A Post-Pandemic Guide to Eating (and Drinking) in Portland
A true dining scene before COVID, the Rose City also saw some of the worst of the past few years, but it has bounced back. And then some.
The pandemic was an existential crisis for local restaurants everywhere, with the Washington Post reporting more than 70,000 closures nationwide. Portland was certainly not immune. Andy Ricker closed his groundbreaking Vietnamese wing shop Pok Pok and decamped to Thailand, saying the restaurant’s original location was for sale “lock, stock and (literal) fish sauce barrel.” Vitaly Paley shuttered his award winning Paley’s Place in 2021. To say nothing of eagerly-anticipated openings like Bar King, which launched a week before the first lockdown and was dead on arrival.
Top Chef finalist and James Beard Award winner Gregory Gourdet is still mourning a local favorite, Back to Eden, which he calls “a queer-owned vegan and gluten-free bakery and cafe in the Alberta District,” telling InsideHook: “I was devastated when it closed.” As the pandemic raged on, Kurt Huffman, founder of ChefStable — the Portland restaurant group behind Pacific Standard and Ox, among others — genuinely feared a “flight of talent.”
And yet the opposite happened in Portland. From the ashes came opportunity — in the form of pop-up spaces, collaborative kitchens and innovative food cart pods. It’s not just where this new generation of chefs is cooking, it’s what they’re making. Cochinita pibil tortas, pancit miki-bahon — this culinary scene is built on the personal. Herein, a post-pandemic guide to the best places to eat and drink in the Rose City.
Where to Eat and Drink in Portland in 2023
The pandemic was, arguably, the best thing to happen to Magna Kusina, chef Carlo Lamagna’s Filipino restaurant which — at the onset of COVID-19 — pivoted to take out, fed frontline workers and then promptly shut down for six months. That break gave Lamagna a chance to focus his vision while also renovating the joint. There aren’t many James Beard nominated restaurants where the chef also hung the bathroom tile. Of parting ways with an early contractor, Lamagna tells me: “I found a lot of things that shouldn’t have been here. A lot of cocaine.”
What’s emerged is a modern Filipino outpost that’s ambitious but also feels like being invited into the chef’s living room. And homeboy’s personality is on full display here in Southeast Portland. Lamagna, who delivered the shrimp skewers himself on a recent visit, calls his longtime cooks the “Wild Rice Boys.” And nightly they’re serving up the crab dish of his youth but remixed with house-made squid ink noodles. The laing at Magna Kusina — a plate of coconut braised greens with chilis, onions and fried shallots — is rich and cozy. But the star is the sisig, which the menu describes as “crispy pork bits” but which is, of course, the full pig head — boiled, braised, then chopped up with soy sauce and onions. “If we called it pig head,” Lamagna said with a laugh, “no one would order it.” For real? “People would. But not as many.”
Lamagna is firmly a member of Portland’s New Guard but he’s already paying it forward — part of a wave of chefs lending out their restaurants on dark nights. At Magna Kusina, he’s hosted pop-ups like JEM (a $200 tasting menu from Holdfast veteran Joel Stocks and partner Emily), the Puerto Rican concept WEPA (from his longtime GM, whom he met on the line in Chicago a decade ago), and the vegetable-forward Chelo (from former Nightingale chef Luna Contreras).
That collaborative spirit — always key to Portland’s dining scene — is on display even more in 2023. Naomi Pomeroy’s perfect cocktail bar, Expatriate, survived the pandemic but her trailblazing Beast across the street in Northeast Portland was a casualty. When the space became available, Dame founder Jane Smith swooped in and dubbed it Lil’ Dame, but she maybe had a name before she had a concept. Quickly she invited chef Lauro Romero to pop-up there three nights a week.
The timing was impeccable. Romero had just stunned insiders by leaving his post at Republica. “My partners and I,” he told me, “our visions kind of shifted through building this company. I was going through a lot of personal stuff at the same time. I was kind of burned out; I realized I was really unhappy. I needed a change.”
He accepted Smith’s offer and rebooted his long-simmering pop-up Clandestino, where the current menu takes its inspiration from regions of Baja and Sinaloa with a sprinkle of Japanese ideas. Weeks later, I’m still thinking about a buttery scallop tostada. The restaurant opened in December and it manages to be ambitious but unfussy, with candles burning on wooden tables, and no wine list. The space doubles as a wine shop and you can pull a bottle off the shelf. If I lived in Portland I’d eat here once a week.
Romero is also a member of the New Guard, alongside Chef Sarah Minnick of the pioneering pizza haunt Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, which was featured on a recent episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table: Pizza. And that spot doesn’t disappoint. Minnick is serving up seasonal, vegetable-forward pizza like a chanterelle mushroom pie with watercress and (somehow) horseradish which I destroyed on a Friday night.
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But there’s a new new class emerging. And for a taste, we suggest making a pilgrimage to St. Johns, a scrappy, blue collar neighborhood on the way to nothing, where Willie Nelson supposedly played at a dive bar in the 1950s. More recently here, at the height of the pandemic, Pastificio d’Oro popped up inside Gracie’s Apizza and it was an unlikely hit. Chef Chase Dopson had been laid off from his gig at an oyster bar and taught himself to make pasta at home, using Evan Funke’s cookbook, “American Sfoglino.” Dopson had experimented with a meal delivery kit (which didn’t sell well) and then a two-day-a-week pop-up at Apizza (which did).
Nothing about the vibe here screams destination dining; Pastificio d’Oro is a walk-in only, order-at-the-counter outpost stocked with plates from Goodwill, which Dopson’s partner Maggie Irwin tells me is a win-win: “It looks like Nona’s house but it’s also cheap.” On the night I dropped in, the restaurant offered only two pastas —Tortellacio di Ricotta with brown butter and sage, and a Bolognese with hand-cut ribbon noodles — but the texture on both was superb.
Said Matt Hensel, owner of nearby 45th Parallel Wines and a vet of Jose Andres’s barmini in Washington, D.C.: “Investors are shy to jump into the restaurant business right now. You have these small, scrappy start-ups — little pop-ups in shared spaces with like eight things on the menu. But you’re well taken care of and the food is right.” Pastificio d’Oro has been so successful they just took over the space full time, with Gracie’s Apizza relocating down the street.
Keeping the barrier-to-entry low allows for new voices to emerge. That’s the premise behind a fresh cart pod in Buckman called Lil’ America, which is also the pitch. Picture a melting pot of, well, melting pots, with tenants pulling culinary inspiration from their family trees. Lil’ America is anchored by BIPOC and LGBTQ+ restaurant owners. And tenants include Makulit (serving a Filipino-American-fast-food mash up), Bake on the Run (which specializes in Guyanese sweet and savory bakes), and Frybaby (Korean-American fried chicken).
But no story is more impressive than that of Thuy Pham, a longtime hairdresser whose practice was sidelined by the pandemic. Pham started making Vegan pork belly on Instagram in 2020 at her daughter’s suggestion. Two weeks later, Pham had to rent a commercial kitchen because her DMs were blowing up. (The layer of “fat” on this pork belly is a mix of rice and tapioca and the consistency is eerily spot-on.) “I Googled, How do you start a food business in Portland,” Pham says, adding: “Google should pay me. I didn’t know what a commissary kitchen was.”
That was only the start. Pham—who came to the States in 1982—named her Vietnamese vegan restaurant Mama Đút (meaning “mama feed”) and moved into her first brick-and-mortar building in November of 2020; a second location is now set to open this spring in Alberta. She was also awarded a James Beard nomination for Emerging Chef in 2022. (Yes, she had to Google that, too.)
A Change in Perspective
The pandemic didn’t just create opportunities for new chefs, it gave seasoned vets like Top Chef’s Doug Adams an unexpected off-ramp. “The pandemic was really the first time that my life slowed down,” he told me. “I did Top Chef in 2015 and the train left the station.” When COVID-19 hit he was working at, as he calls it, “a swanky, polished downtown hotel. It just wasn’t really me.” He and his wife, the celebrated brew master Whitney Burnside of 10 Barrel Brewing, had dreamed of opening a brewery in Jackson Hole or Montana. He realized: “Why the fuck are we gonna wait?”
Adams left Holler Hospitality in 2021, and the following November, he and Burnside opened Grand Fir Brewing, where she brews (among others) a perfect Texas lager on-site. Adams, meanwhile, is in the kitchen making thoughtful bar snacks all priced below $20 bucks, including a standout fried chicken similar to the dish that put him on the map at Imperial nearly a decade ago. His take on a Whataburger features two grass-fed patties from Carman Ranch, topped with onions smoked for four hours before being caramelized with brewers malt. And his alpine potatoes are made with raclette. For a perfect afternoon, drop into Grand Central Bowl & Arcade around the corner.
Make it Personal
There are still plenty of surprises in Portland, which remains a refreshingly weird town. The best miso cod I’ve had in years is on offer at Takibi, a Japanese izakaya tucked inside (checks notes) an outdoor sporting goods store called Snow Peak. Arguably the tastiest fried chicken is still being served at a dive bar called Reel M’ Inn, where the late-night wait is sometimes over an hour.
The restaurants that survived — and what’s thriving now — have one thing in common: they’re personal. Around the corner from Higgins, Portland’s original farm-to-table restaurant, chef Greg Higgins finally realized his long-held dream of opening a lunchtime food cart parked in a plaza outside the Oregon Historical Society; three days a week, Piggins is serving up a seriously juicy grass-fed burger alongside fresh produce from farmers in the Willamette Valley. Elsewhere, the best breakfast I had was at Café Olli in Northeast Portland, a new-ish all-day, worker-owned café where you can relax with a spicy cardamom bun (knowing the profits are going to the people behind the counter).
Nowhere is the cooking more personal perhaps — and the reservations harder to get — than at Kann, from Top Chef finalist Gregory Gourdet. A live-fire Haitian restaurant, Kann opened in August and was promptly named Esquire’s Best New Restaurant in America. Gourdet is particularly proud of the Griyo, which is “the national dish of Haiti” and involves marinating local pork in epis, orange, lime, and habanero, before braising it tender and giving it a quick fry. “Historically Griyo was served at special occasions and festive events,” he explains, “but as the Haitian diaspora spread worldwide Griyo became an everyday food.”
The restaurant opens at 4 in the afternoon and did I mention it’s packed? If you can’t get into Kann, fear not: you can still enjoy some of Gourdet’s cooking downstairs at bar Sousòl (which is Haitain-Creole for “basement”). Gourdet is sober and his chic, subterranean pan-Caribbean watering hole offers an extensive list of cocktails—both original recipe and zero-proof—to wash down the bar snacks. I chased the Accra (saltfish fritters with a fermented pepper remoulade) with a Haitian Hummingbird, which is like drinking a Moscow Mule except you can still drive home after. If you’re lucky, you might just spot Gourdet working a shift as a barback (which has been known to happen once or twice).
Said Gourdet of Portland’s post-pandemic dining scene: “A lot of our iconic, nationally renowned restaurants closed and a slew of other lesser-known community establishments. That being said, after fire always comes regrowth.” What’s Haitian for dig in?
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