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.
In my June interview with Cheese & Crack owner William Steuernagel, Steuernagel shouted out his old friends and former neighbors at Malka, Jessie Aron’s homey and often wildly eclectic restaurant on Southeast Division. Riffing on the restaurant’s signature trait of naming dishes playful things, I made up a name for a nonexistent dish on the spot: Ziggy Stardust On a Big Ol’ Boat.
A month passes. One day, I look at Malka’s new pre-fixe menu, and there, being served at one of Portland’s most beloved new restaurants, is a burrata toast with vadouvan roasted tomato jam, red curry bacon, summer squash, pistachio dukkah, basil, lemon, and olive oil on Yukon gold sourdough. The name of the dish? Ziggy Stardust On a Big Ol’ Boat. I reached out to co-owner Colin McArthur to see why and how my passing joke became an actual dish and to discuss his favorite Portland restaurants, which include Hat Yai, DeMarco’s, and, somehow, 7-Eleven. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eater: It’s like a celebrity deli moment. I lived in New York for five years. If something is on bread, and it’s named after you, that’s a really big deal.
Colin McArthur: It’s your namesake. I don’t know if Jess cleared that with you-
That’s ballsy. She read the interview with William and she was like ‘Yup, you nailed it, we’re gonna take that name.’ It’s a funny piece of work coming up with names for the menu. There’s the stress of the dish being perfect, and you also have to come up with a fun name that’s perfect for it. So it was a relief to have somebody do that work. We first started doing that back at the cart. Why do cocktails get to have all the fun?
So, you and Jess are old friends with Will — back when Malka and Cheese & Crack first started as food carts, you guys were neighbors.
Right. I was there pretty close to the beginning. I knew Jess from the music scene. She was in a band called Ocean Age and I was in a band called Animal Eyes and we would go to each other’s shows and jam. I got a job at the cart, worked there for four or five years, became the right-hand person and really love making the food, so I’m still here. Now we’re business partners and co-run the restaurant together. We have a brother-sister dynamic.
What does dining out look like for you?
Rangoon Bistro. That food is so good, it’s just inspiring to want to be on that level. They’re so intimately in the space, so respectful, and watching them work is like a dream because they’re just so in the flow of it. Taqueria Lindo Michoacan’s chicken flautas. An Xuyen Bakery banh mi for getting us through life and the pandemic. Those places are precious to me. The two food carts next door, they’re both very good. DeMarco’s Sandwiches eggplant Parm with extra marinara sauce and Kim Jong Grillin’s bibim box with tofu or bulgogi.
What makes you an eggplant Parm person vs. a chicken Parm person?
I just love a really good vegetarian dish. I like the texture of it, it stays really juicy.
What are your pizza toppings?
For the restaurant, classic margherita. If I’m having a great time on my own, anything sweet and spicy, like pineapple and jalapenos and pepperoni. I also like the pork sausage and ricotta from Ranch. I order a lot of pizza from a lot of places. For a while it was only Apizza Scholls. Right now it’s Pizzeria Otto, they have really good Calabrian chili hot sauce.
Are you a breakfast person?
Not really. I’ve eaten 7-Eleven taquitos for breakfast.
That’s… bleak. They’ve been rollin’.
They’re good. There’s a cook here who recently said that his favorite restaurant in Portland is 7-Eleven. We got him a gift card for his birthday. Really though, I just recently started having the time to start going out and feeling safe doing it. I went to Erica’s Soul Food — the collard greens there are so deep and rich and perfectly seasoned. I got the smothered chicken with mushrooms, that was really good. [Editor’s note: Erica’s Soul Food is temporarily closed, but will reopen in a new location.] I love all of Earl Ninsom’s restaurants. Can he do wrong? I don’t think so. If I’m going out, I will always want to go to Hat Yai. I went last night, actually.
When you go, do you venture outside of the combo? I don’t know how, so tell me what else you like there.
Oh my God, like, everything. The combo’s really good, there’s no shame in that. We recently ordered it for family meal and everyone was so inspired. They have big thick noodles right now with poached egg and shiitake mushrooms and asparagus and you break the egg on it and it becomes part of the sauce and very rich. I just had the flank steak with red curry last night. The ground pork with makrut lime leaves, the brisket in green curry, it’s all really good. It’s such a solid restaurant with really good cooks there.
You’re also wearing a Guero T-shirt. So what’s your go-to there?
Oh man, yeah. The refrito, with the refried beans. I worked there for like two years. Really great place to work, I loved that job.