After two years, the shape of the Portland food world has changed completely. We’ve lost countless legends, shifted our understanding of what a restaurant looks like, seen line cooks and unemployed home cooks start their own businesses. Portland, as a city, has always been a place that has celebrated chefs in unexpected places — pop-ups, food carts, farmers market stands — but facing the existential threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, the industry has developed a fascinating balance of grit and whimsy, as chefs started Instagram pop-ups and commissary family meals, churned out new concepts with the tides of new safety restrictions and COVID-19 strains. The culinary world is more nimble than it’s ever been, a response to the precarious health of the industry.
It is exceptionally difficult to slap superlatives on the chefs and restaurants that have emerged out of the last two years; there have been so many people who have shown themselves to be leaders, creative and judicious minds battling bureaucratic, socioeconomic, and safety challenges and still producing something special. However, in this year’s Eater Awards, we honor culinary teams that not only brought something exciting to the figurative table in the Portland restaurant world, but also forced us to acknowledge the weaknesses, strengths, and potential improvements to the table as a whole.
Best New Restaurant: República
Over the course of the last year, República simply refused to stop growing and changing. It started as a sweet wine bar and cafe, one with lovely desserts and guisados. But with every month, chef Lauro Romero has taken his evening tasting menu into more fascinating territory, sifting through both his culinary history and the larger cultural narrative of Mexico. In the mornings, República presents as a casual cafe, where Doña Chapis folds tri-colored masa tortillas, layered with Salem-made quesillo, on the comal. In the evenings, diners sit down to a parade of plates, where servers discuss colonization’s impact on foodways, detail the annals of indigenous ingredients, and share personal stories about the components of each dish, be it a watermelon aguachile or mole encacahuatado.
Best New Food Cart: Baon Kainan
Ethan Leung left a life in Seattle fine dining to start a Portland food cart with his wife, Geri Leung; together, they explore what they call “not your tita’s cooking” — Filipino American cuisine, using kare kare as a topping for fries and swapping the soy sauce in the adobo for tamari. Baon Kainan’s adobo is likely the best in Portland, salty tang permeating juicy chicken legs and thighs; it’s best finished with a slice of Geri Leung’s springy, coconut-laden bibingka. The Leungs have an acute ability to keep their food grounded while playing with heady ingredients; it makes Baon Kainan feel like an any-day-of-the-week cart that simply blows its regulars away with remarkable consistency.
Best Restaurant Design: Oma’s Hideaway
Stepping into Oma’s Hideaway — which appears on Eater’s national best new restaurants list — feels like walking into a 20th Century house party hosted by the coolest people on the block. It evokes this effortless warmth, welcoming to everyone, though every single design element is imbued with energy: the disco ball of a chef’s counter, the custom wallpaper covered in lionfish and coral, the retro light fixtures and hand-painted bathroom walls. However, some of the smartest design features at Oma’s were inspired by the necessities of COVID-19: The perimeter of the restaurant is surrounded by enclosed teal-and-indigo booths, which not only allows for distanced, secure outdoor dining during a pandemic; it makes it some of the coolest sidewalk seating that can live on for years to come. Overall, the atmosphere of the restaurant allows its diners a rare moment of care-free relaxation — especially when followed by boozy slushies, Jell-O shots, and succulent game hens with coconut sambal.
Best Pandemic Pop-Up: Chicha PDX
Andina has been a behemoth in the Portland restaurant world for almost 20 years, which means it’s been through a number of eras and chefs. Alexander Diestra took over the kitchen in the spring, but before the restaurant reopened, Diestra began a casual takeout and outdoor pop-up straight out of Lima. On the streets of 13th, Portlanders ate tender, wild-tasting lomo saltado, cumin-laced lamb empanadas pock-marked from a recent fry, sweet corn humitas (sort of like tamales) the color of egg yolks. They sipped summery pisco sours and passionfruit lemonade in the summer heat. Suddenly, Andina felt less like a grand dame only fit for special occasions and more like an any-night respite. What Chicha did was breathe new life into Andina as a whole — it felt lively and fun, casual and warm, and, most of all, fresh.
Strongest Pivot: Berlu
Berlu chef and owner Vince Nguyen has stayed light on his feet for almost two years. After he closed his minimalist, mind-bending tasting menu restaurant, Nguyen took a hard turn left, transforming the cafe into a Vietnamese bakery with springy, lime-green bánh bò nướng and soft roulades with dashes of sliced mango. Then, he started packing up noodle soups, house-fermented rice noodles topped with slices of pork neck or grilled wild Oregon rockfish popping with green garlic. Then he started grilling sheets of rice paper for bánh tráng nướng, layered with egg and Oregon bay shrimp. Month after month, Nguyen introduced new Vietnamese dishes, pulling from various corners of the culinary canon in a way that felt specific to his distinctive style. No visit to Berlu in the last two years felt the same as the one before, and it culminated in Berlu’s latest iteration: a contemporary Vietnamese tasting menu. Since the pandemic began, Nguyen has stretched and grown and become not just one of the city’s best new chefs; he became one of the city’s finest chefs, period.