clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

The Essential 38 Portland Restaurants, April 2013

View as Map

It's time to update the Eater 38, your answer and ours to any question that begins, "Can you recommend a restaurant...?" This highly elite group covers the entire city, spans myriad cuisines, and collectively satisfies all of your restaurant needs, save for those occasions when you absolutely must spend half a paycheck. Every couple of months, we'll be adding pertinent restaurants that were omitted, have newly become eligible (restaurants must be open at least six months), or have stepped up their game.

This time around, after much reflecting and poring over reader emails and comments, the 38 bids farewell to two spots that recently underwent chef changes — jury's still out on updates to the Bent Brick and Genoa. In their place come two passionately beloved reader favorites: the hot chef counter at Trent Pierce's modern seafood spot Roe, and the lively bistro approach of Gabe Rucker and Erik Van Kley's Little Bird.

Read More
If you buy something or book a reservation from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.

Pok Pok

Copy Link

Classically trained chef Andy Ricker moves to Thailand, learns to cook Thai food better than the locals, and serves up enough Vietnamese chicken wings, boar collar, and noodle soups to snag himself a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest. Ricker's now a certified empire-builder, but it's worth a trip to the mothership if you want to never look at Thai food the same way again.

If Alvar aalto and Betty Crocker had a love child, it would be this Southeast Clinton Scandinavian place, and it would arrive on small wooden boards accompanied by lingonberry jam, pickled vegetables, and smoked fish. In a town where brunch is king, Broder's menu — from Swedish hash to aebleskiver with lemon curd — is the most inventive in Portland. (And yes, the dinner menu's pretty great, too.)

smallwares

Copy Link

Chef Johanna Ware brings a New York sensibility to her NE spot Smallwares, serving unapologetically "inauthentic" Asian small plates with a late-night, rock 'n' roll attitude (the spot's bright red-and-black color scheme adds to the mood). But each dish is elegantly composed — dashi poached eggs with roe, lobster mushrooms served with a walnut puree, a super-spicy somen noodle — and Ware even manages to put a spin on the ever-ubiquitous kale: by deep-frying it and serving with a minty fish sauce.

Nong's Khao Man Gai

Copy Link

Nong Poonsukwattana, of the downtown food cart Nong's Khao Man Gai, finally makes a play at world domination with the recent debut of two additional Nong's locations, including this proper brick-and-mortar space that functions as a to-go counter. Of course, Nong's addictive signature dish, a Thai take on Hainan chicken, takes center stage, here and at Nong's two food cart locations, at SW Alder and at the PSU cart pod.

Husband-and-wife team Greg and Gabrielle Quiñonez Denton have lit up Portland's dining scene with the opening of their Argentine-inspired restaurant Ox, a spot where wood-grilled simplicity meets evil-genius concoctions like sweetbread "croutons" and house-made blood sausage. Though meat hitting the grill is the main focus (skirt steak and lamb chops are tops), both veggies and seafood represent well in homey dishes like hominy stew and braised octopus. It's best to get in line early, though dinner wait times can be nursed at the neighboring Whey Bar.

Le Pigeon

Copy Link

James Beard Rising Chef winner Gabe Rucker rocks his East Burnside hole-in-the-wall with an open kitchen, a short menu, and a firm handle on how to make inventive but mostly accessible food. This is where you’ll find pickled onions on your burger and foie gras in your profiterole, but it’s also where you’ll find some killer fried green tomatoes on your pork belly and a really good namesake chicken-under-a-brick. If you're looking for a "special occasion" meal, invest in the chef's tasting menu.

Tasty 'N Sons

Copy Link

John Gorham's insanely popular second spot reinvents Portland's favorite meal — brunch — taking it to new heights worth the inevitable looooong wait. The sprawling, family-style menu flaunts influences from North Africa to Asia to the American South, with a strong "put an egg on it ethos": Think shakshuka with merguez sausage, Burmese red pork stew, and a soul-soothingly simple polenta and sausage ragu.

Bunk Sandwiches

Copy Link

Tommy Habetz and Nick Wood have turned this little storefront into a local and then national legend. What you'll get here aren't just sandwiches — these are entire meals served between two slices of bread. Eating Bunk's sandwiches makes you want to say stupid shit like "achingly tender" (because it's really the only way to describe their tripe alla romana) and "utterly decadent" (because that's really the only way to describe their killer East Coast-y meatball). See also: Bunk Bar. Which is Bunk, with booze. [Photo]

Dining at NE Killingsworth's DOC feels a little like stumbling into a private party full of food-focused people. Guests walk through the front-of-house kitchen into an intimate dining room where chef Jobie Bailey uses ingredients fresh plucked from his backyard garden. In a city where "seasonal" is a menu must-have, DOC's truly highlights the Pacific Northwest's best by adding an Italian touch.

Restaurant St Jack

Copy Link

St. Jack, Eater's 2011 Restaurant of the Year, creates the ultimate bouchon experience in this darling SE Division bistro. Embrace "Non, je ne regrette rein" as your official dining motto and sit back and relax with a few whiskey cocktails, plates of rich escargot gratin and roasted bone marrow. When specials are available, snatch them up, particularly the pied de cochon and stuffed duck neck. And don't forget the patisserie: it serves up one of Portland's best under-the-radar lunches.

Ned Ludd

Copy Link

The gimmick at this Northeast restaurant is that chef Jason French cooks everything (seriously — everything) in a wood-fired oven. But there’s absolutely nothing gimmicky about what emerges from the fire: whole roasted trout, ash-kissed seasonal vegetables, bright salads, and stunning culinary experiences like "pork noodles" made entirely from pork fat. Ned Ludd also happens to be Portland best-kept brunch secret. (Seriously, the brunch here is killer.)

Portobello Vegan Trattoria

Copy Link

At SE Division's Portobello, chef Aaron Adams turns the idea of vegan cooking on its head, delivering a rustic, soulful take on Northwest Italian food — that just happens to be meat- and dairy-free. Standouts on the always-changing menu include stuffed pastas and Adams' pillowy, crisp gnocchi; the arribata pizza features an impressive sausage substitute that'll fool even the most avowed meat-lover.

Olympic Provisions

Copy Link

It's best known for its meaty goodness — Olympic Provisions famously boasts Oregon’s first USDA certified meat-curing facility — but venture past the charcuterie plate into an omnivore paradise, with chef Alex Yoder's rustic takes on shaved Brussels sprouts, marinated anchovies, and roasted cod. Weekend brunch is one of the city's most underrated. [Photo]

Janis Martin's underground drinking den (don't call it a restaurant) now occupies a larger space on SE Stark, but the charms from its old NW spot remain: Japanese zombie flicks, stupidly affordable happy hour, and lots and lots of sake. Invest in the chef's omakase (seafood's the focus here) and watch as a pile of inventive plates arrive to the table: think spiced duck hearts, oysters with kimchi shaved ice, and hamachi.

Natural Selection

Copy Link

Chef Aaron Woo gives Portland vegetarians what they've long been craving: an upscale dining experience featuring all-veggie — and mostly vegan and gluten-free — options. Woo presents diners with truly inventive and unexpected dishes based on what's available at the market that particular week, and the $40, four-course prix fixe is one of the best deals in town.

Toro Bravo

Copy Link

Toro Bravo is about as Spanish as the French revolution (have you ever seen a pulled pork sandwich in a restaurant in Madrid?) but regardless of nationality, this is damn good food, and stays true to the trifecta of Spanish cuisine: garlic, paprika, and religion. Get there right when it opens — at five — and be ready to fight for your spot.

Who says that too many cooks spoil the broth? At Aviary, three recent NYC transplants — Sarah Pliner, Jasper Shen, and Kat Whitehead — present an eclectic menu that actually delivers, with unique plates that reflect the trio's variety of influences; a hint of French here, Asian flair there. Heartier dishes get higher marks: go for the goat curry, four-cup chicken, and what's easily the spot's signature dish: Crispy pig ear served over coconut rice.

Chef Trent Pierce resurrects his creative approach to seafood at the back-room, reservation-only Roe, where the multi-course tasting menu offers inspired takes on fresh fish and foraged greens. Hidden in the rear of Pierce's popular SE ramen house Wafu, Roe offers a conceptual opposite, combining modernist technique with vaguely Asian flavors.

Country Cat Dinnerhouse & Bar

Copy Link

The Country Cat is all about American food, prepared by a chef, Adam Sappington, who understands and executes the nuances of old world cuisine. You might be ordering chicken and dumplings, but what you're getting is chicken and dumplings in a sauce so complicated and complex you might think you're in Paris. The fried chicken here is out of control, and Sappington's the guy who made in-house butchery cool.

Little Bird Bistro

Copy Link

The second restaurant owned by Le Pigeon chef/Beard Award-winner Gabriel Rucker, Little Bird provides the more classic (yet surprisingly casual) counterpart to Rucker's now-famously bold take on French cooking. Chef Erik Van Kley serves expertly prepared takes on Parisian bistro favorites like crispy veal sweetbreads, chicken liver mousse, and cassoulet; pastry chef Nora Antene's desserts are tops.

Tucked into a SE 82nd strip mall, Ha & VL dishes out Vietnamese soup that transcends the more-familiar pho, and you'll eat what they tell you: Just a couple varieties of savor-each-last-drop broth are available each day, but whether it's the crab flake or shrimp cake or ground pork, these noodle soups will have you slurping up every. last. bite. (If you head over after 11am, call beforehand to ensure the soup du jour is still available.) [Photo]

It's a splurge, but Portland's most high-profile chef, James Beard finalist (and Top Chef Master) Naomi Pomeroy, rocks the kitchen at Beast, where each intimate, prix-fixe seating is like a dinner party gone carnivorously crazy. Charcuterie plates explode with terrine, gelee, tartare, mousse; braised duck, pork shoulder, and beef cheeks make common appearances on the rotating menu.

Nuestra Cocina

Copy Link

Since long before SE Division became known as "Restaurant Row" (aka 2005), neighborhood residents have flocked to chef Benjamin Gonzales' laid-back — but bustling — Mexican restaurant. The vibe's convivial and consistently high-energy thanks to flowing margaritas and a barrage of savory and sharable small plates (tacos de puerco on handmade tortillas, queso fundido, rotating ceviches). [Photo]

Screen Door

Copy Link

Local-sourced and southern-fried, everything on this menu — from the pimento cheese scramble in the AM to the evening’s brined bird — keeps the locals lining up for seconds, thirds, and fourths of this south-surveying menu, which covers Carolina low-country cuisine, soul food, and the refinement of New Orleans. [Photo]

Podnah's Pit BBQ

Copy Link

Podnah’s hits the lowest common denominator of what makes food satisfying: there’s salt, sweetness, fat, and Rodney Muirhead’s sauce has the perfect acidity. The brisket is perfectly smoked, the meat’s some of the best in the city (fanatics fight to the death for the smoke prime rib specials), but what makes Podnah’s the greatest is its total lack of pretension. Weekend breakfast is one of the city's best under-the-radar options.

Taqueria Y Panaderia Santa Cruz

Copy Link

Why head south to CA for authentic Mexican flavors when you can drive north to St. Johns? The cafeteria-style Tienda Santa Cruz 2 flies under-the-radar in the back of a neighborhood grocery store, but reveals huge flavors in its ridiculously cheap tacos and burritos. The spot's practically made for shameless gorging: Go for a half-dozen tacos of the lengua, al pastor, and chorizo; they're addictive and will cost you under $10. [Photo]

One part ramen den, one part izakaya, two parts modernista basement bunker, this late-night chefs' hangout is run by the most improbable Japanese chef in town: a white guy from Michigan. But don't be distracted by Gabe Rosen’s provenance: this man can noodle and kimchi with the best of them, and the Biwa burger — only available during late night — has become legendary.

The Woodsman Tavern

Copy Link

Named one of GQ's best new restaurants of 2011, the perennially-buzzing Woodsman Tavern borrows from myriad big-city influences — Balthazar's seafood tower, Hog & Rocks' ham plates — but brings it all down to earth with chef Jason Barwikowski's Mediterranean-influenced cooking. Surprisingly, lines have yet to form for weekend brunch, despite deeply comforting dishes like potted egg with greens.

Grüner

Copy Link

Chris Israel's Alpine-influenced Gruner ushers in the West End neighborhood (especially with the recent debut of its accompanying bar Kask, already known for its inventive cocktail list). Though Israel's expertly executed menu takes inspiration from the Black Forest to the Black Sea (complete with bratwurst, ja?), it deserves highest marks for its burger, hands-down one of the town's best (and definitely its juiciest).

Evoe at Pastaworks

Copy Link

At this nondescript little counter tucked to the side of specialty grocery Pastaworks, Kevin Gibson is, more so than any chef in town, about the ingredients. A squash salad is just that: slivered squash with a little balsamic and some pumpkin seeds. The whole experience is proof that all you need for a really good lunch is a good pantry and Kevin Gibson in your house. [Photo]

Bamboo Sushi NW

Copy Link

Portland's "green" ethos is no more obvious than at Bamboo — the world's first certified-sustainable sushi restaurant — where always-fresh catch plays nicely with unexpected flavor combinations (scallops, meet juniper olive oil and red miso dust). Momentum has shifted from the SE flagship to the NW 23rd location, which ups the kitchen offerings to include seafood "charcuterie," featuring bites like uni custard and tuna prosciutto.

Laurelhurst Market

Copy Link

At the forefront of Portland's now-famously carnivorous culinary scene, Laurelhurst Market's combination butchery counter, steakhouse, and sandwich stop ushered in a city-wide movement toward meat — without the stuffiness seen in steakhouses of yore. The open room (and LM's famous bar program) create an energetic atmosphere where diners an indulge with a few dozen oysters before their prime cuts; or simply grab a sandwich to-go.

Paley's Place

Copy Link

This is the Balthazar of Portland: the place that manages to be creative, yet so classic. Whether you’re enjoying mussels frites, escargots, or really interesting northwest takes on classic French-style cooking, head chef Vitaly Paley remains playful and inventive while never veering too far off the path.

Nostrana

Copy Link

Intensely regional Italian food, wood-fired oven pizza, and a totally accessible menu make Cathy Whims one of the the most renowned female chefs in Portland (and the PNW: she's been nominated for Beard four times). A barrel-vaulted exposed wood ceiling, tons of windows, and just enough chatter to brighten things up make Nostrana the most renowned casual-ish place in town.

Castagna

Copy Link

Chef Justin Woodward picks up where culinary wunderkind Matt Lightner left off, deftly continuing Castagna's reputation as the pioneer of the local "au natural" culinary movement: Greens and flowers are foraged by the chef himself, then presented in a molecular style that remains authentic and accessible over gimmicky.