In this monthly feature, one of Portland’s most established food critics, Michael Zusman, shares the restaurants he’s crushing on this month. Zusman worked as a restaurant critic for the Oregonian from 2006 to 2011 and now publishes reviews in WWeek and others. Here’s what’s good:
November 17, 2017
This month’s recommendations will help satisfy that weekend meal or snack time jones without breaking the bank.
For Inspired Regional Mexican Food
Oswaldo Bibiano was one of the first Mexican kitchen hands in Portland to work his way up from the lower ranks to spatula boss. It’s hard to believe he’s been running his flagship Autentica restaurant since 2005. Here, local meats and produce create toothsome regional platters that far exceed the standard taco-quesadilla-burrito trilogy.
The long-time standard bearer is Bibiano’s roast chicken dish that answers the edible question, what is mole and why is it so damn delicious? (Answer: a rich, dark combination of ground chilies, chocolate, seeds, fruits, and spices that moves mundane to mouthwatering). Bibiano’s Guerrero coastal roots results in a Veracruzano-style whole fish and multiple iterations of ceviche. Weekends bring dinner specials, hangover-curing brunch, and $6 margarita Sundays.
For a Taco on the Run
Continuing the homage to under-the-radar star Bibiano, his two Uno Mas locations — one in Kerns; the other on West Burnside near Providence Park — serve some of the best tacos in the city. At either location, choose from a mind-numbing variety of taco fillings, from prosaic (slow-roasted beef “barbacoa” or pork carnitas ) to gutty (beef tongue or blood sausage) to vegetarian (cactus or the “Gringa,” with cheese, onion, and pico de gallo). Each of the small tacos runs about $3. Don’t skip the salsas, including a lively tomatillo arbol or mellow aguacate.
For French Fry Fanatics
Boise Fry Co. is Portland’s French fry experimentation chamber. Pick from among a half dozen different tubers: classic Idaho Russets, golden Kennebecs, Peruvian purples, and three sweet varieties. Depending on the day, each will be offered in shoestrings, curly fries, regular quarter-inch, and “natural,” which is like a steak fry. The salt and sauce bar brings copious customization options, with around ten choices of each. Employees aren’t exactly eager to assist, but purple curlies go well with a dusting of rosemary-garlic powder. And don’t tell: The secret formula for “fry sauce” — one of nine pumpable choices — includes ranch dressing, but no mayo.
For a Sweet Finish
After a hiatus due to fire-related damage, Pie Spot is back and as sweet a dessert destination as ever. Specializing in diminutive, handheld “pie spots,” the pleasure of the Pie Spot is its near 1:1 ratio of buttery golden crust to filling. For crust lovers, no traditional pie-by-the-slice can compete. The ones to bank on include smooth and creamy chocolate-peanut butter, gooey brown butter pecan, and sweet-tart marionberry. Hardcore pie crust lovers can add a cinnamon roll — with pie crust subbing for pastry dough — or full-sized pies (with 24-hour notice), as well as a handful of savory items. The Pie Spot is open late and makes for a magnetic attraction after dinner at Han Oak, Nomad.PDX, or one of the nearby micro-eateries at the Ocean (like Uno Mas).
October 27, 2017
The month’s theme is lesser-known Northwest Portland restaurants. Newbie neighbors might not yet know about these well-guarded secrets. Those east of the Willamette are encouraged to be brave and find a bridge (if any are open this month).
For Excellent Bento
The decades-old Phil’s Uptown Market butcher shop grills delectable sticks of meat, seafood, and vegetables for incredibly priced, made-to-order bento. It even claims to have been the first to offer bento in Portland. The shopping center parking lot that Phil’s shares at 17 NW 23rd Pl. is invariably packed, but follow the scent from the outdoor grill for a quick lunch or takeout.
For A True Old-School Portland Diner
It’s hard to believe the Stepping Stone Cafe debuted at 2390 NW Quimby St. in the ‘70s, when its Northwest environs still included an abundance of tumbledown Victorians complete with hippies crashing inside. Somehow, this venerable hash house, coffee shop, and neighborhood fixture has defied the ravages of gentrification.
Go for breakfast at anytime of day. The menu has all your standard diner favorites. Feeling broke? The monstrous buttermilk “mancake” costs $5; two for $7; or a short stack — reserved only for the sickest bastards, like a certain food TV glutton/star who once stopped into the Stone to pig out — for $9. Feeling flush? Add real maple syrup for a $1.50.
For A Slice of New York
Owner Phil Geffner was ahead of the curve when he opened the Escape from New York Pizza by-the-slice spot in 1983: foldable New York-style slices with a side of attitude long before Northwest 23rd had the “Trendythird” pretense. Unlike almost everything else in Portland, Escape from New York Pizza hasn’t changed over the last 35 years. Slices are still served up quickly, with charm and prices everyone can appreciate (around $4 for a hefty slice).
For Portland’s Best Cheesesteak
Philadelphia is an old blue-collar town where simple pleasures, such as the cheesesteak, have dominated the culinary road map, especially along South 9th Street where Pat’s and Geno’s have been slugging it out for years. The concept doesn’t travel well, but Grant’s Philly Cheesesteaks is as real as it gets hereabouts.
Each sandwich is a work of edible art: hoagie roll, thin-sliced grilled beef, onions, and sweet and hot chilies, served “wit” the customary Cheese Whiz slather or without. A healthy half costs just $6.75 while a foot-long full monty runs $12.50. This being Portland, you can opt for other cheeses, chicken instead of beef, or even a burger, hot dog, or (heaven forbid) salad. But if you’ve made the trek to this below-grade den of East Coast delight, that would be like rooting for the Yankees against the home-standing Phils. Grant’s is located at 1203 NW 23rd Ave.
September 22, 2017
Portland stretches east for a good 200 blocks from the Willamette River until it runs into Gresham. Ignore snide remarks about the Eastern Front. There are a couple “best of” stops out this way.
The top Peruvian table around town…
The best Peruvian food in the entire Stumptown metropolis is probably found at El Inka, a low-key corner strip mall storefront just inside Gresham city limits that’s been run by the same family for years. The foundational dish is the pollo a la brassa, aka rotisserie chicken. Catch a bird fresh from the spit (your best bet is the late-lunch hour): Golden, crispy skin seasoned just right shrouds tender, smoke-caressed meat that avoids the common pitfalls of under- or overcooking.
Chickens can be ordered whole or by the half or quarter. Make sure to get the sharp ají chili sauce for drizzling or dunking. Beware its disarmingly pale yellow hue. If you have room, move onto anticuchos, beef heart skewers, or ají de gallina, shredded chicken in a creamy gravy that’s like the filling of an especially rich chicken pot pie. Wash it all down with chicha morada, Peru’s pie spice-tinged, lightly sweetened purple corn drink, or a can of bubble gum-flavored Inca Kola that’s so sweet and addictive Coca-Cola bought the company. (48 N.E. Division St., Gresham, elinkarestaurant.com, 503-491-0323).
A Salvadoran standout…
From street-cart roots, Chepe’s, Portland’s premier pupuseria, is way out at SE Stark and 175th Place. Pupusas are a Salvadoran specialty rarely seen in these parts. Looking a bit like a small fresh-from-the-oven pita, pupusas begin with a ball of ground corn dough that's stuffed with goodies, usually including a generous portion of mozzarella or mozzarella-like Mexican cheese. It's flattened to a puffy disc about four inches around and griddled until the cheese is fully melted and any other ingredients are hot and yummy.
A couple insider favorites are the cheese and loroco, a nifty herb that adds a vegetal hit to the bland mozz, or the “revuelta,” an alluring combo of beans, cheese, and chicharróns. The mandatory accompaniment for your pupusas is a bracing bowl of curtido, spicy-pickled shredded cabbage that they will bring to your table. There are plenty of menu distractions here, as it’s located in an area which hosts a large Mexican population. You can get good Mexican food elsewhere. At Chepe’s, stick with the pupusas. (17539 SE Stark St., no website, 503-960-6198).
Too hard to head east? Always had a hankering to hit Hillsboro, but no particular reason to go? Fair enough. Let’s fix that this weekend:
Indian food for lamb lovers…
Local Indian food is done best where much of the metro’s South Asian population has put down roots to work in the nearby tech industry. A couple places get most of the love, so be a pioneer and take your posse out to Urban Masala.
Unsurprisingly for the ‘burbs, it's located in an anonymous strip mall. Steer here for some of India’s meatier specialties. In particular, the lamb vindaloo. The dish is supposed to be brain-meltingly hot and sour from chilies and vinegar, but it usually comes as a bland mass of gristly mystery meat and scary-dark gravy for dumbed-down Western palates. At Urban Masala, the lamb is tender (and abundant), and even the “medium”-strength option has plenty of bite.
Besides vindaloo, menu choices cover all the common curry compass points, including tomato-based rogan josh, creamy khorma, and the British Empire classic, chicken tikka masala. Service from a new arrival to America might be sweetly fumbled, but never fear: His or her back up can answer any of your Indian food questions. (2401 N.E. Cornell Rd., Hillsboro, urbanmasalapdx.com, 503-844-6161).
A simple Mexican standard…
If the urge strikes for Mexican food, a westward visit to Amelia’s will cure your itch —with a bonus opportunity to grab a gander at downtown Hillsboro, the updated version of the formerly sleepy Washington County seat. To be honest, there are dishes that disappoint, but the drool-inducing lamb shank (“chamorro de cordero”), in a sauce flavored with tomatillo and cascabel chili, is worth the trip all by itself. Beyond that, stick with the simple standards for a worthwhile meal, perhaps on the way to or from a last-of-summer visit to the Oregon coast. (105 N. E. Fourth Ave., ameliasmexicanfood.com, 503-615-0191).
August 25, 2017
Formerly a dismal dining destination, Northeast Killingsworth Street has blossomed. The cluster of restaurants around Northeast 16th Avenue boasts its fair share of favorites, especially if you’re a fan of southern food. Not the Deep South, silly. We’re talking about tasty morsels from Southern Thailand, Southern India, and the great State of Texas.
Start your K-worth crawl at Hat Yai, a virtual trek down the peninsula where Thailand and Malaysia meet…
When Thai food maven Earl Ninsom (PaaDee, Langbaan) announced a venture with bartender-about-town Alan Akwai (St. Jack, Wafu), it was tempting to think they would dumb down the fiery dishes of the Malay Peninsula to placate delicate local palates. Not so.
The adored Thai fried chicken and layered griddle bread called roti are tasty, but for fans of spice, Hat Yai has been putting out the hottest stuff this side of Mt. St. Helens’s subterranean magma chamber. Test your mettle with Southern Thai ground pork, a bona fide pyroclastic powerhouse. It looks innocent enough in its dainty serving bowl, but it’s guaranteed to spark a sweat on the brow and smolder in the belly.
Your face hasn’t melted off? Move on to one of the almost-as-explosive Thai curries. Akwai’s concoctions may temper the burn for a time, but in the end, chilies will prevail. 1605 NE Killingsworth St.
Cross the street for Southern Indian dishes at Tiffin Asha…
Life and business partners Elizabeth Golay and Sheila Bommakanti pivoted, seemingly without effort, from their cramped Tiffin Asha cart on North Mississippi to a grownup restaurant near Hat Yai. They added reservations and expanded the menu with specialties you usually can't find without driving to Hillsboro’s Intel territory, so grab a few friends to assure maximum menu coverage.
Nothing beats the spectacle of the dosa, a crisp, two-foot long steroidal crepe made of fermented rice and lentil flour. It arrives like an ancient mariner’s map of the New World, only edible. Break off bits and spoon on the spicy sambar gravy and chutney. Vegetarian diners will find lots of options on the menu. 1670 NE Killingsworth St.
Texas and its barbecue may as well be an independent republic, and the place for Texas-in-Portland eating is Podnah’s Pit, just steps from our first two stops…
Podnah’s Pit is Portland’s Texas-barbecue pioneer, and it was also the first of the new restaurant wave to take up residence along Killingsworth. It's still the city's standard bearer for fatty, barky, ruby-red-ringed beef brisket.
Order it on a sandwich, on a plate (with two sides and cornbread), or, in the ultimate act of self-delusion, as a salad: the nudge-nudge, wink-wink centerpiece of the “Tex Cobb.” It’s a super-charged carnivore’s salad — the ultimate edible oxymoron.
Along with a few healthy slabs of brisket, the romaine base is supplemented with pico de gallo, green onion, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, hard-boiled egg, and something close to a drum of dressing (blue cheese, ranch, or thousand island), for coating everything to your liking. Yes, Portlandia cowboys and cowgirls, it's wretched excess masquerading as dietary piety. 1625 NE Killingsworth St.