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Dec 2, 2007 04:35 PM

Best food of the best in Portland

we're two foodies (36, 40) from san francisco and would love some final guidance from 'those who [also] live to eat' in pdx. we value chowhound insight and want to nail down most (naturally, some we'll play by ear) of our choice meal 'destinations' so we can relax and enjoy our week without my husband going low-bloodsugar due to my typical on-the-spot indecisions about which is 'the' place ...

i had fun reading through all 418 pdx-portland posts from the last 6 months. i noticed that a lot of the recommendations tend to be relative to a venue, like a hotel. our meals in pdx, however, will be our destinations -- as of yet, we have no 'sightseeing' plans for our 4 night/5day stay other than to indulgently explore pdx's sophisticated food scene and just hang out and relax -- so please base any welcomed suggestions you might have on good pdx food rather than location.

btw, we're looking forward to experiencing public transport -- we're travelers that want to pick up on the local vibe -- and will bus/walk/drive anywhere (we're avid walkers). we're heading up on amtrak and staying at mcmenamins for a taste of a 'real pdx neighborhood' (not for the food). good food usually turns out to be one of our prime 'destinations.'

here goes.

in some of the other posts you thoughtfully ask for more details from the op, so here's what we like:
-- in general we seek out restaurants that cater to locals and have consistently good food, consistently good service, are unpretentious, innovative/inspiring, intimate, have an untouristy feel with personality, and use seasonal/fresh ingredients. we love great atmosphere but the order for us is definitely 1) food 2) service (it can make up for so much!) and 3) atmosphere.
-- we share a 'no reservations' attitude about food and will literally eat anything (bugs, tongue, brains, stomach, whatever).
-- we prefer savory or spicy dishes to sweet.
-- we're more interested in good wine than other bevs but will want to try some local brew and possibly a gin martini here or there.
-- since it's the only vacation we've been able to take this year (!), we can splurge as much as we feel like, but we've found constant splurging gets boring after a while and we really appreciate value. we loved the look of anthony bourdain's favorite malaysian restaurant serving decadent twice-steamed fish heads -- next to the radiator and brakes shop.

we've only got time for four dinners, four lunches, and five breakfasts starting with dinner on mon 12/10 through thurs 12/13, leaving friday after brunch.

-- we think we've ruled these out:
hiroshi (sushi, japanese, mexican in general)
biwa (read mixed reviews, we have noodle shops a-plenty)
higgins (read mixed reviews)
clarklewis (too many mixed reviews)
bluehour (read mixed reviews)
country cat (read mixed reviews)
andina (read mixed reviews)
podnah's (probably won't be craving bbq)
23 hoyt (read mixed reviews)
pambiche (?)

the following are our picks, but i could still use your guidance (now that you know us a little) since some of the recs were relative, based on proximity, etc.:

-- dinner
1. ethnic: pok pok
2. midrange: le pigeon
3. one local favorite splurge: paley's place, carlyle, fenouil, park kitchen, wildwood, clyde common, sel gris
4. toro bravo, navarre, or ten-01 (hosting soon at james beard house in nyc?)

-- lunch (we're not afraid of ordering off the wine list before noon, btw)
1. silk/pho van
2. veritable quandry
3. ken's artisan pizza
4. karam? (sounds healthy)

-- breakfast
1. simpatica (weekdays?)
2. genie's
3. daily cafe
4. cafe lili
... or milo's, wild abandon, zells cafe, cricket cafe, besaws, tin shed, mother's, bijou cafe, j&m cafe

-- coffee: stumptown
-- donuts: voodoo
-- brewery: mcmenamins
--oysters: alberta st oyster bar (closed?), carlyle, pacific seafood, dan & louie's, southpark
-- cheese:
-- for a glass: noble rot
-- worth a trip: adobe inn at yachats? painted lady?

... we also like the sound of filbert's cafe, cafe mingo, hurley's, southpark, lovely hula hands, rocket, tabla, fife, alba, lucy's table, roux, wednesday farmer's market (open in dec?), heathman (too stuffy? is it really an institution?), olea, carafe, sagittarius, aquariva, grolla, doug fir (for the music?)

we look forward to your chowhound guidance!

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  1. With so many folks posting and asking for reqs, it's a pleasure to read a post by someone who has done their homework. Thank you!

    For dinners, I wouldn't miss Pok Pok, Sel Gris and Toro Bravo. Le Pigeon, Carlyle, and Apizza Scholls, and Alba are also way up there on my list. Ken's Artisan Pizza is not open for lunch, and though you could move it to the dinner category, I think Apizza Scholls is better. Also, not sure why you crossed Pambiche off your list, it's a great, never fail choice. Also, I think biwa is also a very tasty, very interesting place, and I urge you to rethink that for dinner. Also, the Alberta Street Oyster Bar and Grill has re-opened with the same chef and staff (diff. owners) and might be a good choice.

    ten-01 has a great happy hour menu and drinks deal, and their fabulous oysters are only $1ea. during HH. Might want to check that out. For a bit of historic Portland, and for cheap HH oysters, Dan and Louis Oyster Bar downtown might fit the bill (they do lunch too).

    Karam is a good lunch choice, as is Silk. VQ? meh, I think you could do better. Certainly Kenny & Zuke's, they opened less than a month ago. They make their own pastrami, corned beef, pickles, bread, bagels, bialys, rolls and baked goods. Seriously good food. They are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

    Simpatica is not open weekdays for brunch, Sat. and Sun. only. Genie's has gone waaay downhill by many reports. Haven't been to Zell's in ages but it used to be very good. J&M Cafe is good, not great, ditto Cricket Cafe. Mother's can be good, but I wouldn't go out of my way for it.

    Stumptown is great coffee as is Courier, but you have to find a place that serves Courier. One such place is Little Red Bike Cafe, which supposedly does a great lunch and very good breakfast. I'd check it out, I think it might be the kind of place you are looking for:

    Albina Press and Northwest Coffee House are two of the best places for coffee in the city. The barristas at Albina Press always do well in competitions.

    I think Voodoo Donuts are overrated. It's a fun concept, but the actual donuts aren't very good, IMO.

    You can do waaay better than McMenamins for a brewery. The folks at the Beer Advocate have a guide for you:

    For a glass of wine, if you can't get to wine country, Oregon Wines on Broadway has the biggest selection for tastes/glasses/bottles. It's a fun place to try lots of local wines:

    If you can and want to get to wine country, yes, the Painted Lady is worth a dinner...but only if you are out there. It is about 40-60 minutes from downtown Portland. Lots of wineries to try, look for other posts for recs.

    Yachats is quite a drive from Portland, and not especially worth going to. If you want to go to the coast (and have a car to do so), make a quick trip to Cannon Beach (1.5-2 hour drive) and have some seafood at Ecola Seafood before you return, or stay and go to the Nehalem River Inn (another 30 min away) for dinner...the only dinner place worth eating at around there, IMO. Pacific Seafood is a bit out of the way in Bay City, south of Cannon Beach by about 30 minutes.

    The Wed. Farmers' Market is done for the season, sorry. :o(

    Great cheese places include: Curds and Whey, Steve's Cheese (in Square Deal Wines), and Foster and Dobbs

    Great chocolate can be found at: Cacao, Sahagun, Alma's, and at The Meadow (who also has a fabulous selection of finishing salts).

    Keep asking if you have more questions.

    2 Replies
      1. re: JillO

        oh I think I'll pick your brain too. my daughter used to eat at a place, like 7ish years ago, that she remembers as being on west 23rd street or close to that. they put out the best red pepper soup she'd ever eaten. doesn't live there any longer but is requesting 'that' soup as a treat from me. can't remember the name of the restie so I can't help out with that. said it was 'like' panera bread cafe is now. can you help?

      2. Lots of places on your list; one big miss: Biwa (japense country style--no suchi). so good. honest. it's the sleeper choice when the weather is crap0--which it sure is now. grilled stuff, great soups.

        for your fancy dinner; park kitchen for sure.

        pigeon's grate--so long as you don't mind eating with a bunch of new "friends." food is A+, but communal tables suck.

        2 Replies
        1. re: swami rabbitima

          Next time time your trip to be here for the Farmers' Mkt on Sat. Rated by whomever rates such things as top 5 such mkts in the US.

          Another vote for dinners at Ken's Artisan Pizza & Biwa! After nine Biwa has noodles only $5.

          Yachats a long drive, not worth it esp this time of year (washed out roads!). Go to Cannon Beach area instead.

          Consider a wine trip in Yamhill County. Plenty of threads on that here and under Wine.

          Happy Hour drinks at best bar in town, imho: Teardrop Lounge.
          Wine bar: Pour. Happy hour 4:30-6:30, great deals, light food too.

          You can not only get great chocolates at Sahagun, but they use Stumptown coffee in their mocha. You'll never darken Starbuck's door again.

          Agree with most of the above.

          My compliments on doing your homework and saying what you like. Please do the trifecta and report afterward! Nothing but eat/drink? Not even a stroll through the Japanese Garden (puts SF's to shame)??

          1. re: Leonardo

            we were secretly hoping someone might mention a good place to go, and we appreciate your rec of the japanese garden. it's one of one on our 'sightseeing' list!

        2. In general, you're totally on the right track. Great research and overall job finding out about all the great food in our town! Some notes:

          I would take another look at clarklewis. It's really extraordinary and I think particularly along the lines you're interested in: local, organic, seasonal simple, etc.

          I'd also speak very strongly for Navarre. It's tapas done in an incredibly unpretentious, straightforward, and delicious manner. Depending on the night of the week, it'll just be chef John (who also built most of the furniture and decorations himself -- he's a great metal worker) in the open kitchen, and one server. The server will take your order, John will get up from the bar, go into the kitchen, cook your meal, and go back to rejoin his glass of wine at the bar. This is my absolute favorite non-fancy restuarant in town.

          Another great one not on your list is The Farm (7th-ish and Burnside on the eastside). Specializing in local, fresh, seasonal organic NW cuisine, they have great cocktails, and a nice cozy space (though it's starting to get crowded for how popular they've gotten so for better service I'd try a less busy night/time of the week). This is a restaurant that would be twice or three times as expensive in any other city.

          I'd also strongly second the reccomendation of Apizza Scholl's made below. They have the best authentic New Haven-style pizza I've ever had anywhere outside of New Haven itself (an opinion seconded and thirded by each of my Yalie housemates). The wait there can be kinda crazy but the servers are very nice.

          Weekend brunch is the official meal of Portland. One of the best places in town for it is not on your list: The Screen Door is a terrific southern-inflected restaurant that does an amazing weekend brunch (note: d'oh! just re-read your reqs. and noticed you won't be here for the weekend. SD might still be good for dinner. I've never been there for that, but their menu looks interesting and the quality of the brunch is so great, I'd trust them for anything). Of the ones on your list, I'd put my vote in for Zell's (empasis on local organic fruit- and veggie-filled pancakes &c), Bijou (similar but less seasonal and adventuruous), and Besaws (this one is a little different, more French, a little higher brow, but still excellent), Tin Shed is great and serves equally well for lunch if your breakfast slots fill up. There's also Meriwether's, which is by the same folks who do Higgins. I've never been there, but have heard great things.

          Another major category you're missing is dessert. There are a few standout places: Pix Patisserie is a terrific traditional French dessert shop with great atmosphere (their place on division is cozier, the one on Williams is sleeker and has a full bar) and Rimsky-Korsacoffee is a super eccentric (their printed book-length history gives their slogan as "home of the casually threatening atmosphere") dessert/coffee spot on SE 12th and Morrisson. They have great atmosphere with weird decorations, moving tables, classical guitar and piano, cooky servers, and great desserts and drinks (Don't miss the Chocolate Raspberry Fool!). It's the kind of place that only locals know.

          A great off-the-beaten-path lunch suggestion would be Tita's Pista, a Phillipino cart on Mississippi in N. Portland (right next to Lovely Hula Hands, actuall). Food carts are a major part of Portland food culture and Tita's is a great new one. All of their dishes are surprisingly flavorful, but the highlight is the fried fruit dessert, just amazing. Maybe do Lovely Hula Hands, skip the dessert and head here for that!

          For coffee, you should try the Stumptown in the Ace Hotel. They do a cool thing with brewing individual cups (not espresso) of tons of different international brews on demand. It's a neat space and the coffee's great.

          Enjoy your time in Portland!

          4 Replies
          1. re: atduskgreg

            I agree with a lot of your post atduskgreg, but I have had several mediocre meals at Farm and a couple at Navarre. And the service at both has a lot to be desired, IMO. I wish it wasn't so, especially since Farm is the best place to take vegetarians and vegans in the city and it really is a nice space with a good bar, but my experiences there haven't been so great.

            The Pix Patisserie rec, however, was a great idea. It's a winner of a stop, especially if you go to the one on SE Division after Pok Pok/Whiskey Soda Lounge. It's only a little over a block away.

            Another interesting place to check out is Clear Creek Distillery. Their 'tasting room' (which is also their office ;o) is generous and they have some stellar product ranging from awesome liqueurs to well-crafted brandy to an unusual Doug Fir eau-de-vie all made from local fruit and trees:
            It's really worth a trip over there.

            1. re: JillO

              One word of caution when dismissing places like the Farm and Navarre over indiividual mediocre experiences: any place that specializes in local, organic, and season ingredients is unlike to suit your individual taste equally well with each meal. Maybe you significantly prefer the way they handle sweet summer ingredients to savory winter ones or vice versa, etc.

              Likewise with the service at small places like this: it makes a really big difference to go to them on a less busy night when their staff is less over-taxed (or four years ago before Portland became the super food mecca that it is now and these places were some of our best kept secrets).

              Both of these are places I've been to very regularly for years and years. While I've had better meals and better service at each at times each has maintained very high standards of both for an extremely long time by restaurant standards.

              It's ironic that you mention Pix as a paragon of consistency in this regard since I worked at the Division store for two years back when it first opened (I was it's first non-management employee) and I can tell you that our quality of service varied wildly. As we grew in popularity the staff and kitchen struggled mightily to keep up friendliness and consistency of product (without always being successful) and then again when the other two shops opened there was a long period when things were shaky and the atmosphere became far less friendly.

              Anyway, my point here isn't to knock Pix (which I recommended and think is great), but to demonstrate how variable restaurants can be and how, as a casual visitor, it's not completely fair to dismiss, or recommend against, a place that you overall like (or think is a good match for the person to whom you're recommending) based one or two experiences. When you work in restaurants you quickly realize that just like you never step in the same river, you never eat the same meal twice.

              1. re: atduskgreg

                My Pix experience has varied wildly, and I've had their desserts close to 50 times, so it speaks for itself that I generally like the product a lot. But on at least five occasions I had something that contained a nut (i.e. filbert) that was rancid! It was pretty gross tasting, and I can't imagine that nut was the only bad one out of the batch. So yes, they do indeed have a problem with quality control, especially as they have grown.
                As for service, I don't recall anyone thanking me for my business. Ever.

                1. re: atduskgreg

                  Well, I didn't dismiss Farm and Navarre, just offered up my opinion vis-a-vis my experiences to a visitor that values good service. I have been to Farm at various times of the year and I have had lackluster fish here and there (though it is sometimes good) and usually a very good marsala cutlet. The service I have experienced there overall, however, has not been good...and I usually dine early (before 6pm) and often on a weekday. I really am glad that hasn't been your experience there, but it has been mine...and I have been there way more than once or twice.

                  On one of my visits to Navarre, I tried to order wine and after choosing one, I was told they didn't have it...that happened three times in succession. Didn't keep me from going there again, but overall my opinion is that some plates there are great, but many fall short. It's just not a place I enjoy, and there are so many other places I'd rather dine. I've also always had better food and service at Noble Rot a block away. We are lucky to have many decent choices in this town, no?!

                  BTW, I never said Pix was "a paragon of consistency" (don't know where you got that from), I just said it was a great place for dessert...and this was after you suggested it I am confused... I thought I was just backing up your rec for Pix, and pointing out how close it was to Pok Pok.

                  A visitor stated, in particular: "in general we seek out restaurants that. ...have consistently good food, consistently good service....the order for us is definitely 1) food 2) service (it can make up for so much!) I was taking them at their word, and consistently good service and food has not been my experience at Farm or Navarre.

                  atduskgreg, we don't have to agree but we have all had our own experiences and have our own opinions. There's room for everyone's on this board. Happy chowing! ;o)

            2. Wow, that's a lot to digest!

              --ruled out: mostly I agree with these, but I'd consider adding these back in:
              biwa: the only negative review I've seen of biwa was in Willamette Week, and I think they must have been on crack. I can understand if you have plenty of noodle houses, but you really can't beat their udon on a cold drizzly night. We stopped in on Saturday night, and found out a couple of great things: if you sit at the counter, it's happy hour all night, and the pork belly skewers are on the happy hour menu.
              higgins: I know I'll get arguments for recommending it, but I like it. Greg Higgins was really one of the pioneers of local seasonal food, and if you don't like the white tablecloth dining room, the bar is great, too (and has a great beer selection).
              andina: I ate recently at Limon in San Francisco, and I gotta say that Andina is better.
              country cat, podnah's, pambiche: all worth while

              navarre: I would say that the service is quite casual here, but I wouldn't call it bad--they do know their food and wine (they also have a lot available by the glass here). Since they get a lot of their ingredients from the 47th avenue CSA within the city limits of Portland, they are one of the best for using local and seasonal ingredients.

              coffee: In addition to Albina Press, also consider Ristretto on NE 42nd and Fremont and Extracto at NE 30th and Killingsworth. If you're staying at Kennedy School, Extracto is walking distance, and is much better for lounging around than Ristretto. Ristretto does roast their own beans, though.

              Alberta St Oyster Bar: There were stories about this reopening, but I'm not sure when exactly that was going to happen. I have the impression that it is open now.

              Cheese: foster and dobbs, curds and whey, steve's cheese, pastaworks

              In the also category:
              worthwhile: lovely hula hands, tabla, fife (Fife is particularly good about local seasonal ingredients)
              OK, but I'm not sure that it merit's attention from out-of-towners: mingo, southpark, heathman (too stuffy)

              1 Reply
              1. re: Nettie

                btw i just called alberta street oyster bar and the message said they're 'accepting reservations starting november 7, wednesday through sunday.' assuming they're not referring to november '06 (!), i take it they're open.

              2. Talk about doing your homework! My only comments/adjustments (and trying to keep it simple) would be:

                1. All your rule-outs seem right to me, except Pambiche, unless you feel you don't want Cuban. For music in the area of Pambiche, Navarre, etc., you might look into Laurelthirst Public House for hippified folk rock most nights and cool hangout factor.

                2. I think Southpark is very underrated. I'd sooner go there than Higgins. Best local raw oysters in town bar none!

                3. You should try Le Pigeon for uniqueness.

                4. For splurge, I'd go with Paley's Place.

                5. VQ is a good call for lunch, particularly with wine.

                6. Of your "like the sound of": I'd skip Rocket, Hurley's, Roux, and Fife. I'd consider Alba (a little out of the way, though), Mingo, and Carafe (for french bistro food, but kind of in no-mans land part of town).

                7. For music, Doug Fir is a good call, but check out listings in Willamette Week and Mercury.

                8. Mcmenamins is great for beer IMHO, but also look at Laurelwood.