20 Spots That Defined the Year in Food
It’s our annual assemblage of Portland’s most exciting eateries.
BUZZ OF THE YEAR || OX
EAT THIS NOW!
- Fried short rib terrine
- clam chowder
- skirt steak
- charcuterie plates
- spicy braised octopus and beef tripe
- seasonal salads
- warm hazelnut brown butter torte with honeycomb candy
NO PLACE has generated more talk this year than Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton’s mash-up of Argentine barbecue, Portland bravado, and French technique. Ox’s meaty love story is told over red-hot embers and dramatic flames erupting from a hand-cranked grill that could pass for an elegant torture device. And holy smokes, let’s not forget the formidable wild halibut—a thick monster that arrives on the bone like a vision of Morton’s from the sea—or a clam chowder served with the epiphanic shock of smoked bone marrow shouldering some fierce jalapeños. This is the stuff of culinary lore. The intimate chef’s counter is an essential destination—and close enough to the wood fire to literally feel the heat. But in this boisterous room, happiness can be easily found at clustered tables or the teeny bar, home of the best pisco sour I can remember: smoky and tingling under a billowing white egg cloud. Lest vegetarians feel excluded, this big-hearted kitchen also gets giddy with seasonal vegetables. Denton’s baroque inclinations are best in small doses, but the spare magnificence of his skirt steak or crackling fresh sausages will leave you licking your chops. —Karen Brooks
LOTTERY WINNER OF THE YEAR || LUCE
EAT THIS NOW!
- Baked stuffed trout
- cappelletti in brodo
- spaghetti with garlic oil, hot peppers, and clams
- Luce cake
FAR FROM THE SLY tweets and sold-out preview dinners that now trumpet additions to Portland’s suddenly media-savvy food scene, Luce opened on E Burnside Street last fall without a peep. To anyone. Inside, the curious found a place that could be mistaken for a hardware store stocked with the smell of Grandma’s kitchen, candlelit tables, curated groceries, and a cool little collection of Italian wines. This affordable minimalist’s paean to honest Italian cooking is led by braised chickens and rosemary-scented hanger steaks topping out at $16, alongside a carnival of $2 antipasti. For most of its short life, Luce has been, at its core, a spirit and an idea from Navarre’s John Taboada and Giovanna Parolari, two eccentrics with great taste and a love for Italy’s “old man’s” cooking. Now it’s also something they never dreamed: one of America’s most talked-about restaurants. In September, Luce landed the no. 4 slot on Bon Appétit’s “America’s Best New Restaurants” list. The surge of customers and camera clickers has overwhelmed the kitchen for now. But inspiration arrived with the chaos, and one little honest place on one very big list signals hope for America’s culinary future. —Karen Brooks
MOST ORIGINAL MENU || SMALLWARES
EAT THIS NOW!
- Scallop sashimi
- chicken lollipops and Sriracha mayo
- egg-drop soup with Chinese sausage
- mapo dofu and egg custard
- black cod with smoked sherry vinegar
- somen noodles with fried egg
IT TAKES A CERTAIN CHUTZPAH to reimagine the five food groups in the baby-stroller stronghold of Beaumont Village. Smallwares launched in February as a cute, sassy, creative independent, where chef-owner Johanna Ware offers not so much a menu as a rethinking of dinner, Asian cult foods, and Oregon larder all at once. In this bright enclave of red-lacquered tables, pop music, and flotsam-and-jetsam lamps, the snacking is fun and fearless—and so is the heat. Oysters arrive with a Vietnamese fever; a crazy wave of brine, fish sauce, cilantro, and lime spills from each half shell. For a night of ear-warming invigoration, this is the starting point. No two dishes are alike, and you’ll want a collection of them to share with a date or friends. An evening’s adventure can swing from a supremely elegant egg custard holding a shriek of chiles, pork crumbles, and fermented black beans—an homage to China’s iconic mapo dofu by way of Japan—to a mind-bending “cobb salad” stocked with shishito peppers, fat wads of blue cheese, crispy-crunchy six-minute eggs, and kimchi mayo. Ware learned to twist Asian conventions with madcap thinking and technical process at David Chang’s famed Momofuku Ssäm Bar in Manhattan, and it shows. She’s the real deal, offering a friendly vibe, clever cocktails, and great deals through 2 a.m. in the back room Barwares. Get a seat while you can. —Karen Brooks
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED || BOKE BOWL
EAT THIS NOW!
- Ramen with pulled pork and fried chicken
- seasonal salads
- steamed buns (eggplant or zucchini)
- miso butterscotch Twinkies
BOKE BEGAN as the quintessential Portland food experiment: a pop-up ramen shop serving handmade everything, with democratic choices for the carnivore camp and the omnivore party. Faster than you can slurp noodle soup teeming with fried chicken or Japanese eggplant, it morphed into a lunch-centric brick-and-mortar destination that embodies the best of Portland’s restaurant scene—communal, design-savvy, and affordable. Ramen honcho Patrick Fleming trades in creativity, not textbook authority. His growing repertoire embraces an intriguing rabbit confit ramen, joyful salads, intriguing snacks (from pickled watermelon to fried pears), and a mixed bag of desserts. Steamed buns come in a blaze of flavors led by fat slabs of grilled zucchini, a hail of fried and fresh shallots, and a lip-smacking glaze of vegan miso mayo. Regulars—kids, elders, and gangs of daters—pour in, especially for Thursday night’s family-style feast of brined, smoked chicken, and a Thanksgiving-level spread of sides. —Karen Brooks
BEST DESSERTS || CASTAGNA
EAT THIS NOW!
- Warm chocolate with praline ice cream, coffee, and dates; cherries, almond ice cream, birch syrup
THE ALMOND ICE CREAM is a pale yellow ovoid of frozen luxury cradled in a “nest” of forbidding heavy granite. Long, crisscrossed twigs of stretched meringue rest on top, each a jolt of sweet crackle and visual punning. Hiding below: a cluster of black cherries snuggling like chicks and a pool of birch syrup as thick as sap. Justin Woodward didn’t need to put a bird on his otherworldly creation—he merely created the dessert of the year, part of Castagna’s collection of high-flying finishers. Woodward earned his pastry stripes at Manhattan’s modernist food lab WD-50, and it pays off in the complex techniques and conceptual excitement largely missing from Portland’s other dessert menus. A dessert trio always concludes the kitchen’s tasting menu, the city’s most accomplished spread of avant-garde eating. But it’s also possible to just drop by for a dessert immersion from an à la carte menu of sweets and savories. —Karen Brooks
BEST SECOND ACT || BEAKER & FLASK
EAT THIS NOW!
- Black tea fried chicken
- smoked beef short rib with pistachios
- mussels and clams with pork belly
IT’S RARE THAT a sous chef manages to one-up his former commander. But arguably, that’s what newly installed Beaker & Flask honcho Anthony Walton did when his mentor, Ben Bettinger, jumped ship in March 2012 to open Imperial with famed chef Vitaly Paley (see “Chefs of the Year,” p. 86). Inspired by fresh finds and his Midwest-Southern roots, Walton collages comfort-food classics and contemporary techniques for an impressive reinterpretation of bar food. Heavy hitters from the updated menu balance soulful flavors and visual drama. Silken tofu (made just a few yards away at Ota Tofu) artfully poses with quinoa granola, brushstrokes of sweet poppy-seed dressing, and savory smoked cherries, while albacore tuna, barely seared, reclines over charred baby octopus. Make no mistake: Beaker & Flask remains one of the city’s craft cocktail destinations. But as word of Walton’s upscale cocktail cuisine spreads, the bartenders might need to shake even faster to keep up. —Allison Jones
GOOD EVENING, VIETNAM Beef tenderloin, chicken wings, and the Rooster Fight cocktail at Luc Lac
BEST LATE-NIGHT BITE || LUC LAC
EAT (OR DRINK) THIS NOW!
- Bo tai chanh (beef carpaccio) salad
- beef pho
- nem nuong (pork) banh mi
- Smoke & Mirrors
- Nuoc Mam Rocks
WHEN LUC LAC splashed onto the scene last year, no one knew what to expect: Grand Marnier sliced through avocado-cardamom milkshakes, pho spilled out of the kitchen until 4 a.m., and customers happily jammed into a thermometer-busting hangar-bay of a dining room devoid of air conditioning. Thanks to black-vested brothers Adam and Alan Ho, Luc Lac is now Portland’s premier late-night dining destination, with wildly creative cocktails to rival Portland’s best eye-dropping mixologists, and piercing Vietnamese flavors courtesy of matriarch Le Ho. With street cred earned from a family tree of pho-slingers, Le Ho’s sweet broth—brimming with springy rice noodles and flavors of dark anise—is one of the best around. When the rest of the city shuts down, Luc Lac keeps rolling until 4 a.m., with a Vietnamese feast where creamy, carbonated slow-drip coffee with a kick of orange zest and plush, pickled banh mi push the epicurean envelope way past Portland’s last call. —Benjamin Tepler
BEST NEW WINE COUNTRY DESTINATION || PAULÉE
EAT THIS NOW!
- Chef’s choice tasting menu
- saucisson sausage medley
- local salmon with seasonal succotash
NOTHING about the generic hotel façade off Highway 99 hints at what waits inside: wine country’s most ambitious food gambit. Step inside Paulée to witness the big-city gleam of stone, steel, and glass that fills the generous 90-seat restaurant, clad in dark walnut. A 14-foot glass wine cellar—a thousand bottles strong, and deep in Northwest grapes—anchors the room. Meats come from down the road, and nearly half of the produce is grown next door—pristine fodder for the studied experiments that arrive stacked like still lifes on stark white plates. A chef’s counter protrudes into the dining room—the stage for a full battalion of aproned chefs tweezing away at all manner of precious local provenance. Chef-owner Daniel Mondok won accolades in Portland for blending French technique and American quirk at the short-lived Sel Gris. At Paulée, he’s still throwing witty culinary jabs, but with globe-hopping twists and modernist presentations. On any given day you might find foie gras caramel or plates decorated with barnacles plucked from seaside cliffs. The drink program impresses, with more than 66 by-the-glass pours, an irreverently annotated wine list, and smart pairings for Mondok’s food-craft. After all, this is still wine country. —Allison Jones & Benjamin Tepler