Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite places in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant’s ethos, sharing fun personal takes, and fostering a community spirit. Know of a chef you’d like to see featured? Let us know via our tip line.
After departing Tusk in 2020, chef Sam Smith thought he needed a break from restaurants. It didn’t last long. Pivoting into consulting, he quickly helped open veggie bowl spot Wild Thing and Seattle bakery Saint Bread before partnering with Sweedeedee owner Eloise Augustyn for a complete reconceptualization of the popular brunch destination. It’s been a year and a half, and Smith feels he’s made his mark. So, on December 24, he’ll leave the restaurant to pursue something new.
“There’s so much stuff I wanna do in my life,” says Smith. “I wanna travel and be more impulsive. I feel really excited to take opportunities as they come.” He’ll develop the menu for a friend’s new place in Santa Fe, but he’s not leaving Portland. After helping out the newly open No Saint, Smith looks forward to pop-ups around town, including a revival of a recent college dorm-themed situation in his garage, which featured plussed-up Cup Noodles and other nostalgic snacks.
As for Sweedeedee, Smith is proud of what he’s accomplished with his reboot. “I was very much inspired by the soul of what Sweedeedee had been doing, I just brought my own voice,” he says. “I hope I set it up in a way so those who follow feel comfortable doing their own thing based on what I’ve built.”
Smith, through his multiple Instagram accounts (@sam_burglar, @slamb_eating, @burger_transformer) has also become known as Portland’s premiere restaurant recommender. Eater Portland chatted with Smith to collect his current favorites, a megamix of old-school Portland classics, Vietnamese specialties on 82nd, and his favorite mall chain restaurants.
Eater: What are some restaurants that click with your personal ethos?
Sam Smith: Navarre is the one I frequent most. So simple, and they stick to using local produce. That happens less than people might expect. I’ve been working with farms so long, I can tell.
What’s a place that’s inspiring you right now?
Fuller’s, that classic breakfast counter thing. When I think about what I wanna do in the future, I tap into that energy. I like to go to places with history. Feeling that soul that goes along with something, that’s so rare. For lunch, their fried fish sandwich is so good, my favorite in town, and they also have a really good club: instead of sliced turkey, they do a chicken salad layer and a BLT layer on their homemade white bread.
Also, Murata. I was actually there last night, with Earl [Ninsom], from Paadee and stuff.
What if I was like, “Who?”
There might be other Earls! For sushi, Murata’s my favorite in town. All the other food is so simple, beautiful, and perfect. It’s inspiring to me in its simplicity.
Inspiration from a restaurant can be anything. Inspiration can come from the fabric on the chairs.
When you walk in, everyone says hello and goodbye. You feel really taken care of. The way it makes me feel when I go there is how I want to make guests feel.
Now, why we’re really here: give us a mega-list of your favorite places.
I go to Cameo Cafe for the bindae-tteok and pork chops with gravy. The whole experience is so welcoming and warm. I drink way too much coffee there, one sip and they’re instantly refilling. I never know how much I’ve consumed; sometimes I get a little fucked up.
I love Ikoi no Kai, the lunch program in the basement of the Japanese Ancestral Society. It’s really awesome; they do it a few days a week.
If I’m craving a burger, my favorite place is Dea’s In & Out in Gresham for the “longburger”: a soft squishy bun with a rectangular patty.
Grant’s Philly Cheesesteak on Sandy is the only place that reminds me of Philadelphia, where I lived for nine years. I get an original with onions and provolone, and a side of Cheez Whiz to dip it in.
I eat so much noodle soup. I crave pan-fried shrimp cake noodle soup with sui kau at Kenny’s Noodle House, and the wonton soup at Zien Hong on Sandy.
At Bánh Mì Nam Lộc, I always get banh khot, these shrimp crepes; banh bot chien, stir-fried rice cakes with scrambled egg; and bo kho, beef stew with French bread. Perfect every time.
Supporting small, local businesses is always gonna be my priority. But there’s something about the consistency at chain restaurants that’s really comforting. I really like going to the mall, and those things go hand in hand. I will make an excuse to go to Clackamas Town Center for the Korean chain Bonchon. Korean fried chicken, fried potstickers tossed in spicy sauce, kimchi-bacon fried rice, all so fucking good. There’s also a California Pizza Kitchen at that mall and I ride or die for CPK.
I feel that. Does it make you feel strange, though? I always want the burger from Red Robin that has pineapple on it, but it feels like it would be wild to go alone.
A little bit. It depends on which one I go to. It’s funny, somebody sent me a video of Post Malone at Olive Garden. He knows what he’s doing. He gets chicken parm extra crispy, subs rigatoni for spaghetti, butter packets for the breadsticks —
I’m sorry, but you really have the vibe of Post Malone going to an Olive Garden.
That’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.