Portland’s national profile has been something of a roller coaster over the last quarter century — from iconoclastic blue-collar riverport to affordable bohemian oasis to flashpoint for the country’s civil rights struggle. Throughout it all, Portland has steadily grown in esteem into one of America’s destination food cities, achieving a maturity, dynamism, and diversity of flavor that has snuck up on even some of its longtime residents.
With few defining characteristics beyond its uncommonly rich bounty of local produce, seafood, and wine, Portland’s food and drink community is defined by a spirit of risk-taking. The expansive food cart and pop-up scene allows talented food creators to experiment with new concepts at lower cost, and even allows widely revered and successful restaurants to spontaneously reinvent themselves. Largely unburdened by a sense of what Portland food ought to be, the Portland culinary community continues to outrace expectations and resist boundaries.
The guide below is not a definitive list of the best restaurants in town, nor an entry level course for out-of-towners. It’s a group of establishments that can enthrall both first-time visitors and longtime Portlanders, and a harbinger of where the scene might be going next.
The history of the Pacific Northwest as national capital of coffee culture and global capital of sneaker culture follow parallel trajectories: from humble beginnings in the niche bean roasters of Seattle and the iconoclastic running culture of Eugene in the 1970s to breakaway success in the 1980s and global domination in the 1990s. Nike and Starbucks aren’t going anywhere, of course, but in each category a vibrant ecosystem of independent artisans has flourished over the last two decades. Perhaps the best single place to tap into these dynamic cultures is former Nike developer Ian Williams’s Deadstock Coffee in Portland’s Old Town. Located next door to the Pensole Academy footwear design school and roasting beans in house, Deadstock not only makes some of the best coffee in Portland, it cultivates an inviting community atmosphere, where both regulars and traveling sneakerheads sip lattes and debate Jordan III vs XI. 408 NW Couch Street
While plenty of American cities have food carts, perhaps no city is as defined by its carts as Portland, with several of the town’s most iconic restaurants making their start in wheeled trailers. Boosted by forward-thinking licensing regulations and less onerous startup costs, it’s particularly easy to launch a cart in Portland with reduced risk to the business owner and any investors. Even through the pandemic, Portland’s food cart numbers have grown to more than 1,000 in the county, with exciting new carts hitting the scene every week. Nearly every pod in town has its gems (as well as duds), but pound-for-pound the best might just be Portland Mercado in Southeast’s Foster-Powell neighborhood, a collection of eight brightly colored food carts, each deliciously representing different corners of Latin America — Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Costa Rica, and more — and anchored by a brick-and-mortar indoor dining space, carniceria, wine bar, and coffee shop. Mercado has a unifying theme and spirit, with carts often joining together for themed menu specials, musical events, and other attractions. 7238 SE Foster Road
The term “the Portland of” gets thrown around frequently, often applied to artsy, progressive cities — Asheville, Austin, Louisville, Burlington, and Tucson among others — that serve as regional magnets for young people seeking culture and quality of life over narrow career success. One factor that will keep our Portland distinct from these comparison cities is its proximity to the rich and often sustainably fished waters of the north Pacific. Portland is blessed with dozens of seafood restaurants, and countless others prominently feature fresh local seafood in their menus, but perhaps no place fuses the spirits of tradition and invention like SE Clinton’s stylish-but-unpretentious bistro Jacqueline. Fresh seafood is the focus here and given delicately creative treatments that never overpower the fish, like an island of juniper-cured salmon crudo in a shallow sea of oat milk, topped with green beans, pickled mustard seeds, and a drizzle of cucumber skin oil. Come for the locally sourced dollar oysters and pet nat (or Topo Chico) between 5 and 6 p.m., giving yourself time to carefully study the menu in advance of dinner. 2039 SE Clinton Street
Encompassing countless stylistic influences, Pacific Northwest pizza can roughly be divided into two categories: more traditional-leaning pizzerias where the dough comes first versus more daring topping-focused pizza parlors. Naturally the best of the best excel in both categories — excellent ingredients and elite crust abounds — but discerning pizza fiends can decipher when the kitchen’s heart lies with one or the other. Portland pizza rock star Sarah Minnick is a seasonal ingredient savant, creating thrilling combos at Lovely’s Fifty Fifty that offer fun surprises without ever feeling gimmicky. Her sourdough crust, made with Oregon-grown whole grains, might serve as the canvas for summer goosefoot greens, capers, and olives, or a spring asparagus and pea greens, or black trumpet mushrooms and roasted kohlrabi. The fact that Lovely’s scoops a half dozen organic ice creams makes it a must for Portlanders. 4039 N Mississippi Avenue
While many out-of-towners may consider the now-closed Pok Pok to be Portland’s Thai destination, locals have long understood Akkapong Earl Ninsom to be the true king of Thai food here. Ninsom’s restaurants and collaborations currently include Phuket, Paadee, Eem, and two Hat Yais — each showcasing a different side to Ninsom’s inspired Thai cooking. The crown jewel in Ninsom’s stable remains Langbaan, the cozy pinnacle of fine Thai dining at the far northern end of Northwest 23rd Avenue. Rare for Portland, reservations are usually booked out for weeks, but the reward is well worth the wait, and the atmosphere is much more homey than stuffy. The five-course tasting menu from Ninsom’s chefs draws on regional Thai cooking techniques, the freshest and often local ingredients, and more than a little inspiration. The menu changes often, but longtime favorites like the miang som appetizer — tiny orange wedges, shrimp, and peanuts on a peppery betel leaf — can usually be found. Entrees will often feature multiple types of local seafood, such as nam prik nakron baan: halibut collar with smoked trout relish and greens. Note that the Langbaan staff currently can’t accommodate completely vegetarian or vegan tasting menu alternatives, but strives to make substitutions when possible. 1818 NW 23rd Place
Portland is famously dizzy with local breweries, as well as outposts of others from Oregon like Rogue and Full Sail. But few in have as long a run of sustained excellence, a clear mission, and a terrific food menu like Cascade. Founded in 1998, Cascade long predated — and some would say catalyzed — the sour beer movement, and has more than proved that sour is an expansive style in which a wide range of flavors, concepts, and experimentation can flourish. The acidity-forward Vlad The Imp Aler and velvety Bourbonic Plague will delight beer nerds, with the kriek serving as the impeccably balanced soul of the Cascade project. The food menu is leaps and bounds beyond typical brewery drinking food, with seasonal treats like a tangy ceviche and fennel-flavored summer pasta in addition to heavier standbys like garlic mac and cheese and pretzels with beer cheese dip. For those resistant to the charms of sours, Cascade brews a half dozen stellar traditional ales, including blonds, lagers, and of course IPAs. 939 SE Belmont Street
Routinely ranked as one of the best cities in the world for vegans, Portland not only has a growing wealth of vegan restaurants, bars, and dessert shops; a high percentage of the restaurants that aren’t comprehensively vegan recognize how many of their potential patrons are, and take care to include creative and substantive vegan options on their menus. The worker-owned Mirisata on SE Belmont draws on Sri Lanka’s rich, produce-heavy culinary traditions for spicy food with a thrilling spectrum of textures and colors. The chopped roti-based kottu is a nourishing meal for one; duos and groups can opt for the Sri Lankan rice and curry family meal, served on banana leaves with frequently rotating highlights — typically, the meal includes a potato dish, a creamy dal, a spicy curry, and a sweet and tangy sambal. In keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the worker-owned restaurant, a trip to the restroom requires a walk through the working kitchen, giving a peek at the hard work going into every dynamic dish. 2420 SE Belmont Street
The intimate, ten-seat Nimblefish on SE Hawthorne navigated the challenges of the pandemic by first going all-takeout, then moving to an entirely reservation-required omakase experience. The Edomae-style Nimblefish requires extra TLC for each piece of fish, and the results are apparent on first bite. The historic method of pre-curing was first devised as a way to preserve uncooked fish a bit longer, but is revered today as a technique that brings out greater depth of flavor from the already complex fish. As a result, the sushi here is presented disarmingly simply — those accustomed to four or five striking tastes in a single roll will be taken aback. But diners who close their eyes, place the nigiri on their tongues, and let the subtle flavors emerge will be thrilled. Portland is fortunate to have a wealth of stellar sushi, but Nimblefish stands alone for the purity of its tasting experience. 1524 SE 20th Avenue
When the wet, gray shroud of November rolls in from the west, and the damp, chilly months ahead seem at their most daunting, there is nothing so restorative as a bowl of hot soup. Portland is blessed with dozens of knockout bowls, from protein-packed cioppinos to silky ramens. But few Portlanders would argue against Ha VL’s William Vuong and Christina Ha Luu sitting comfortably on the brothy throne. The modest strip-mall establishment on SE 82nd features a five-day rotation of two to three Vietnamese soups per day, from the simple, elegant phở gà to the riot of flavor and textures in hủ tiếu nam vang (shrimp, fish balls, squid, sliced pork liver, and more). Each soup is like opening a door to a rich, complex, and warm sensory world. Perhaps its stiffest competition is sister restaurant Rose VL on Powell, serving an equally enticing rotation of mostly different soups and closed on alternate days to ensure at least one location is open on any given day of the week. 2738 SE 82nd Avenue
In a town where so many establishments are grounded in the fabric of the natural and human landscape of the region around them, Expatriate is an alternate reality, concocting an atmosphere somewhere between a memory and a dream. Particularly at night, with near-black walls evaporating into the shadows, the glow of neon and flicker of candles play across the faces of fellow imbibers, and the lovingly curated ’70s soul and rock LPs on the turntable remind us that “nostalgia” means “the pain of remembering.” The cocktails here are superb, both from the verbosely annotated menu or, even better, when trust is placed fully in the hands of the bartender. The food menu — from co-founder and Beast/Ripe Cooperative mastermind Naomi Pomeroy — is small, rarely changing, and unforgettable. Snack light with a crust-free James Beard butter and onion sandwich and an herbaceous tea leaf salad, or come hungry for the half pound of beef in the American standard burger plate. 5424 NE 30th Avenue
Nong’s ultra-simple signature dish has been a Portland staple for so long it’s almost easy to take it for granted. Surely every city must have an intoxicatingly tender Thai chicken and rice dish available fast and affordably counter-service, right? Unless the city in question is Bangkok, the answer is, sadly, no. One of Portland’s most heart-warming success stories, owner Nong Poonsukwattana famously left Thailand with $70 to her name, scraped together funds for a food cart downtown, and became the owner of two bustling restaurants with a James Beard nomination and undying love from countless Portlanders to her name. And — somewhat paradoxically in a city where constant invention and reinvention are synonymous with so much of the food scene — Nong’s somehow achieved comfort food perfection out of the gate. The chickens are carefully selected from Mary’s Free-Range Chickens stock — too big and they are less flavorful — and the simple-but-marvelous ritual is strictly followed: a highly aromatic broth poaches the chicken, leaving a beautiful broth that cooks toasted jasmine rice. The chicken arrives chopped and served on the expertly toothsome rice and a cup of the now deeply rich broth. (Chicken livers, once de rigueur in the original cart, are now extra.) With Nong’s now ubiquitous, ginger-laden sauce, the resulting sensory experience is somehow refreshing and delicate enough for a warm June afternoon and also sufficiently umami-packed and nourishing to warm the spirit on the dampest and darkest of January evenings. 609 SE Ankeny Street C
Ken Forkish, perhaps the most influential baker in Oregon history, turned over the reins of his westside bakery and eastside pizza parlor to trusted longtime associates at the close of 2021 and retired to focus on cookbook writing. To the croissant-chomping public at least, the transitions went off without a hitch. Ken’s Artisan Bakery continues to bake exceptional breads, craft simple but wonderfully balanced sandwiches on those breads and create an irresistible array of flaky croissants, airy macarons, and signature eye-popping fruit tarts featuring the freshest of local berries and other fruits. Indoor and outdoor seating can be hard to come by during busy hours, so be prepared to grab orders to go. 338 NW 21st Avenue
For a city anchoring one of the world’s renowned wine regions, Portland wine bars can be surprisingly bashful about the ratio of Oregon wines to other wines on their lists. Northwest Portland’s Bar Diane is no exception, often featuring as many wines from Slovenia or Portugal as it does from the Willamette Valley a bike ride away. The wine list is exceptional, with a by-the-glass list covering the gamut from chilled red to orange to sparkling rosé, and a deep bottle list with gems that will tickle even the most exacting oenophile. The layout is intimate without feeling cramped; the high contrast decor conjures a Northwest indie remake of a mid-’70s Nouvelle Vague rom-com. In town chock-full of cute wine bars with lovingly curated cellars, Bar Diane’s standout feature is its food. Above and beyond the perfunctory cheese, olives, and bread, Diane could serve as a perfectly lovely full dinner, with lighter fare like an albacore crudo with cherry tomatoes and fennel pollen, or a serious entree like a squash pasta, black cod, or hanger steak with yogurt, sweet onion, and heirloom tomatoes. Those merely seeking sipping snacks won’t go astray with the wonderful array of oysters. NW 21st Avenue between Irving & Hoyt
Special Night Out
One of the most heartening stories of 2022 was the triumphant return of Akadi, the scintillating West African restaurant first launched in a humble space on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. At the outset of the pandemic, Akadi’s takeout business boomed, but at the end of 2020, founder Fatou Ouattara closed the restaurant to spend time with family in her native Côte d’Ivoire. While Ouattara offered promises of a “bigger and better” return in the indefinite future, Portlanders have seen too many favorites shutter with rumors of comebacks that never materialized. Ouattara and husband George Faux proved the skeptics wrong with a return that can indeed only be described as bigger and better. The menu is expanded and longtime signature dishes might even be more flavorful than before. A new location on SE Division offers substantially more indoor seating than the old, with high ceilings, more ambitious decor, a full bar, and space for the now regular live music on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. Akadi’s West African cuisine draws principally but not exclusively on Côte d’Ivoirian cooking, offering both meat-heavy dishes like “The Goat” curry-style stew and a host of vegan offerings like the spicy spinach and okra stew, with each feeling like natural, uncompromised creations. Whether it’s a hot date or catching up with an old friend, there are few more rewarding places in town to enjoy a special night out. 1001 SE Division Street Unit 2