Even if you haven’t heard of Ricky Bella, there’s still a good chance you’ve eaten his food. The chef has sliced, sauteed, roasted, and pickled his way through countless high-profile Portland kitchens, from Paley’s Place to Jojo. He mashed guacamole at Bullard, seared steaks at Imperial, folded Crunchwraps at Bit House Saloon. But on a Friday afternoon in Southeast Portland, he has one customer, and he’s pretty sure she needs cake.
“Necesitas tres leches?” Bella asks the little girl sitting at a two-top table. The bar is closed and it’s mostly dark in the dining room; Bella is in the kitchen prepping for service. The girl, a daughter of an employee, smiles up at Bella and nods. He disappears into the kitchen, emerging with a plate with cake.
Bella is the new chef behind the menu at Palomar, the celebrated cocktail bar on Southeast Division from award-winning bartender Ricky Gomez. For most of its tenure, Palomar has served a menu of quintessential Cuban bar snacks — croquetas, medianoches, Cubanos. But since stepping into the role in November, Bella has started switching things up. The croquetas and flan remain on the menu, but they are joined by things like beef tartare with jalapenos and sweet potato, shrimp ceviche with pineapple and avocado, seasonal squash served with guava jelly. Quietly, the bar has taken its already strong food menu to a new level, with a culinary profile representative of the two Rickys. In certain ways, it feels like a new era — for both Palomar and Bella himself.
Often, when chefs talk about how they got into food, they tell stories of spending hours in a grandparent’s kitchen rolling cookie dough or hanging on their mother’s apron strings. That wasn’t Bella. “I had zero interest in cooking as a kid,” he says. “I was going to be a rockstar in a metal band.”
When he started working in restaurants, it was more of a means to an end; he was a dishwasher, and in his words, “a fucked up little 18-year-old drug addict,” at the now-closed breakfast spot James John Cafe. He derived some semblance of joy from learning efficiency in the kitchen, keeping up with the pace of the restaurant. “It was the challenge of getting good at something,” he says. “I was going, ‘Man, I’m tired of having a full dish pit.’ When you’re a dishwasher, you’re learning how to cook without food. It’s streamlining things.”
If there was one person who pulled Bella out of the dish pit and onto the line, it was Ben Bettinger. Bettinger, the chef behind Laurelhurst Market and a Vitaly Paley vet, would host pop-ups in the St. Johns cafe space, and saw Bella’s potential; Bettinger modeled the level of mental agility that captivated the young chef. Bella remembers watching the chef direct the kitchen, calling out orders and orchestrating dinners so everything came out at the exact right moment — figuring out the puzzle of making a restaurant run quickly, effectively. “I wouldn’t be cooking without Benny; I wouldn’t be alive without Benny,” he says. “He just made it look cool. Watching him cook and expedite at the same time, I wanted to be that good.”
When Bettinger left James John Cafe to open Beaker & Flask, he brought Bella with him first as a dishwasher, then as a line cook. Bella followed him from restaurant to restaurant, until he eventually landed at Paley’s Place.
Vitaly Paley — a “grandpa mentor,” in Bella’s words, as the mentor of Bettinger — had run the kitchen at Paley’s Place for two decades, creating distinctive, French-Pacific Northwestern dishes out of the venerated restaurant, when he started to dig into his personal history and heritage. Paley’s family left the Soviet Union in 1976, and in many ways, he hadn’t looked back. He learned to speak English without an accent watching Star Trek and didn’t spend much time eating or thinking about Russian food. Over time, he developed a reputation for his prowess in French cooking. And yet, decades into his career, he was just now starting to explore that part of his childhood via a pop-up called DaNet, serving plump khinkali, tangy blini, and house-made pickles in the upper room at Paley’s Place.
“I had worked for Vitaly for a long time, at two restaurants; it was a trip to see a completely different side of him,” Bella says. “When I thought of him, I thought of tartare and escargot and steaks. Seeing him bust out this Russian shit I had never heard of, I thought, ‘Damn, I gotta find that for me.’”
Bella grew up in a Mexican American household, but is hesitant to refer to his food as Mexican. His grandfather would eat Top Ramen with tortillas. His grandmother made a mean pozole. His food was a little bit of every part of his life: years in French kitchens, meals with his family, fast food, hot sauce. He took a job at Bit House Saloon, where he started to sell things like tamales, tacos, and Crunchwraps. To bring people into the bar on slow nights, Bella began hosting pop-ups, collaborating with chefs and line cooks from around town; people like Top Chef and fellow Imperial alumnus Doug Adams would step into the kitchen at Bit House. He remembers one particular Cinco de Mayo with other Mexican American chefs; they set up a trompo outside the bar, made with a side of pork. It was the first time he really got to make and sell his food — but he lost the opportunity, a casualty of his life before he got sober.
“I kind of feel like I wasted that time,” Bella says. “I was struggling with my alcoholism, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.”
In 2018, he went to Bullard, working directly under Adams. While the Texas-raised chef focused on large-format proteins and things in the smoker, Bella continued to explore his culinary voice: The flour tortillas, salsa verde, and guacamole on Bullard’s menu were his creations. “I was figuring out what’s true to me through the lens of something else,” he says. Over the course of the pandemic, however, Bella started to burn out on restaurant work; when he was finally laid off, he says he felt relieved. “It was maybe the darkest point in my professional career,” he says. “I didn’t care about food; I didn’t really feel like I wanted to be a chef anymore. But I had nothing to fall back on; this is all I’ve ever done since I was 17 years old.”
It took returning to where he started, in a sense, to fall back in love with the field: He got a job at food cart Jojo, initially intended to be temporary before the fried chicken brand’s restaurant opened. Instead, Bella worked on the cart, facing mobs of tourists and locals drawn to owner Justin Hintze’s internet-famous fried chicken sandwiches. The rush of the crowds and the speed of the cooking reminded him why he fell in love with the industry: the pressure, the pace, the puzzle. “It was cathartic to step out of the chef’s shoes and just come into a food truck with just a bunch of badass Mexican line cooks blasting cumbia, and get your ass kicked,” he says. “It snapped [me] out of my funk.”
The Rickys have different memories of where they met. Bella is sure that it was at a fundraiser, something for Hurricane Katrina. Gomez remembers meeting Bella at Beaker & Flask, impressed by Bettinger’s endorsement. “Benny spoke so highly of him as somebody who’s extremely passionate,” Gomez says. “He saw that he had a future.”
More than a decade later, Gomez reached out to Bella for his input, while he was considering an opportunity in hotel hospitality. The two scheduled a coffee, but the day before they were supposed to meet, Gomez’s chef put in his notice. Suddenly, that coffee became an opportunity to pitch Bella on a job at Palomar.
Gomez gave Bella two parameters: He couldn’t touch the flan, Gomez’s mother’s recipe, and he couldn’t touch the croquetas (“because they’re perfect,” in Bella’s words). Other than that, he was given somewhat free rein to explore his voice on Palomar’s menu. Bella’s approach was to find common ground between their two familial backgrounds. He’d talk through a Mexican dish he loved and Gomez would try to find the Cuban counterpart. From there, they’d land somewhere in the middle.
Take, for example, the ceviche: Bella’s lime-cooked shrimp arrives in a glass goblet, with cucumber, avocado, and pineapple. The leche de tigre folds in Palomar’s culinary palette, using guava to give the dish a lovely tropical sweetness. In lieu of tortilla chips, the dish comes with mariquitas, or Cuban plantain chips.
The steak tartare is an homage to both of the Rickys’ personal histories with French food. Gomez, who grew up and got his professional start in New Orleans, worked in a number of lauded French and French Creole restaurants, including the Commander’s Palace and Compère Lapin. Bella worked the line at Paley’s Place, where he made countless orders of steak tartare. He remembers how often steak tartare orders came from bar seats, as opposed to dining room tables. It felt like a natural fit for Palomar: a delicate dish that played off the more refined cocktails on the menu. He added jalapeno for a bit of heat and topped the dish with a pile of sweet potato matchsticks, a play on Cuban boniato.
“I hate describing food as sexy, but I mean, this is genuinely a very sexy place,” Bella says. “I wanted to put more sexy, borderline dainty cocktail food on this menu.”
Some dishes from the original menu got tweaked, like the bar’s wings: Bella braises the wings in mojo, frying them and then tossing them in more mojo mounted with butter. They’re a departure from many of the ultra-crispy wings in town, something saucier, more akin to a smothered chicken. The churrasco now gets an “old-school Mexican American carne asada marinade,” and Bella uses a flatiron steak, a cut he became intimately familiar with at Imperial. In many ways, there are echoes of all his past restaurants on the new Palomar menu — in particular, Paley’s Place.
Knowing he couldn’t tweak the flan, Bella decided to add a tres leches to the menu. He dug around frantically, searching for his copy of the The Paley’s Place Cookbook; it had disappeared. So instead, he called Vitaly Paley himself.
The tres leches recipe Bella uses now has changed dramatically from what appears in the pages of The Paley’s Place Cookbook. Sous chef Andy Hickman tweaks the recipe periodically; versions have taken inspiration from s’mores or eggnog. It’s a place Hickman gets to play, while Bella focuses on what’s next. Maybe it’s a hot sauce pop-up, or an elaborate Nochebuena party. Maybe it’s a large-scale protein added to the menu, akin to the beef ribs or elk shoulder at Bullard. But it’ll be his food — in focus.
“The best prep cook on the planet is a robot,” Bella says. “You’re not doing your food for the first five or six years of your career, because that food informs the chef you become. But eventually, you have to dive in and swim and put your food on the menu.”