuscan gelateria. The guy who runs it, Sandro Paolini, is from Tuscany. He’s really devoted to authentic Italian gelato and very much doesn't stray from that technique. The texture of his gelato is sublimely creamy. 

He always has classic flavors, like stracciatella, chocolate, and pistachio. But he imports his pistachios from Sicily, and he imports his hazelnuts from the Piedmont—all his ingredients are of the highest quality. He also walks a wonderful line of using in-season fruit from the Pacific Northwest. So, for example, for two weeks this summer, he had a white-nectarine sorbetto that was just gorgeous. He has a watermelon currently, and he'll do something with stone fruit and cherries, of course. Then he'll have pear in the fall. 

The hazelnut gelato is my favorite flavor. It’s perfectly toasted and perfectly seasoned. It's almost salty, with a beautiful balance of both flavor and texture. I love it. I'm addicted.

Pinolo Gelato, 3707 SE Division St, Portland, OR   97202, 503-719-8686

Olympia Provisions Public House

Olympia Provisions Public House
Photograph: Dina Avila.

Olympia Provisions is really special and unique for charcuterie, because everything on the plate is made in-house. They sell in grocery stores nationally, but the restaurants are beautiful. I usually go to the one in southeastern Portland; once you walk in there, it's a really cool space. 

All the meats are good, but the mortadella is my favorite. The texture is very, very soft compared with something like Boar’s Head brand. They slice it very thin, and it’s just really good flavor. I highly recommend it. I think it's a nice place to bring people who aren't from here.

—  Nong Poonsukwattana

Olympia Provisions Public House, 3384 SE Division St, Portland, OR   97202, 503-384-2259

Editor's Note: The chefs' responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.