You don’t have to take my word for it that Portland is full of great places to eat. Many of my favorite eateries have been written up in national news outlets, but I still want to make sure you know about them so you understand why I go on and on and on about them when you talk to me.
- Pok Pok – This is my favorite Thai place in a city full of Thai places, but you won’t find pad thai on the menu. Pok Pok is more of an homage to Thai street food, and an order of Ike’s Vietnamese chicken wings is a must. The cocktails are also spectacular (try the ones made with the drinking vinegars for a special treat). There’s often an annoyingly long wait here, but if you’ve got a group of 5+ you can make reservations (highly recommended for dinner, especially on weekends), and you can now get a drink and an order of Ike’s wings at the Whiskey Soda Lounge across the street while you wait.
- Ken’s Artisan Pizza – My favorite pizza outside of Italy is made by the husband right in my own kitchen, but a very close second is any pizza made at Ken’s Artisan Pizza. The big wood oven and attention to detail make the dough perfectly chewy inside and crisp outside, and a limited menu of toppings means you’re getting the best stuff available. Ken’s doesn’t take reservations, so plan on a wait (especially on weekends) – if you spot open seats at the bar, however, grab them. You’ll get the same dinner menu at the bar and you’ll typically have much less of a wait.
- Tabla – Tabla used to serve one of my favorite dishes in Portland (after tasting it the first time I assumed the chef had sold his soul to the devil for something so orgasmically good). The menu is a medley of Mediterranean foods, and you can order everything in full or half sizes – so you can sample more dishes without getting over-stuffed. Tabla does a nice happy hour, which is nice if you’re on a dining budget, and although I’m told the pappardelle with rabbit ragu is permanently off the menu now (cue sad trombone), if they have a change of heart and you see it I advise you strongly to order it.
- Mio Gelato – I’m a fan of Italian gelato, so I feel lucky that there’s an exceptional gelateria in Portland. In fact, my favorite – Mio Gelato – has four locations around the Portland area, three of which are in the city center. The gelato is authentically Italian; many of the flavors are the same ones you’d find in any gelato shop in Italy. There are also sometimes flavors that are locally popular, too, and they have special seasonal flavors as well. There’s usually a selection of sandwiches, soup, and other snacks on hand if you want to make it a one-stop-shop for lunch, but the highlight here is really the gelato.
- Ping – The people behind Pok Pok had such great success with it that they opened a sister restaurant on the other side of the river, called Ping. Ping also pays homage to street food, but this time it’s street food from all over Southeast Asia. The plates are small here, so you can sample liberally and share with table-mates. Cocktails – including those with drinking vinegars – are also outstanding here, and sitting at the bar means you get to have fun conversations with the bartender.
- St. Honore Bakery – The St. Honore Boulangerie is a little bit of Paris right in Portland. The pastries are as beautiful as they are flaky deliciousness, the breads are wonderful, and the sandwiches and quiches make a fantastic lunch. It can be extremely crowded at times during both breakfast and lunch, especially on weekends, but you don’t have to wait for a table – you can also get your goodies to go.
- Voodoo Doughnut – There’s nothing secret about Voodoo Doughnut anymore, but I’m still going to mention it because maybe you haven’t read about it already. And even if you have read about it, you might think it wasn’t worth the hype. A donut is a donut, right? Wrong. I’m not necessarily a fan of every odd creation the Voodoo folks come up with, but I cannot say enough nice things about the one donut you should order if you go – the maple bacon bar. Yes, bacon on a donut. Don’t think about it, just eat it.
- Portland Brew Pubs – There are several good prew pubs in Portland, most of which serve local microbrews, but two of my favorites downtown are the BridgePort BrewPub and the Deschutes Brewery Public House. In addition to a range of beers, they also serve up a selection of fine pub-inspired foods. There’s nothing pretentious about these places or the food they serve, but it’s also significantly better fare than what you might expect at most pubs. These are fun and lively places to drink, to be sure, but don’t overlook the food because you assume the menus are the same old boring bar menus you’d find anywhere.
- Alba Osteria & Enoteca –
When I think about restaurants in Portland, I tend to make the mistake of focusing on the geographical area of central Portland too often. Which means I forget – far too often – about one of the best authentic Italian restaurants in the entire Portland Metro area: Alba Osteria & Enoteca. It’s in the Hillsdale neighborhood just down the street from the back entrance to Wilson High School, and brilliantly showcases the cuisine of the Piemonte region of Italy while still being completely Portland. The menu changes seasonally (as it should), the pastas are homemade (and unfailingly delicate), the dishes are interesting without being confusing, and the waitstaff includes people who have been there for years. All of this adds up to one thing – I should really go there more.Sadly, Alba Osteria closed on Dec. 31, 2010 after 7 years; they still run their Caffe Autogrill next door, however.
- Sahagun Chocolates –
Sahagun is about the size of a walk-in closet, and the chocolate artwork in the display case is definitely not cheap, but I strongly suggest you set aside a few dollars so that you can experience one of the salted caramels. They’re tiny thimbles of dark chocolate shells with a liquid center of salty caramel goodness. You have to eat them in one bite, so if your budget allows it – buy a couple. Oh, and if you’re having trouble finding parking nearby, there’s usually a spot or two available in front of the adult store around the corner (no one wants to have their car seen in front of it, I guess).Sahagun is now only a wholesale chocolatier, so you can’t go to the shop anymore – but look for Sahagun chocolates at shops around Portland.
I haven’t listed any coffee places on this list, because you’d have to try really hard to not find a decent place to get coffee in Portland. I would encourage you to steer clear of the many Starbucks outlets, primarily because there are so many other more interesting places to get coffee. When hunting for a place to get good coffee in Portland, the thing to pay attention to is the kind of coffee a given cafe is serving. Portland’s own Stumptown Coffee is always a good bet, but it’s by no means your only non-Starbucks option. If you’re into coffee, you’ll enjoy testing liberally while you’re in Portland.
If you’re in Portland during the farmer’s market season, then Saturday breakfast and lunch can be taken care of at the Portland Farmer’s Market if you like. Yes, the market is crammed with amazing fresh produce that you may not be able to enjoy if you’re just visiting and don’t have a kitchen at your disposal, but there are some fantastic booths selling prepared foods – in fact, some of Portland’s restaurants got their start as a booth at the market, so it’s definitely several steps above what you might think of as “market stall food.”
It’s also worth noting that Portland is one of the cities that has a vibrant food cart culture. There are some carts that are truly mobile, but there are others that are always in the same spot. The Food Carts Portland site is a great guide to Portland’s moveable feasts.
I’m sad to find, as I’m writing this article, that my old favorite Mexican place downtown – El Grillo – is closed now. It was a hole-in-the-wall dive with reasonable and cheap food, but it was the experience of eating there that made it a place I recommended to people. Where else, after all, could you be any age to eat in a restaurant but need to be 21 to use the toilet? El Grillo’s odd location meant that it shared a bathroom with Mary’s strip club next door, so if you needed a potty break in the middle of eating your burrito you had to go through the back door of the restaurant – and yes, you got quite an eye-full of the (ahem) entertainment on display. RIP El Grillo…
Pok Pok photo by Paul Lowry