Seattleites Guide to PDX

Portland Checklist: Top 10 Restaurants

We asked Portland Monthly restaurant critic Karen Brooks for her top restaurant recommendations for PDX visitors. Her advice? Leave downtown behind and head to the city's Southeast neighborhoods.

February 1, 2014 Published in the February 2014 issue of Seattle Met


① Le Pigeon

Chef Gabriel Rucker is a Portland original who works off the cuff in his own world of complex flavor combinations, possessed by meat, French bistro cooking, and old-school American—sometimes all in the same dish. The restaurant’s curried carrot cake was Portland Monthly’s Dessert of the Year. 738 E Burnside St, 503-546-8796;

② Ava Gene’s

It’s a place to indulge everything that makes Portland tick, with an unstoppable parade of inspired food and religious seasonality. This is not safe, letter--perfect Italian fare, but Roman tripe stew as it should be, hellacious and treacherously addictive, and primal, nonna--worthy orecchiette shells bear-hugging broccoli leaves and spicy pork crumbles. 3377 SE Division St, 971-229-0571;

③ Pok Pok 

From its bare-bones beginning as a takeout shack, Pok Pok has grown into a full-on indoor-outdoor eating experience while its owner has earned a reputation as the country’s foremost Thai grilling expert. Inside or out, don’t miss the blackboard specials, unusual dishes like grilled boar collar, and signature chicken wings (marinated in fish sauce and palm sugar, deep-fried and caramelized, then tossed in garlic and a bit of heaven). 3226 SE Division St, 503-232-1387;

④ Castagna

Come with an open mind and an evening to burn. Far from Portland’s freewheeling small-plate, comfort-food revolution, Castagna choreographs every millibite in tiered dishes. You can try three easy courses at $65 total (a steal for this level of cooking) or you can embrace the tasting menu for $110. Either option includes a bonus: shockingly good dinner rolls dispatched with smoky whipped lardo. A dessert flight is $25. 1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd, 503-231-7373;

⑤ Ox 

This mashup of Argentine barbecue, Portland bravado, and French technique is the talk of the town. Ox’s meaty love story is told over 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. 2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, 503-284-3366;

⑥ Beast

Welcome to a tiny personalized food stage for sumptuous multicourse meals choreographed and assembled in the middle of the room. With no real kitchen, and one big imagination, chef Naomi Pomeroy ships an unexpected parade of elegant potpies, maple-glazed pork bellies, and foie gras bonbons in six-course prix fixe dinners that celebrate French comfort cooking and Oregon farm finds. The four-course brunch is the city’s best. 5425 NE 30th Ave, 503-841-6968;

⑦ Navarre

In a city that prides itself on a farm-to-table ethos, nobody embraces the philosophy more completely: Ninety percent of the produce is grown within the city limits. You won’t find a more original seasonal menu anywhere—pear chocolate pie, candied fennel stems, lamb ham—if it’s on the list, it was made from scratch in the kitchen. A lawlessness hovers in the air, and that’s part of the magic. 10 NE 28th Ave, 503-232-3555;

⑧ Roe

The quickest route to the Oregon Coast is through this back room on Southeast Division Street. The slinky, amber-lit spot celebrates critters and bits found on foraging trips to the beach—from jewel-toned sea lettuces to tiny skittering surf crabs—in a wild lineup of inventive, challenging plates. The reservations-only fine-dining experiment charges a premium for lavish but low-key service with a speakeasy vibe and small, fresh dishes with big Japanese- and Spanish-inflected flavors—and it’s worth every penny. 3113 SE Division St, 503-232-1566;

⑨The Sugar Cube

Pastry whiz Kir Jensen left behind a popular food cart to open a sweet shop on Northeast Alberta, complete with breakfast specials, coffee service, and lots of light. Find a stocked counter of hazelnut-studded chocolate chip cookies, sea salt and olive oil brownies, and caramel-slicked chocolate ganache cupcakes (the breakfast of champions, friends). 3039 NE Alberta St, 971-202-7135;

⑪ Little Bird Bistro

And one downtown eatery: Le Pigeon is known for ruffling feathers on Portland’s east side, but its spin-off downtown bistro is accessible, easy, and seductive—more bluebird than street bird. Get in on Little Bird’s lusty duck confit and hulking marrow bones that look on loan from a natural history museum. Grab something to drink from a wine-lover’s list. 219 SW Sixth Ave, 503-688-5952;

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