When this Australian coffee roaster arrived on Northeast Portland’s Alberta Avenue in 2017, more than a few people expected it to crash and burn. After all, the city’s long been known as a coffee metropolis, with small-batch artisan roasters on seemingly every block; we didn’t need yet another coffee shop, we certainly didn't need an import, and we most definitely didn't need one owned by a guy who said, in Australia’s Broadsheet magazine, that he was opening his next café in Portland because the city had "nothing." Um, excuse me?
But when acclaimed coffee expert Nolan Hirte and his wife, Shari, opened their airy, high-ceilinged temple of java, all was forgiven because we found out he was right. The full-service Australian coffee culture they introduced was unlike anything we knew, and Proud Mary filled a hole we didn’t even know we had.
The café serves expertly roasted micro lots of single-varietal beans, often not found anywhere else (Nolan Hirte has deep connections among coffee farmers). But unlike so many other high-end Portland roasters, the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. The coffee is matched by the just-as-exceptional all-day brunch that's offered every day. Here, potato hash isn’t simply a greasy patty of salty shreds; it’s an architectural wonder, topped with a thick slab of meaty pork belly and a poached egg, lingering in a savory pool of anchovy cream. And because sometimes you need something sweet to finish off brunch (or maybe even for brunch) the café nods to its Australian roots and offers nothing less than an elegant pavlova. The crispy-chewy meringue beautifully tinged with charcoal gets mounded with fluffy lemon myrtle-infused custard, lashed with passionfruit juice, and sprinkled with local berries and edible flowers.
Ever since it opened, this ne plus ultra of coffee shops has been packing people in, though it never feels cramped or hurried. It’s become my de facto spot for both quick meetings with colleagues and lingering brunches with friends, somehow always being just what I need.
Chef Gabriel Rucker opened his vaguely French, proudly experimental restaurant Le Pigeon in 2006, at the ripe old age of 25. He quickly became the city’s most celebrated chef—he’s garnered two James Beard Awards, among other accolades—and was instrumental in launching our previously overlooked town onto the national culinary stage. In other words, Rucker opened "the Dirty Bird" and Portland has never been the same.
Well, Canard is the cute, one-and-a-half-year-old baby sister next door, and she’s just as playful, surprising, and boundary-pushing, but a lot more accessible. The no-reservations, all-day café opens at 8 a.m. with a belly-busting menu that’ll wake you right up. There are oysters, there are whisky highballs, there are even square little White Castle–inspired "steam burgers," which Rucker says are the sole reason Canard even exists. "I made steam burgers for staff meal and I wanted to serve them to everyone," he once told me. "And that’s not an exaggeration."
There isn't a shy, retiring wallflower on the menu and there are usually a few surprises—even the quinoa bowl is so ripping with flavor it’s ruined me for any other. But I especially love the crispy, chewy, buttery, seafood-y shrimp toast eggs Benedict. Think you’ll just eat half and take the rest home? Yeah, good luck with that. Just be sure to save room for a sprinkle-dipped cone of ever-changing soft serve.
Any mention of Chef Troy MacLarty inevitably includes his Chez Panisse pedigree. But if you ask me, the most important thing about his tenure in Berkeley wasn’t where he worked, but where he ate. That’s because he often stopped by Vik’s Chaat for Indian street food, like bhel puri (a textural blend of puffed rice and vegetables tossed in both spicy and fruity chutney) and aloo tiki (savory pan-fried potato patties). When he moved to Portland in the early 2000s as part of a vanguard of talent that would soon transform the city’s dining scene (see Rucker above), he had a hard time leaving those vibrant dishes behind. Though his deft hand at seasonal Italian cooking almost instantly earned him star status around town, his cravings would soon inspire him to ditch the Mediterranean and dive headfirst into Indian food.
He spent a full year rigorously researching and immersing himself in the cuisine, resurfacing in 2012 with Bollywood Theater—perhaps Portland’s first, and certainly its best, restaurant focused on Indian street food. It was an immediate success, quickly spawned a second location, and became a second home for many Indian ex-pats.
So what does this have to do with Churchgate Station? With his two restaurants running like well-oiled machines, MacLarty wasn’t needed in the kitchen. "My staff tells me I just get in the way," he says. But the chef isn’t done exploring the depths of India’s cuisine, not by a long shot, and he’s not done cooking for people, either. So he kitted out a light-filled room next to Bollywood Theater on Division Avenue, installed an open kitchen and communal tables, and Churchgate Station was born.
He cooks just two nights a week in the intimate, candle-lit space, serving up always-changing, reservation-only, multi-course, family-style meals based on the kinds of seasonal, regional cooking found in homes across India. At a recent late-summer dinner, the bhel salad of grilled corn and green mangos with a cavalcade of chaat spices and spicy green chutney blew my mind. At $45 for six or seven sparkling fresh and stunningly flavorful dishes unlike anything coming out of the usual curry houses, it’s the best deal in town—a chef’s counter kind of experience with a wallet-friendly price tag.
Everyone loves an underdog, especially when they’re as self-effacing and hard-working as Doug Adams. When Portland had the incredible luck of getting to watch both Adams and Departure restaurant’s Gregory Gourdet compete on the 2014 season of Top Chef, the relatively unknown sous chef at venerable Vitaly Paley’s new Imperial restaurant blew us away by hanging on long after we expected him to implode. Somehow he always managed to survive, and he always seemed just as surprised as we were. When he came from behind to make it to the finals, well, game over. He had already won our hearts.
Of course, afterward everyone expected Adams to ride the wave of fame and open his own restaurant—and he did, announcing that exact plan in 2016. But it would take three more long years for Bullard, his Texas-by-way-of-Oregon ode to smoked meats, to finally open on the ground floor of the new Woodlark Hotel. Building the boutique hotel in downtown Portland required a long and exhausting, historically sensitive, down-to-the-foundation renovation. But the wait was more than worth it. With so much time to dial in the menu, Adams and his business partner, Jen Quist, hit it out of the park from day one.
The refined space combines a fresh and light Northwest sensibility with the bold, smoky, chili-rife flavors of the Tex-Mex foods Adams grew up on. Think doughy handmade flour tortillas, fried chicken breakfast tacos at brunch, and diminutive, tender tamales stuffed with brisket ends and Texas red sauce that are so good you could eat a dozen...if they weren’t $9 each. But Adams’s talent really shines in the shareable plates of expertly smoked meats. The beef ribs in particular hit all the right notes. They’re big, tender, and juicy with just the right lick of smoke, and an ideal match for a perfectly executed pitcher of margaritas from the bar. Or, better yet, take a page from my playbook and hit Abigail Hall, the cozy, floral-walled nook of a bar behind the lobby, to pre-game with an ice-cold shaker of martinis for the table.
When North Carolina native Maya Lovelace launched her Mae pop-up in a utilitarian space on a busy but nondescript stretch of Northeast Portland in 2015, she turned a much-needed spotlight on real Southern cooking. (Until then, the city’s Southern options were mostly Cajun, barbecue, or chicken-fried, gravy-lashed gut-bombs.) Brimming with stories and genuine Southern hospitality, Lovelace used her multi-course, family-style suppers to introduce us to regional nuances and ingredients, like Carolina Gold rice and Jimmy Red corn, and in the process showed us the difference between caricature and cuisine. Accolades came rushing in, seats became a hot commodity, and four years later, Lovelace is a bona fide restaurateur. This summer, she opened her fast-casual fried chicken hotspot Yonder across the street from where her meteoric rise began, and tucked inside a cozy room in the back, Mae has been reborn. Named after Lovelace’s grandmother, the supper club that gave Lovelace her start finally has a permanent home, with classy décor befitting its namesake—pink velvet seats and a moody, hand-painted woodland mural.
The three-hour, 10-course feast is one of the best meals in town. It changes constantly depending on what’s in season, with summer bringing heirloom tomato tarts with cheddar cheese crust, quail stuffed with dirty rice, and sweet corn panna cotta with buttermilk dulce de leche. Dining at Mae is always delicious, always a revelation, and most definitely an indulgence I’d make weekly if only my wallet would oblige.
The joys of living in Portland are plentiful and varied, but one of the best is being able to hike through Forest Park for a few hours of nature therapy, then walk from the Lower Macleay trailhead just a few blocks to bustling, buzzy, boutique-lined Northwest 23rd Avenue and its plethora of fabulous restaurants. It’s a deeply satisfying juxtaposition, one that makes me feel happy to be alive and lucky to be in Portland. Depending on mood, cravings, and seat availability, I might end such a hike with drinks and tapas at the effortlessly convivial Spanish restaurant Ataula, or wine and oysters at the decadently Francophile St. Jack. But lately I’ve been making tracks for the fresh-squeezed margaritas and outdoor tables at Xica Cantina, the new casual spinoff of the seven-year-old Xico restaurant on Southeast Division Avenue’s restaurant row.
I’ve long enjoyed Xico (pronounced chee-ko) for its fresh, complex and rigorous takes on regional Mexican cuisine, from its rich moles to the fragrant tortillas made from corn nixtamalized in house. But with Xica Cantina, co-owner Elizabeth Davis brings a taste of these flavors to the West side in a more playful form. The colors are bright, the walls roll up, there’s always something shaking at the bar, and though the menu offers a handful of entrées like Yucatan smoked pork in banana leaves or whole roasted fish with three salsas, it leans harder toward small plates and snacks—perfect for a pre- or post-hike refuel. And of the snacks, the Dorilocos are the must-order.
Here, the so-loco-it-works Mexico City cult-favorite street snack takes on a slightly elevated form, swapping out nacho cheese Doritos for the restaurant’s thick, housemade totopos (tortilla chips) dusted in five kinds of chilies, then bathed in two kinds of salsas, along with diced cucumber, chili-lime peanuts, and the stroke of genius: chopped gummy bears. The bright pops of sweet-fruit flavor amid the rich chili-soused chips are bizarrely delicious. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself hunting for the chips with the most gummy bear bits.
Food-driven wine bars have been popping up all over town in the past couple years, but few are as irreverently fun and casually elegant as OK Omens. Don’t ask me what the name means, I don’t know—but after one bite of the cheddar beignets I completely stopped caring. Like some sort of upscale stoner food, these gougère-like bites are filled with a silky-smooth molten cheese fondue that tastes like amazing American cheese (no, that’s not an oxymoron in my book) and are sprinkled with a barely sweet honey dust. They’re crave-worthy, and a big departure from what used to be served in this space, which, for 17 years, was the beloved but predictable neighborhood spot Café Castagna.
Known for being the casual sibling to the stellar, prix fixe haute cuisine Chef Justin Woodward serves at Castagna next door, the café went through a complete rebrand the summer of 2018, giving Woodward a stage to develop a fun and offbeat menu, and giving Castagna’s wine director, Brent Braun, a Food & Wine sommelier of the year in 2017, a place to go deep on natural wines from every corner of the world. You can tell the two are having a blast with the new project.
The wine list at OK Omens is exciting but doesn’t take itself seriously, with hilariously dead-on descriptions like "That Time You Caught Your Horse Smoking a Cigar by the Blackberry Bushes." All day on Sundays, and during the 10 p.m.–to–midnight happy hour, you can snag a bottle for just $28, or go for the "All You Can ‘Pink’ Rosé Buffet," which gets you a giant bottle of rosé lands on your table and you can drink as little or as much as you like.
As for the food, it’s as seasonally driven as you’d expect from a perennial James Beard Award nominee, and features several elegant bites, like the citrusy-herbal shiso-wrapped skipjack tuna. But nestled like Easter eggs among the composed salads are ingenious creations from what I think of as Woodward’s alter-ego, a benevolent Mr. Hyde who just wants Portland to have fun. Those beignets are one example; the tarragon cream and parmesan slathered "corn ribs" are another. (I now never want to eat another ear of corn unless it’s been halved and quartered lengthwise to produce handy little riblets for nibbling.)
And then there’s the "Kinda Like a McFlurry," a nod to a post-partying, late-night McDonald’s run. With its creamy vanilla ice cream covered in a very generous shower of crispy Butterfingers, shot through with a Reese’s-like ribbon of sweetened peanut butter, you’ll want to grab a spoon and leave decorum behind.
You’d think that being situated on the West Coast, just an hour and a half from the ocean, means that Portland has some pretty stellar seafood restaurants, right? Sorry to break the news, but no.
There’s seafood to be had, of course, but it’s mostly limited to oysters at happy hour, fish and chips at a pub, or one token entrée at a restaurant. But then there’s Jacqueline, an adorable neighborhood spot dedicated to the life aquatic in more than one sense of the term. Not only is it named after the fictional submarine in Wes Anderson’s quirky comedy The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, it even has a painting of Bill Murray as the titular character prominently displayed behind the bar.
In-jokes aside, sweet Jacqueline is serious about its seafood, making it the star of the show in nearly every dish except a few of the salads. Chef-owner Derek Hanson, who previously made waves by launching a superb dinner menu at popular brunch spot Broder Nord, sources sustainable and local seafood like albacore tuna and spot prawns. Of course, there’s Dungeness crab, too, which he picks for a sweet crab and fennel salad, served atop buttery toasts.
But Hanson doesn’t limit his menu to Northwest species alone—nor to a particular cuisine. Alongside Japanese-style ahi tuna tataki, kissed with anise-steeped vinegar and sprinkled with togarashi, there’s a classic Maine-style lobster roll with tender nuggets of lobster bathed in herbed mayo, nestled in a pillowy brioche bun. Tucked among the entrées, whole fried sea bass gets a Latin-American spin with nutty salsa macha and limes dipped in chilies. It may sound incongruous, but there’s a common theme of light, bright flavors and sparkling freshness that makes it all work. With an inventive cocktail list and a wine selection heavy on fish-friendly French and Oregon bottles, Jacqueline is my ideal spot to unwind and celebrate the simple pleasures in life, like icy cold Champagne, buttery crab, and the blessed end of a workday.
Some of Portland’s best restaurants started as food carts, so it wasn’t a big surprise to find out that some of the city’s most exquisite pastas are made in a trailer. Parked in a tiny, gravel-lined lot in Northeast Portland, Gumba expertly churns out dishes that rival any big-ticket trattoria in town. My favorite is the silky pappardelle bathed in a luscious short rib sugo enlivened with chilies, olives, and pecorino, but the tagliatelle carbonara tossed with lemon zest, chili oil, and creamy dollops of house-made burrata cheese comes in a close second.
In addition to those jaw-dropping staples, chef/co-owner Jesse Martinez and his business partner (and longtime BFF) Robin Brassaw fill up the chalkboard with seasonal specials built on from-scratch ingredients. In late summer, that might be calamarata pasta tossed with four cheeses, housemade sausage, and roasted cabbage pesto under a blanket of mustardy breadcrumbs. And most weekends the duo trots out an inventive, no-rules brunch. On the menu? Biscuits with wild mushroom gravy showered in crushed peanut butter pretzels, or spicy fried chicken and hollandaise tucked in a croissant bun.
Martinez honed his pasta chops at the Italian-focused Bar Mingo, a longtime Northwest Portland favorite, and partnered with Brassaw to open their seasonally driven, wood-paneled cart in 2016. They’ve moved around a bit, finally settling on the tiny plot in the Alberta Arts district, where they’re in very good company. Fine Goose, run by two French chefs, turns out Francophile dishes like duck confit and lamb medallions with radicchio. Meanwhile, newcomer Matta serves Vietnamese soul food, like pork belly braised in coconut water, chilies, and caramel. And to wash it all down, there’s Le Tap, a cart serving a rotating selection of craft beers and hard cider on tap. As small as the Whale Pod is (so named for a massive whale mural on the building next door), it packs in an impressive array of upscale food and drink.
Eb & Bean
In 2014, Elizabeth Nathan ignored all the signs of a dying trend and jumped feet-first into opening a fro-yo shop. A passionate home baker who studied in the pastry program at the Bellouet Conseil in Paris and trained with Martine Lambert, the doyenne of French ice cream, Nathan banked on her belief that "a better frozen yogurt experience was possible." She was spot on.
Eb & Bean isn’t like all the rest—so much so it was almost a completely different beast, which is why it’s managed to not only hang on, but thrive. (Of the dozen or so dedicated frozen yogurt places that opened in Portland around the peak of the craze in 2010, I can think of only three besides Eb & Bean that are still around.) Named for her two young kids, Nathan’s concept is all about taking the junk out and putting real flavors in. She skips the artificially flavored and colored candies and stocks her toppings bar with fresh fruit, toasted nuts, organic and dye-free candies, and a large assortment of crumbly goodies from local makers. Think flaky bits of Tombumble Bars, a gourmet version of Butterfinger, or graham crackers and coconut pecan cookies from Bakeshop, a beloved local bakery that specializes in treats made with whole grain flours. But that’s just the crunchy stuff. There’s also a long roster of sassy sauces like Cold Brew Bourbon, Raspberry Magic Shell, plus citrus curds and berry sauces, depending on the season.
As for the yogurt itself, it’s creamy, fresh, made in-house, and only gently sweetened. There’s always Madagascar Vanilla and Valrhona Chocolate, plus six other high falutin’ flavors, like Muscovado Blondie and Honey Grapefruit, that come and go every couple weeks, four of which are either made of almond milk or coconut milk so even the dairy-free can indulge. It’s no wonder that even though the frozen yogurt trend has fizzled, Eb & Bean has flourished, with Nathan recently opening her third shop on trendy Northwest 23rd Avenue in the spring of 2018.
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