Photographer: jose1983/Getty Images

Eat Your Way Through Portland’s Best Restaurants

In foodie paradise, all you need is a nickel, a dream, and a food truck

Portland, Ore., may be the buzziest city in the food world. Its hippie past means healthy urban living is culturally ingrained today. Couples drop their kids at school, debate last night’s dinner, then feed their backyard chickens. Alternate modes of transportation mean there’s virtually no traffic, and there are three times more food carts than garbage trucks.

Duane Sorenson, the founder of Stumptown Coffee, and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok are the city’s reigning kings. Venture capital and private equity funds are eager to sign big checks and spread the gospel of perfectly roasted coffee or khao soi (curry and coconut soup with noodles) originating in the hipster mecca.

Make the pilgrimage to Pok Pok, the home of the patron saint of Thai food in America, Andy Ricker.

Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok has become a necessary pilgrimage among Portland’s food scene.

Source: Dave Reamer/Pok Pok via Bloomberg

Portland incubates talent well in part because it’s cheaper than other U.S. cities and tolerates failure. The standard rule of opening in most cities is, don’t try it unless you have enough capital to get through your first year. “In Portland you just need enough to open and get by,” says Jenn Louis, a 20-year veteran of the city's restaurant scene. She now runs Lincoln Restaurant and Sunshine Tavern. “With an average income of $30K per year, more families spend money on food than they do on ballgames.”

And that’s precisely what I found in Portland. Food is the city’s sport. While there are some high-end restaurants with prices increasingly reaching Los Angeles levels, the bulk of them remain cheap, delicious, and experimental. Each restaurant (or food truck) is working hard and hoping to become the next Stumptown or Pok Pok.

Top Restaurants 

Little Bird Bistro's madeleines.

Try Little Bird Bistro’s madeleines.

Source: David Reamer/Little Bird Bistro

Little Bird Bistro: The more casual bistro sister of much lauded Le Pigeon. Comfy banquettes. Downtown.

Ava Gene’s / The Woodsman Tavern: Owned by Stumptown’s Sorenson, with strong New York influences (and prices). AG’s is more Italian, while WT is all about the meat (and oysters).

Ataula: Jose Chesa is considered the most important Spanish chef this side of José Andrés. A perfect gastropub español.

Navarre: A hodgepodge of styles—Spanish, French, and Italian—plus great technique, a Portlandia vibe, and reasonable prices make this my favorite restaurant in the city.

Bollywood Theater: One of the most fun places to try Indian street food without going to India. Fantastic indoor/outdoor space, too. Get the spicy fried okra, the papri chaat, and a T-shirt.

Bollywood Theater is one of the most fun places to try Indian street food without going to India.
Bollywood Theater is one of the most fun places to try Indian street food without going to India.
Photographer: James Cohen/Flickr

Beast: An explosion of all things meat—cow, pig, duck, sheep, you name it—from James Beard winner Naomi Pomeroy.

Måurice: This tiny gem downtown is part pastry shop, part French lunch spot. Plated desserts and lunch. 

Pok Pok: Make the pilgrimage to the home of the patron saint of Thai food in America, Andy Ricker. Know that he often skips the lines and goes to HA & VL down the block for the pho.

Pok Pok's Da Chom's Laap Meuang, a Northern Thai minced meat salad with accompanying herbs.

Pok Pok’s Da Chom’s Laap Meuang, a Northern Thai minced-meat salad with accompanying herbs.

Source: Dave Reamer/Pok Pok via Bloomberg

Insider Tips

Brunch: Almost every restaurant does a brunch menu. Portland residents don’t get stressed about anything—except brunch.

In Portland, food is the city's sport.

In Portland, food is the city’s sport.

Photographer: Peter Elliot/Bloomberg Business

Take in the neon: Starting with the famous “Portland Oregon” sign and its white stag, you’ll see more cool neon signs here than anywhere else in America, outside Las Vegas. Many are attached to strip clubs, which also double as music venues. Strip clubs are part of the fabric of Portland life and not nearly as seedy as you’d imagine—though a few are.

Wine country: An hour southwest of downtown are some of the best pinot noirs in the world. If you have an afternoon free, select a few of your favorite vineyards (after tasting at local restaurants first) and head out to the Dundee Hills.

Get in line: Getting into almost anywhere means standing in line. Don’t cut. The idea here is to get friendly with your fellow neighbors, learn what they’ve eaten or are planning to eat, and make new friends.

Get a shave and a haircut (or a tattoo): Old-fashioned barber shops are everywhere. I chickened out on the tattoo challenge.

Music: Great food and great music go hand in hand. Which came first? Portland’s music scene? Or its food scene? Go find out.

Doughnuts: Voodoo Doughnut had lines swirling for blocks. You’d think they were serving cronuts. You’ll see the pink boxes all over the city.

Next month: Berlin. E-mail with any tips. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2015 edition of Reserve, a Bloomberg Brief publication. Click here for the full issue and to request a subscription invitation.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.