Today, Eater Portland — alongside the other 23 Eater cities — announce the winners of the 2019 Eater Awards, celebrating the restaurants (and in our case, food carts) that significantly changed Portland’s food and beverage scene for the better. Over the last few months, we’ve asked for nominations and named our finalists, but today is the day we present the true champions of Portland’s culinary world in 2019. To be eligible, restaurants and food carts needed to have opened as early as October 14, 2018, exactly one year before this year’s call for nominations; each of the winners will receive the lauded tomato can trophy in the coming weeks.
Without further ado, here are the 2019 Eater Portland Award winners:
Restaurant of the Year
3808 N Williams Avenue, suite 127
On New Year’s Eve of 2018, Thai restaurant behemoth Earl Ninsom, barbecue hotshot Matt Vicedomini, and cocktail maven Eric Nelson met at Taqueria Nueve and started serving Thai barbecue — juicy pork steak slices dipped in sauces that smacked of chile, layered curries fortified by hunks of marbled meat, homey fried rice pulling smoke from strands of salvaged barbecue. For those who made it to the pop-up that night, it was abundantly clear that Eem would become a Portland phenomenon.
Still, when the restaurant opened in February, no one was exactly prepared for the impact it’d have on the Portland public: Instagram stories documented lines curling around the restaurant’s corner, diners snug at the bar over bowls of curry and nuanced cocktails in goofy glasses. Within its walls, the intricacy of the dishes continued to shine. Barbecue, in essence, is a practice in patience and resilience, both more and less difficult than people think; Ninsom, with his humility and exceptional understanding of flavor, continued to tweak and improve upon those products of time and smoke, especially when aided by chef de cuisine Colin Yoshimoto. White curries became subtle backdrops for Golden-Mountain-soaked burnt ends, aromatic bursts of grapefruit and pickled shallot brightened up baby back ribs, and nutty massaman curry wrangled the funk of a tender lamb shoulder. Eem remains one of the most polished restaurants that opened this year, but the real skill comes from its ability to make the whole experience feel completely effortless.
Design of the Year
215 SE 9th Avenue, suite 102
In a different year, Scotch Lodge could have taken home several awards. Its cocktail program uses high-quality single-malt whiskeys for complex drinks with apricot and coconut oolong demerara. The bar’s expansive collection of whiskey is one of the city’s best, likely the best on the east side of the river. And although the bar didn’t need much more than a few snacks, Scotch Lodge’s food menu, with its gooey fried brie sticks and silky fettuccine tossed in umami fresno spice, makes it one of the best restaurants of the year. Even still, one of the most striking things about Scotch Lodge may be its setting, within the former Biwa space.
Whenever people talk about creating a “speakeasy,” it usually involves a number of tired ‘20s tropes. While Scotch Lodge never really billed itself that way, the bar does evoke the feeling of something clandestine, a dark and moody subterranean space filled with elusive bottles of rare whiskey. Its patterned wooden partitions allow the glow of golden light to shine through, as if visitors are hidden behind something bustling. Floral wallpaper brushes past anything too cutesy, instead adding a somewhat chaotic timelessness to the space. And the bar’s various fashionable nooks add an air of intimacy, aided by the size of the space itself.
Portland restaurants aren’t often known for their design. Compared to other cities, restaurateurs are less inclined to pour copious amounts of cash into big design budgets. All that being said, Scotch Lodge was somehow able to take over an iconic Portland space, transform it completely, and still make it feel like a place that’s been here forever.
Food Cart of the Year
1533 NE Alberta Street
Thanksgiving, in many cases, involves a menu of favorites attributed to particular family members: Mom’s stuffing, dad’s mashed potatoes, grandma’s caramel stick buns. It’s an intimate look into a family, the composite meal that speaks to history and lineage, without the pomp and circumstance of the world away from the table.
The menu at Matta, a Vietnamese cart on Alberta, similarly serves as a family tree for co-owner Richard Le. On Sundays, he serves an omelet his mother made for him as a kid. On Fridays, he makes his grandmother’s bà nội, steak marinated in fish sauce and poured over fries. And throughout the week, he and Sophia Le serve homey, Vietnamese cooking straight out of the Le cookbook: caramely thit kho, pork belly in a sweet bath of broth; crackly-chicken-skin-topped congee with a lifetime’s supply of alliums; Đà Lạt fried chicken, marinated in fish sauce and served with a colorful slaw. It feels as intimate as a family dinner, served out a food cart by an undeniably cool couple. With the Matta-Jojo collaboration opening this week within cocktail bar Lulu, the Les remain the ones to watch into 2020.