“The Ottomans went a lot of places,” Kasbah Moroccan Cafe co-owner Naji Bouhmid says as he takes our order, “but they never came to Morocco.”
In a tiny salmon-toned Old Town breakfast-and-lunch counter-service spot—advertised by the unlikely smiling face of Bill Murray on a poster from ill-fated film Rock the Kasbah—Bouhmid is a warm ambassador for a Moroccan cuisine he’s eager to differentiate from Greek- and Turkish-inflected Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare. The cuisine, like the language, is a unique mélange of Spanish, French, Arab and Berbere influences.
Once home only to theme restaurants like Marrakesh, Portland has recently welcomed an influx of more casual Moroccan fare; Kasbah is the second excellent quick-service spot with cooks from food haven Fez to open in Portland in the past two years, alongside food cart La Camel and its sublime lamb-shank tagine. Bouhmid, for his part, learned to cook seriously from a neighbor in Fez who’d served the country’s onetime king.
Whatever you do at Kasbah, always get the bastilla ($7), the almond and chicken pastry that is one of the world’s truly great comfort foods. The cinnamon- and sugar-dusted bun arrives hearth-warm, sweet and savory and blooming with coriander—made with airy, flaky warka dough that’s a slightly more ethereal cousin of the phyllo used in baklava, its layered leaves so thin they’re practically transparent. Once you’ve had the bastilla here, you will crave it anytime you’re nearby. Consider it a reminder always to escape Old Town by 5 pm, the time Kasbah closes on weekdays.
If you’re eating in, get the tray of sweet mint tea—which Bouhmid may teach you how to serve by filling the cups often and shallowly, raising the tea kettle high to allow the hot tea to both cool and breathe even before it hits the cup.
Tagines—stews named after the dish they’re cooked and often served in—are probably the most familiar of Moroccan cuisines for most Americans. Among the hearty tomato-stewed versions served here alongside griddled sunnyside-up eggs, go for the tender kefteh meatball stew over the somewhat rubbery merguez, and find as much comfort there as from any Sicilian grandma. I did find myself longing, however, for the pungent Spanish olives I fell in love with in the tagines of Spain and Tangier, over the generous pile of familiar Italian greens on offer here.
What makes Kasbah unique in town are its wide array of starters, such as the housemade batbot flatbread served with a three-deep array of intense sauces for $8 (or $3.50 singly), including a zaalouk eggplant puree bracingly dense with fresh garlic, a bakoula dip of wilted greens and olives, and a blessedly spicy bissara that’s a bit like a fava bean cousin of hummus.
The salads are a pungent school in North African spice and bright acidity, from a beautiful cilantro-cumin-cinnamon carrot salad ($3.50) laden with surprising heat to a vinegared potato salad topped with egg ($3.50) that puts the Germans to sad shame, and a refreshing, fast-pickled beet salad topped with parsley and onion ($3.50).
For breakfast, Kasbah offers eggier versions of the kefteh and merguez, a saucy omelet of the day that came, on our day, with a wealth of olives and veggies, and a cream cheese- and kefta-stuffed batbot pita made into a breakfast sandwich by the addition of egg ($6.50). Immediately, it’s one of my favorite breakfast sandwiches in town—toasty, fatty and spicy. But if you ask nicely, you might be able to get that bastilla meat doughnut in the morning as well—proof that Christmas spice can come early even in a terrible year.
As a wine bar, new Northeast Killingsworth spot Dame is a pretty good restaurant. And as a restaurant, it’s one hell of a bar.
There seems to be some public disagreement about which one it is—the owners say it’s a restaurant with a bar, while a recent newspaper review cheerily informed them it’s a bar with food. But the real surprise is that anybody cared enough about a new Portland wine spot to debate its precise definition.
Since Frank and business partner Jane Smith opened Dame in September, their 100-plus-bottle stock of natural wines has been unrivaled for hundreds of miles in any direction. You can drink orange wines that have been fermented with grape skins, wines that taste like mushrooms, bottle-fermented peasant bubbly, or Croatian and Georgian wines whose traditions long predate the vineyards of France.
Dame’s location, the former home of French bistro Cocotte, has retained a lot of the previous spot’s charm. The warm-toned, hardwood-floored front room is split just about evenly between bar and tables—decorated with bright white-and-blue trim, Old World tchotchkes on the wall and lush, patterned wallpaper on one side that’s the approximate color of midnight. In terms of decor, it’s a cross between the nostalgic midcentury France of Amélie and a northside cousin to Clinton Street mussel spot La Moule.
Oysters aside, Dame’s food menu avoids most of the typical wine-bar trappings of meat-and-cheese boards; it’s also not messing around with wine pairings. Chef Eli Dahlin—who ran the kitchen at Seattle’s revered Walrus and the Carpenter—is instead treating the wine as the main show and opting to stay out of its way by constructing dishes of subdued, balanced flavors pinging with bright notes of pickle, roe or pepper.
From mahogany clams ($1) to oysters ($3.75) to a pungent snack of cured smelt ($7) and a balanced fig-coconut-turmeric halibut entree ($19), the flavors across much of the menu tend toward a triad of brine, acidity and earthiness that reads, roughly, as “wine food.” Each bite of grilled fontina-stuffed pepper carried a faint premonition of the wine that seemed meant to follow it.
In dishes like an airy plate of salt cod dumplings ($16) grounded by Brussels sprouts and shiitakes, Dahlin ended up somewhere much more interesting, layering the pumpkin flavor in chicken broth by using pumpkin parts from seed to rind.
Whether within the same dish or across the menu, Dahlin tends to use every possible part of a veggie or animal. That halibut plate ($19) featured not only the fruit of the fig but its leaf, to play up an affinity between fig leaf and coconut, which served to balance the clarified turmeric-spiced broth. Meanwhile, the skin off that tender-poached halibut was served on a different plate altogether—fried up as a pleasantly trashy appetizer with roe.
There’s such a thing as too much delicacy, however, a line that was crossed by the time an anchovy-celeriac beef tartare was completely overwhelmed by the grain of a cracker. A cheese-plate dessert suffered the same fate at the hands of a thick cracker made with rye and buckwheat.
On the other hand, the drinks at Dame have all been in the range between interesting and excellent—which can make the place trouble if you drive there. Currently, there are no orange wines among the glass pours ($10-$18)—something Frank says she’s changing—but those new to natural wines can get a fine introduction with a nutty, floral, but still very accessible Domaine Belluard “Les Perles du Mont Blanc” sparkling white ($12). Frank herself is also often accessible and willing to help recommend bottles in your price range.
But the very best item I had at Dame also underscores a danger of the place. While my attention wandered, my dining companion got caught up in ordering a Paolo Bea Arboreus—a trebbiano whose 80-year-old vines have been trained to grow like trees, and which sometimes produce so few grapes that cases end up vanishingly rare. It was bright-flavored and rounded across the palate, somehow singing with both honey and orange sweetness and tealike notes. It was one of the best wines I’ve had all year.
But I’d also been thrown on the hook for a $67 bottle.
“That’s a bargain!” my friend said. “In New York, it would have been three times that!”
I looked it up. It was more like two and a half.
EAT:Dame, 2930 NE Killingsworth St., 503-227-2669, damerestaurant.com. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.
We don’t need any more fancy Neapolitan pizza in Portland.
Fancy Detroit-style square pies? Maybe. Chicago deep dish? I could see it. But if you want to make wood-fired pies with thin, crisp crust, sauce them up with San Marzanos and top it off with Mama Lil’s peppers, GTFOHM.
Which is exactly what Alan Maniscalco and Shan Wickham did.
Maniscalco was a co-owner and the chef at Ken’s Artisan Pizza, the second-best pizza place in town according to our rankings in our just-released Restaurant Guide. But when it came time to do something on his own, he sought his fortunes up north, in the suburb of Vancouver.
Rally Pizza is Vancouver’s first great restaurant—it will likely make a strong push to be in the Portland area’s top 50 when we do next year’s Restaurant Guide. It’s the first spot I’d make the drive up the 205 for.
And if Smith can get things worked out at Smokehouse Provisions, it will be part of a powerful Northern Alliance. Two visits in the early days at Smokehouse were not what we’ve come to expect from the pitmaster, who we’ve lavished praise on in the past. We had issues with bone-dry brisket, unbalanced cocktails made by servers when someone no-showed their shift, and hot sides served lukewarm. The soon-to-be TV star, who will be on the upcoming season of Top Chef, has a lot of work to do.
“When you’re opening a place of this magnitude, it’s going to be a challenge,” Smith says. “We’re 140 seats, open lunch and dinner every day. In Portland, we’ve been able to pull a lot of talent from people we know and places we know, or at least look at someone’s résumé and see, ‘Oh, you waited a table at Ox, you clearly know how to wait a table.’ Just having no real gauge of people you’re hiring has been a factor.”
But this is unchartered territory. In bringing Portland restaurateurs north, Killian is following in the footsteps of breweries like Trusty and Mt. Tabor, which opened up north when the market down south seemed too saturated.
“We were pretty skeptical, but obviously the owners have a great track record,” says Maniscalco.
So Rally Pizza leaned into it, opening an unapologetically suburban spot modeled on what Maniscalco and Wickham would like to see in the area around Des Moines, Iowa, where Wickham’s family lives.
“The whole point of Rally is to be suburban. We kind of came up with this concept,” Maniscalco says. “When we’re in Des Moines, we end up going out to eat and it’s pretty chain-oriented. The food is not particularly good but people show up for it. We thought about opening something there, but we have a kid still in high school. We thought, let’s look in the Portland ’burbs. Let’s make the same concept work in the Portland ’burbs.”
And so they did—with the added bonus of the kind of ultra-rich custard you’d get in Iowa.
Rally Pizza is a cavernous, Nostrana-scale dining room and Vancouver’s finest restaurant. The pies are good—top 10 in the region—and the cocktails, protein dishes and desserts are top-notch.
Under the careful eye of Maniscalco, who claims most of the recipes at Ken’s Artisan Pizza as his own, Rally is the most exciting pizza project the city has seen since P.R.E.A.M. and Pizza Maria.
Cocktails run $9 to $12 and are uniformly excellent, developed by Maniscalco as his go-to home cocktails and mixed by bar manager Trina Paquette. The biggest revelation was an “industry margarita” ($11), made with Cocchi Americano and house sweet-and-sour mix instead of triple sec. It was ever so slightly more bitter than a normal marg, with an earthy bottom note below a citrusy burst. It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to order by name at other places. Good luck: It was developed by Maniscalco as a batch cocktail to serve to friends at his own house parties. The Rally Cap ($9)—Rally’s version of a spritzer, with Cappelletti, Amaro Cio Ciaro and soda—was likewise refreshing.
When it comes to desserts, Rally joins Lovely’s Fifty-Fifty at the top of the ice cream game, serving sundaes and concretes built on custard with 14-percent butterfat that’s further enriched by egg yolks. The concretes ($6) feature house-baked pastries as blend-ins, like a triply chocolatey blend of devil’s food chocolate cake and frosting. The sundaes ($7) are beautiful, layered-up creations served in heavy table glasses, easily feeding two. But maybe just get one per person. My favorite of all was the “clouds in my coffee” sundae with rich mocha sauce, little chocolate pearls and, as you’re about to hit glass, a bottom layer of thick, creamy ganache.
If you want to indulge in a double-dessert date, plan on one pie and go deep on the salads and sides. Though the lineup of protein courses and baked is thin, everything we had was well-made.
Two of our visits found the seasonal salad in great form, with bright pink watermelon radishes and juicy golden beets. We were likewise impressed with a plate of roasted veggies, well-seasoned and served up with a note-perfect paprika sour cream and crushed hazelnuts.
I was blown away by a dish they call “pork and duck” ($13), the Rally take on a porchetta. It’s their way of delivering a big hunk of meat that’s cured so it doesn’t distract from their pie-eyed focus. They take a skin-on belly and trim it down, then make the trim into a sausage and roll the belly around the sausage. It’s topped with a mildly spicy Korean-inspired slaw with mirin, green onion, kimchi and sprouts to cut the richness, then whipsawed back into absurd richness with a runny fried duck egg.
The pies are a lot like Ken’s, though slightly thicker and with less char than the ones Maniscalco made at Ken’s. Partly, he says, they were backing off the blackening “just a little bit,” to cater to the ’Couve crowd, but mainly the bottom of the crust gets a little firmer since they’re using a gas oven, which takes about twice as long to finish a pizza.
The white pies, like a mushroom-based daily special that used oven-roasted chanterelle mushrooms, tend to be a little less aggressive than I like in their seasoning, but anything with red sauce is very good. I especially liked the pepperoni ($16), which uses a little umami-intensive Parmigiano-Reggiano along with the mozzarella and that magical pepperoni that curls up into crispy little cups.
Is a pizza with fancy “grease chalices” a little déclassé compared to imported soppressata? Maybe. But this is the ’burbs, man.
SuperBite is the opposite of everything you’d expect from the people behind Ox.
Chefs Greg and Gabrielle Denton conceived their 6-month-old West End small-plates spot as a counterpoint to their big-plates restaurant known for consistency, bone-marrow chowder and bone-in grilled meats. In the space that once housed staid middle-European eatery Grüner, the Dentons serve a collage of plates meant as flavor pops to the kisser.
During visits spanning months, we’ve found it ambitious, expensive, rewarding, disappointing and sometimes just plain confusing.
The menu is vast to the point of unwieldy—a 20-something-strong list of “bites,” “plates” and “platters” that ascends from $4 bites so small your server will warn you they can’t feasibly be shared, all the way up to a $78 plattered feast of grilled, pan-finished rib-eye steak and potatoes.
Each item is identified only by its ingredients: “Ramen egg, chashu sausage, ginger broth, Swiss chard, sesame chili oil.” It’s a form of suspense that will also leave you leaning on your server much harder than usual. Each diner is asked whether they’ve been in before, and first-timers receive an introductory speech.
Among the reliable highlights, the “spaghettio” dish ($7) is a blast of truffled and Parmesan-cheese-topped richness I’d eat by the boatload, although it arrives by the cup. Each button-sized O is individually hand-chopped by the kitchen from housemade penne that has been dried overnight to make it more malleable, a Sisyphean labor that keeps the dish small. Alongside the single-bite shroom-on-shroom action of a shiitake splayed across a softly sweet porcini-miso marshmallow ($3), it more than lives up to the promise of the restaurant’s name: a tiny thing packed with crazy flavor.
But for a place named SuperBite, the bites are more often subdued. The deconstructed salmon ceviche ($5) is a macaron-diameter layer cake of avocado and fish, with a roelike topper of crunchy quinoa whose aggressive crunch carries the jolt of pop rocks on a Jell-O shot. The mild citrus and fish-sauce vinaigrette didn’t provide enough acidity to balance that fatty double stack, however, leaving the flavor overwhelmed by the texture. A salmon-belly crudo ($4)—too small to be shared—is frankly beautiful, arriving as a tiny, spiral-blossomed cut of fish stuffed with shiso and topped with ginger, adrift in a pool of sweetly acidic hibiscus ponzu. Its flavor is as delicate as its appearance, however, drifting gently across the palate and out of memory.
A somewhat mushy mini-Twinkie of halibut-brandade fishstick ($5) is a badly landed joke that doesn’t transcend its 1950s namesake, even with the addition of a gochujang-like fermented hot sauce.
Much of the rest of the menu follows a similar pattern. There are so many ideas, even individual plates can feel busy. Many dishes are collaborations between the Dentons and the numerous cooks in their kitchen, and often there’s one ingredient too many. So there might be distracting pumpkin seeds in an already complex sweetbread dish in green-apple-and-onion soubise, or a confusing piece of liver-mousse toast added to a rich coq au vin. The mousse, I learned later, was meant to be spread across the bread and used as ground for the coq au vin, like bruschetta on high-grade cocaine.
A similar scenario plays out in bar manager Beau Burtnick’s cocktail menu. Though his menu at adjunct bar Kask next door is free and easy, at SuperBite it contains both can’t-miss treats like a bourbon-mezcal-maple take on an Old Fashioned called the El Camino Royale ($13), and too-far-afield concoctions like a sage-garnished Nature and Nurture ($12). Based on an affinity between IPA and tart French liqueur Benedictine, the drink ended up washed in acidity, with lemon and Clear Creek plum brandy also onboard.
But still, the reduction on that coq au vin was impressively deep in flavor, deepened still more by a duck-heart variation on the bacon-wrapped chicken-liver “rumaki” of old Trader Vic’s menus. A chicken-fried quail dish was pretty much perfect, a petite take on fried chicken set off with a light turmeric yogurt, citrus and vadouvan-curried shallot served on greens.
The aforementioned ramen egg ($16) turns out to be a playful Japanese take on scotch egg, an impressive feat of both engineering and whimsy. It looks like a ramen-spined sea urchin pregnant with a soft-boiled egg, not to mention tender chashu pork. But that pulverized-noodle breading with lo-mein-style “spines” steps heavily on its delicate contents. The dish’s biggest flavor punch was packed instead into the dashi it sits in, laden with lovely pickled-ginger stems of Swiss chard.
Two noodle dishes play with the fruits of the sea in surprising ways, but to opposite effects. A sea urchin fettuccine with Meyer lemon ($19) drowned in the urchin’s funky brine, while a dish of cuttlefish “noodles” and out-of-shell mussels ($14) was more satisfying, with cuttlefish and fennel strands delightfully mimicking each other in appearance and texture, but not flavor.
Dishes are brought to your table by a parade of cooks from the kitchen, which means the person bringing your food has an intimate understanding of the dish they’re laying down. But it may also mean that your small share plates and utensils don’t get replaced after six dishes’ worth of sauces, and then are swapped between each individual dish thereafter. While we were mid-dish on one visit—during which we’d received neither serving utensils nor clean plates—the hostess ceremoniously removed a single fork from within a folded napkin and wordlessly placed it onto the center of our table, for reasons I’ll likely never know.
But if you’d like, you can short-circuit the whole roller-coaster ride by ordering grill dishes like beef short ribs or lamb T-bone, or doubling down on one of the platters. That 20-ounce rib-eye—served atop potatoes soaked in beef jus, spiked with horseradish and served with a lovely Caesar side—is like something from a different restaurant altogether, a literal meat-and-potatoes dish with solid execution. Two could order only that, and be happily sated and ready for dessert.
Among those desserts, the maple-walnut tart ($8) includes a maple slab thick as a children’s book, a piece of beautiful excess that allows Greg Denton’s Vermont roots to show. It’s one of the most delectable desserts I’ve had this year, but only if you leave the unpleasant ethanol whiff of intense rum-raisin whipped cream to the side. Do so, and discover a new kind of sticky, crunchy decadence.
Still, the restaurant’s very steep price tag—it’s rare a person would get out under $75 and be full—demands reliable perfection SuperBite doesn’t deliver. This leaves it a bit like a Star Trek mission to a strange new world. It’s hellbent on discovery, but you might regret that you had to kill a couple dudes to afford it.
Chances are, you’ve never had dinner at Broder Nord.Broder is known for brunch, so that’s when you visited. But for the few months it was served, chef Derek Hanson’s dinner at Nord on North Interstate Avenue was one of the finest meals in Portland, a parade of pan-Scandi small bites from delicate gravlax to a tour-de-force half-chicken brined in tarragon vinegar. Hell, that 20-minute chicken might have been the Velvet Underground of birds: Few ate it, but everyone who did was a chef who started cooking whole chicken.
Well, that chicken is back at Jacqueline, the new restaurant Hanson started with co-chef Brandi Lansill (Old Salt, Multnomah Whiskey Library) in the former St. Jack space on Southeast Clinton Street. The cheerily domestic space is now a fish-and-veggie-happy restaurant named for a fictional submarine piloted by secular saint Bill Murray, whose somber visage graces the wall behind the bar. And that slow-roasted chicken ($21)—served in multiple variations week to week, with nectarines or croutons flavored with drippings—is still a revelation, tender to the point romance seems imminent, and touched with tarragon’s singular bittersweetness.
Much else at Jacqueline recalls the brilliant dinners from Nord, including a nice gravlax plate and a lovely smoked sablefish with pickled garlic scapes or matsutakes ($10) whose luxe texture easily justifies the nickname “butterfish.” As with many dishes here, the overall effect was not decadence but restraint. The light smokiness allowed the fish’s subtle, distinctive flavor to sing. A spectacular chanterelle and oyster mushroom frisee dish ($13) also smacked of Scandinavian reserve.
But there’s also much that feels new—including a focus on salads and seasonal fare that had early menus looking like an ode to the wild Oregon mushroom, from lobster mushrooms funked up with goat and sheep cheese on orecchiette ($13), to the pickled chanterelles adorning a salmon-belly crudo ($12) to one of the restaurant’s early highlights, a chanterelle-maitake dish ($10) topped with bottarga roe and a perfectly poached egg.
Jacqueline also clocks in with a knockout cioppino ($23)—the beautifully spicy, tomato-based, Italian seafood stew native to the West Coast that was the flavor of my childhood. While the menu rotates considerably, the cioppino is a mainstay. It’s developed over the restaurant’s opening weeks into a note-perfect rendition, stuffed with crab claws, clams, mussels, smoked oysters, a hint of spice and and an oceanic undertow of herbal depth. Oysters also come raw in at least five varietals daily, with a five-deep array of eye-droppered sauces; there are $1 oyster specials at happy hour (5-7 pm).
Even more nostalgic than the cioppino was a lovely plate of charred Brussels sprouts soaked in a mint-basil fish sauce ($10) that fondly recalled Smallwares’ fried kale. The air of fond remembrance is reinforced by the Wes Andersonian cartoon fish painted on a back wall, the view perhaps from Steve Zissou’s submarine.
The cocktail menu keeps it simple with old-school gems like a Boulevardier and a Corpse Reviver No. 2 (all $9) while beer and wine are well-curated by Shift Drinks’ Anthony Garcia, with a lovely Priorat vermut that also graces a fun blackberry sorbet dessert. Like Bill Murray, that vermut is all sweetness and tobacco.
Not everything was a hit: A salmon fillet plate with potato and vegetable side felt like every salmon fillet that’s been served in the past 30 years, and the fat-drenched croutons served with that lovely tarragon chicken were toasted to carbon.
But amid the parade of seasonal, salad-forward restaurants to hit Portland recently, Jacqueline knows how to counterbalance its more subtle delights with signatures like the chicken and cioppino that pack a wallop. As every record exec has known since they invented pop music, you lure them in with the hits and then seduce them with the deep cuts.
EAT:Jacqueline, 2039 SE Clinton St. 503-327-8637, jacquelinepdx.com. 5-10 pm Wednesday-Sunday.
Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Golda Meir, all came together in Philadelphia in 2008.
The opening of Zahav spurred stodgy Middle Eastern food forward into the new millennium, morphed into the now-settled niche termed “modern Israeli” cuisine. Zahav chef Michael Solomonov’s cooking made eating vegetables cool even for carnivores, especially with his “salatim” of many small, exuberantly seasoned vegetable dishes among other meat-free offerings. It’s proved enduring; Solomonov’s book Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking received the 2016 James Beard Award.
Naturally, Zahav has spawned all sorts of imitators. Which takes us to Tusk, the bright-white, stylish spot on East Burnside Street that opened in August. The advance press on Tusk—which seemed to take forever to open—christened it the “most anticipated” restaurant of 2016. Nominally helmed by former Ava Gene’s chef Joshua McFadden, Tusk has been touted as Portland’s answer to Zahav, and no one in the Tusk camp has resisted that comparison. In fact, two of the key kitchen hands at Tusk, chefs Sam Smith and Wesley Johnson, spent years working with Solomonov. Comparisons were inevitable, high expectations understandable.
Why, then, has Tusk been such a disappointment so far?
It’s not for lack of good looks, even if the outsized photograph of Keith Richards floating on his back in a swimming pool is a design flourish we could all do without. Neither is it the service, which has proved to be polished and professional.
No, the problems here rest squarely on bad execution and an unambitious menu, which is, in the main, a senselessly homogenous list of uninspired but pretty salads. I thought this might be limited to Tusk’s opening few weeks, but the menu’s fundamental structure and contents have remained the same.
Among the “small” items, the feta and haloumi starters ($8 and $10, respectively) feature small, though flavorful, chunks of cheese gratuitously buried under a shower of verdure and flower petals.
The main section of the menu (“fruits, vegetables, grains”) is nothing but salads. Over the course of multiple visits, I’ve tried them all, most more than once. There was nothing offensive here, but nothing revelatory either. The underlying problem is that the kitchen has chosen to eschew the benefits of fire and assertive seasonings. With no cooking, components such as corn kernels are more starchy and less sweet, and the abundant raw vegetables are singularly crunchy without any contrasting textures for balance.
The “herb” dish combined a lot of leaves on a plate without much more. Barely softened “green wheat” can’t escape jaw-wearying monotony even with a changing cast of “aggressively seasonal” supporting ingredients. The Middle East offers more than its fair share of pungent flavors, some of which are even mentioned on the menu. I can’t figure out why the Tusk crew won’t let them out to play.
As part of a more comprehensive menu, a list of six or seven salads in two sizes ($9/$14) might be a pretty good idea, as it is at Zahav. But there is virtually nothing else of substance to order at Tusk. There are four skewers of meat and fish, but they are portioned parsimoniously and feel like an afterthought. Early offerings included a chicken skewer ($6) overcooked to bone-dry stringiness, and an albacore iteration ($7) likewise cooked to Chicken of the Sea doneness.
Quality has improved over time. More recently, a ground beef and lamb skewer arrived well-browned outside, a beautiful reddish midrare within, and fully flavored from a paste of cumin, garlic and chili. Portents, perhaps, of good things to come.
Besides the skewers, the lamb tartare ($14) is a misrepresentation of a meat dish. The lamb—measurable in grams—is dwarfed by a relative abundance of diced root vegetable (kohlrabi on one visit, trendy celtuce on another), a spill of yogurt, vegetable chips and three tiny lettuce leaf cups that fill out the small serving bowl in which the dish arrives. It’s photogenic, if nothing else.
Lauded pastry chef Nora Antene’s desserts also have yet to find their footing, perhaps due a lack of familiarity with Middle Eastern ingredients. Pistachio pudding has been bland, and cakes relying on vegetables (initially eggplant, currently delicata squash) unremarkable. Antene has also had difficulty mastering the quirks of finicky phyllo dough.
In short, Tusk has been a disappointment because it’s no Zahav. Not hardly. If Zahav is a boisterous playground of vegetarian tastes and textures, Tusk has gone straight back to study hall. Where Zahav is worthy of unstinting praise for offering an innovative take on an ancient cuisine, Tusk is superficial modernity, food built to look pretty on Instagram.
That sounds hyperbolic, but it’s remarkable this year how much of the energy in Portland’s food scene has flowed away from traditional, sit-down spots. Pop-ups are thriving, and so are pop-ins—our term for hip, ambitious counter-service spots like Poke Mon and Hat Yai.
Two years ago, most Portland pop-ups offered precious, little meals with prices to match, often served in spaces better suited for boxes. A few of those pop-ups are still operating, but recently the scene has evolved to become far more accommodating. Many of the city’s best new pop-ups are using normal restaurant spaces during off-hours, occurring at least once a week and serving more-focused menus with lower prices. Here are a few of our new favorites.
Han Oak 511 NE 24th Ave. (behind the Ocean food court), hanoakpdx.com.
Hours and prices: Dinner is 6 to 9 pm Friday and Saturday, with seatings every 30 minutes. Sunday brunch is 11 am to 2 pm, with seatings every 30 minutes. All meals are $35, but the dinner price does not include gratuity. Drinks and appetizers are separate.
In Korea, it’s not uncommon for country homes to have walled gardens used as an extension of the living space—in other words, they look a lot like the space housing Han Oak. I only know this because of the couple sharing the long, blond-wood table at Peter Cho’s newish Han Oak, which sits behind a reddish-orange door leading to the bowels of the Ocean food court. Han Oak is an impeccably designed, modern-minimalist space—my wife started shopping for its lamps while we waited for our smoked short rib in ssamjang sauce.
Han Oak is making most of the same dishes you’ll find at the better Beaverton Korean spots. Meat-wise, the experience is comparable. But by keeping a small, set menu, Han Oak is able to deliver exquisite versions of noodle dishes like hand-cut kalgooksu in rich chicken broth, dumplings stuffed with pork and bathed in black vinegar, along with rice cakes and bulgogi.
I strongly prefer the dinner to brunch, and suggest budgeting for soju and Stiegls. MC.
Hours and prices: Dinner is 6 to 7:30 pm Monday. Tickets are $80 plus gratuity. Drinks are separate.
Over 10 courses, chef Vince Nguyen, former sous chef at Portland’s Castagna and San Francisco’s two-Michelin-starred Coi, builds a harmonious meal that’s ambitious in flavor and preparation and beautifully restrained in composition. Nguyen pairs intense, unusual flavors—sour and bitter grated black lime, sour and salty pureed umeboshi, and vividly herbaceous oils of sorel, bay and juniper—with simple preparations. A highlight: a slice of sweet potato caramelized to rib-eye savoriness and pillow softness, served with a pear puree as abstractly peary as Clear Creek’s eau de vie. WM.
Mae 5027 NE 42nd Ave. (behind Old Salt Marketplace), maepdx.com.
Hours and prices: Dinner is 6 and 8:30 pm Monday, and 7 pm Wednesday. Sunday brunch is 10 am and 12:30 pm. It’s BYOB, so bring a nice bottle of wine or, if you want, a 40-ouncer.
Maya Lovelace had me at the iced tea. Her twice-weekly supper club in the back room of the Old Salt meat market serves up sassafras sweet tea, a flavor missing from the West Coast recipe box, and it immediately transported me back to the hollers of ol’ Virginny. From there, it’s a parade of lard-fried joy paired with Lovelace’s vivid storytelling—honey-sweet cornbread with a hint of crispiness on its shell, outrageously gooey mac ’n’ cheese, and a spicy-sweet succotash stuffed with market-fresh produce. MC.
Hours and prices: Brunch is from 9 am to 2 pm Saturday and Sunday. It’s $20 for coffee, a savory dish and a sweet dish. Tip, appetizers and booze are separate.
HunnyMilk just might be the best weekend brunch available in Portland right now. Having recently moved from the cramped Hogan’s Goat Pizza space to the much larger La Buca, chef Brandon Weeks has expanded his cooking crew and refined his menu.
Available dishes change, but look for the barbecued pork rib served over grits and chimichurri, or the croissant doughnut sandwich. The biggest revelation on a recent visit was the obscenely rich Oreo waffle, served with white chocolate mousse, chocolate drizzle, whipped cream and a sliced and bruleed banana. MC.
Hours and prices: Dinner is from 5 to 7 pm every first Saturday of the month. It’s $12 per serving. Tip and beverages are separate.
The crunch on Fusspot’s Korean-style fried chicken is so audible as to be startling, a Foley sound *CRUNNNNCHHHH* that you normally have to pay ad executives several thousand dollars to create in a studio. Among Portland’s pop-ups, Fusspot is the cheapest ($12) and the most generous—four pieces of lightly battered and expertly brined fried chicken topped with a sweet gochujang sauce, served with sesame slaw and lightly dressed slices of cucumber. It will fill up most diners. WM.
The food-trend mill spins so fast these days, it’s hard to say whether Revelry is ahead of the curve or behind it.
The new Asian-fusion spot on Southeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard comes from Seattle’s Beard-nominated Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi. Revelry borrows much of the menu from the much-lauded Revel, which opened in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood in 2010. Revelry has that early Instagram aesthetic: Sparsely modern aside from a stack of boom boxes, the restaurant bumps ’90s hip-hop, keeps bar hours and makes great use of fried chicken.
It’s also Portland’s most high-profile project from an out-of-town restaurant group in recent memory, and shares space with a chic outdoor store based in Seattle. Revelry’s Korean influence feels very of-the-season, arriving on the heels of the Han Oak pop-up and just before the new Kim Jong Smokehouse.
Six weeks in, Revelry still feels a little slippery—and not just when it comes to the big picture. It opened with a bang—we had a near-perfect meal in the first week—but subsequent visits haven’t been as impressive. In Portland, that’s an odd trajectory.
Which is to say I’ve had a tough time sizing up Revelry, a place that’s great when it’s good, but merely average when it’s not. Are things headed downhill as the Seattle-based chefs return to hometown projects? Or is the Portland crew going to iron things out?
Revelry’s one must-order dish is Mrs. Yang’s spicy fried chicken with peanut brittle ($14). On our first visit, it was perfectly crisp and candied—if you’d told me it was fried, lightly dressed in a sugar sauce and carefully brûléed with a torch, I might have believed it. The crackle and nutty punch of the brittle enhanced the experience so much you wonder why fried chicken isn’t always nutted.
But on a later visit, the breading had an unwelcome heft, with heavier sauce. It wore its peanut-brittle coat like garish attire meant to distract from physical flaws. It’s hard for fried chicken slathered in peanuts to go too wrong, but it paled in comparison to its better self.
Another high point was the rice cakes—poker chips of pan-fried starch dressed with umami-intensive beef and black bean sauce. I’ve had it three times, and though it didn’t have quite the same snap on the third visit, it’s remained consistently very good. It’s the most reliable thing on the menu alongside the excellent cocktails, especially the house Old Fashioned with miso maple ($10).
On the other hand, the rice bowls at the bottom of the menu were uneventful. The bowl with short rib, mustard greens and chili-sauced daikon ($17) gave off a yoga-cafe vibe—even with charred ribs and a cured egg yolk. The same went for a bowl with tuna in black sesame sauce, served up with seaweed salad and escarole.
Revelry’s desserts tilt unexpectedly hard toward rich and creamy. Get the Motherload ($7) with toasted marshmallow and a rich miso-caramel brownie, which was great both times we ordered it. For now, avoid the mochi doughnuts topped with caramel corn, which were fantastic on our first visit but soggy on the third.
The near future of Revelry will be interesting—for all of us.
Our Restaurant Guide picks the best restaurants in Portland every October. We hem and haw and fuss to recommend 100 restaurants we think best represent the city.
This is not that list.
Rather, these are five spots we’re excited about right now. Maybe that’s a taqueria we’ve loved forever, maybe that’s a seafood spot with a special menu this week or a new burger joint we stumbled on Friday night. It’s designed to answer that age-old question: Where should we go out to dinner tonight?
Humble Peruvian spot Paiche has grown up into the finest Peruvian spot in Portland—a hall not only of insanely good ceviche but thunderingly deep saltado, innovative causas and rich corn-pudding pastelos. $$$-$$$$.
4. Afuri Ramen 921 SE 7th Ave, 503-468-5001, afuri.us.
The new Afuri space is ridiculously impressive—and so is the ramen, with a shio broth with flavors that are the purest distillation of fish stock, and a shiitake broth as deep as most meat broths could muster. Pair it with a sake from a very deep list. $$-$$$.
Kenton’s third-wavey, wood-grained and antique-chaired Prince Coffee is one of the very few places in Portland where you can get daily-made stroopwafels, a Dutch treat that sandwiches cinnamon-caramel sauce between two waffle-cookie wafers. $.
Mexico has a great tradition of meatless eating. Prior to the Spanish conquest, meat was scarce in Mexico, yet Mexicans created one of the world’s most vibrant ancient cuisines. Meat has always been plentiful on this side of the border—we’re awash in fajitas, chili con carne, extruded tamales, and even the Whopperito.
For my money, the best Chicano vegetarian option is the chile relleno burrito: quite literally, a burrito with a chile relleno inside. While there doesn’t appear to be any clear evidence, it seems to originate from Los Angeles. In Portland, finding cheese-and-pepper-stuffed burritos is relatively easy, especially if the joint has an L.A. pedigree—look for carne asada fries, California burritos (often renamed “Oregon burritos” here), or pastrami.
In Los Angeles, chile relleno burritos can be as simple as a tortilla and refried beans wrapped around a chile relleno. In Portland, you find more complex incarnations, corrupted by Mission burritos. Few, if any, have merely beans and a relleno inside, unfortunately. Most have rice, too, along with salsa or pico de gallo, sometimes lettuce or even sour cream and runny guacamole. Too many ingredients, though, and the flavor of the chile relleno can get lost. (You can optimize your relleno burrito by ordering it without rice and with extra cheese.) Rellenos can use the thinner-fleshed and wider poblano chiles or the thicker-fleshed and narrower, but more assertive, Anaheims. Some are battered in egg; all are stuffed with cheese.
I tried more than 50 chile relleno burritos around town (full disclosure, I own two Mexican restaurants in Portland, though we don’t sell relleno burritos) and went back to about a dozen of the best, just to make sure. Here are my favorites, ranked from top to bottom. All of them are good. The rankings are based on the eateries’ default burritos, some of which have larded beans, as noted in each review.
Tienda de Leon is known for its Mexican stews, but it might be tough for a carnivore to pass up the barbacoa or achiote-braised pork. Unfortunately for a vegetarian, the refried beans, which are some of the best in PDX, are cooked in lard. To get a vegetarian version of a chile relleno burrito, ask for the vegan black beans.
The burritos are all customized on the fly and wrapped in housemade flour tortillas. Ask for one of the excellent egg-battered chile rellenos in the burrito, and the kitchen will chop it up and mix it with whatever fillings you like. A little beans, some extra cheese, and a squirt of salsa is all you need. This would probably drop below the next best burrito if you insisted on having vegetarian beans. $10.
3939 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-278-5414.
The size of the menu and casual ambience of this place belie a commitment to quality akin to gourmet Mexican restaurants. The menu says whole-wheat tortillas and Cotija cheese for the chile relleno burrito, but on both visits, thankfully, it was a fresh poblano chile stuffed with lots of gooey, white cheese with very good rice and decent beans in a white-flour tortilla. A large helping of delicious guacamole, along with pickled carrots and pico de gallo, comes on the side. $8.75.
The San Diego lineage is clear in both the name and the menu at this Milwaukie taqueria. And like its cousins, Javier’s and Muchas Gracias, it’s open 24 hours. But this is the cousin that knows how to cook. Everything is proportioned and seasoned well, and the bit of extra cheese and red sauce makes for a tasty burrito. Take note: The refried beans have lard, so if you want a vegetarian burrito, ask for the whole pintos. It’s better with the larded beans. And Rigoberto’s has a drive-thru. $6.50.
Every tacoholic in Portland knows about this Hillsboro institution. Quality has fluctuated through the many years it has been open, but currently, things are looking up. You could forgive a place like this that mostly serves Mexican immigrants for not knowing how to make a good California burrito. Yet, Ochoa’s needs no excuses. The beans, rice, chile—even the egg on the chile—all taste great on their own and still harmonize like a Los Tres Ases bolero. Note: Ochoa’s does not have vegetarian beans. $7.
Since before hipsters “discovered” tacos and white faces outnumbered brown ones on Alberta, this family-run taqueria decorated with murals has been serving high-quality tacos, burritos, tamales and pozole. The large chile relleno oozes a slow tidal wave of cheese and is the star of the burrito, despite too much bland rice and lettuce. $6.95.
This is a little slice of SoCal taco culture on 82nd Avenue. The shop even has pastrami sandwiches and carne asada fries. In true L.A. style, the chile relleno burrito is served sin arroz. The beans could be seasoned better, but El Burrito Loco doubles up on the Anaheim chiles. A splash of salsa and a little pico de gallo wrapped up in a nicely toasted tortilla rounded out a solid burrito. And there’s a drive-thru. $5.75.
Southwest 5th Avenue and Stark Street, 503-421-9838.
It’s not surprising that the best Mexican food cart downtown also makes an enjoyable chile relleno burrito. The rice and beans were both underseasoned, but the poblano chile was big and full of cheese, the egg was fresh-tasting, and there were great salsas to cover up any flaws. La Jarochita is close to opening a brick-and-mortar spot to join its multiple downtown carts. $6.
As famous for the restroom it shares with Portland’s oldest strip club (and the chance to see some chichis) as it is for its food, Santeria knows how to make a burrito. The chile relleno can be a bit fridge-flavored, but a nicely grilled tortilla, good pintos, an avocado salsa and, especially, lots of cheese save it. It’s open late. $10.50.
1921 SW 6th Ave,, 971-319-6650.
With two carts and a full-sized restaurant on the Portland State campus, Tito’s has already proved itself in the marketplace. So has Chipotle. But Chipotle doesn’t have a chile relleno burrito, and if it did, like its other burritos, it wouldn’t taste as good as the one from Tito’s. A blistered-brown tortilla wraps an Anaheim chile filled with cheese that stretches to your chin with each bite. More cheese, along with pico de gallo, and a bit too much rice and beans fill the rest of the tortilla. $6.99.
Also tried: El Brasero, El Burrito Azteca, Casa del Sol, La Catrina, Chavez Express, Chuy’s (Gresham), Don Chilito’s (Aloha), Don Taco (Vancouver), La Fuente (Tigard), Gonazlez (Newberg), Los Gorditos, El Guajillo (Tigard), El Guero, Hacienda Real (Beaverton), Javier’s, King Burrito, Lindo Michoacan, Luna, Mi Burrito, La Mixteca (Fairview), La Morenita, Muchas Gracias, Nayar, El Nutri, Ole Frijole, Ole Ole, El Pato Feliz, Pepitas (Beaverton), Pepitos Locos, Peppers (Hillsboro), Rose City, Sabor Mexicano (Vancouver), Sanchez (Tigard), Santo Domingo, La Sirenita, Super Burrito Express (Milwaukie), Super Torta, Supermercado Mexico (Hillsboro), Taco del Sol (Tigard), El Tapatio, Taqueria Portland, Taquieros, Los Taquitos, Tecos, Los Temos (Milwaukie), Tienda Santa Cruz.