Making the Grade 

The Mercury Food Issue Checks In with Old Standbys

Schoo-o-o-ol's out for summer (or almost out), and it's report-card time! For this year's Mercury Food Issue we said "screw it" to investigating new, unproven restaurants, and "screw it" to digging up that secret little dive that makes you feel cool just knowing about it. No, we wanted to get back to basics: to clean our palates, clear our minds, and check in, free of bias, with the restaurants in Portland that people actually go to. Once a place earns its reputation, the real challenge begins: maintaining it. We wanted to make sure your favorite restaurants are still deserving of their title, and still delivering the goods. This issue includes, among other things: a profile of a young phenom eatery that's already achieved legendary status; a round-up of Portland's oh-so-sacred brunch joints; and of course, a handy compilation of popular restaurants, replete with progress reports. So read on, eat on, and find out who's making the grade, and who's about to get called in for a parent/teacher conference...

GRADING KEY
E = EXCELLENT S = SATISFACTORY N = NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Bluehour
250 NW 13th, 226-3394

Rarely do I have the budget to go nuts at longtime yuppie haven Bluehour, but eating there doesn't mean you have to clean out your bank account. Stop in for a tasty cheesy panini sandwich or a meat and cheese plate, plus a cocktail, and drop around $15 or $20. If you do find that sugar daddy you've been looking for, however, splurge on the bacon-wrapped scallops, the lamb, and an expensive bottle of wine. Bluehour is every bit as good as its hype. KATIE SHIMER

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
LOCAL CELEBRITY WATCHING: E

Brasserie Montmartre
626 SW Park, 224-5552

Anyone craving a trip to the Left Bank of Paris may want to visit this charming brasserie full of nostalgic nods to the city of lights. With parquet floors and high ceilings surrounding a beautiful bar, it can be an ideal place to duck in from the rain for some of their deservedly famous French onion soup, and a little fun with the crayons that are left on every table for the artist/kid in you. As an evening destination, it exudes an air of faded glory, an atmospheric perk that could be in jeopardy over the next few months as they undergo renovations. I'll be interested in seeing the results when they reopen at the end of the summer. J. CHRISTIANE BENNETT

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
ACTUAL PARISIANS: N

Byways Café
1212 NW Glisan, 221-0011

Byways remains the Pearl District's answer to its dire need for a greasy spoon, and does so with flying colors. This nostalgic diner hasn't really changed a thing since opening its doors seven years ago, which may sound dull, but when the 1950s-style menu is mostly gut-busting, artery-clogging fare, change is kind of besides the point—really, does a carb-free milkshake sound appetizing? I didn't think so. CATHERINE COLE

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
SODA FOUNTAIN: E

Claudia's
3006 SE Hawthorne, 232-1744

For the most part, sports bars suck, but Claudia's is an inarguable classic. With something like 100,000 televisions broadcasting different sporting events, you can sit at the bar in one of the enormous cushiony chairs and space out all night. Also, unlike other sports bars, the staff isn't cheesy and the food is really solid burger-and-pizza fare—though if you want the best (and best-tasting) deal, order the gyro with soup and fries, which will cost you around $6. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
BAR STOOL COMFORT: E

Delta Café
4607 SE Woodstock, 771-3101

I remember eating at the Delta ages ago, with a cool old dude who died of a stroke shortly afterwards. He was one of those people who really beat a point into the ground, and his point about the Delta was that he loved it, and they made the best fried chicken ever. That day, I was ravenous and had to agree. The fried chicken was crispy and tasty as all hell, and the sides were plentiful and legendary: creamy mac and cheese, peppery turnips and carrots, and home-style mashed potatoes. Now, however, I think the Delta's gotten too big for its britches. The service can be terse and spotty, the food can be decent to bad, and I'm almost certain my mac and cheese was microwaved last time (it was cold in the middle). On the bright side, their drink menu is amazing—try a Manhattan with fancy imported cherries, or a tart, boozy mojito. KS

FOOD: N
SERVICE: N
BOOZE: E

DeNicola's
3520 SE Powell, 239-5220

Opened in 1978, DeNicola's is an oft-forgotten Portland treasure. The food is basic Italian paired with affordable wines served in cozy booths and tables bedecked with checked cloths. Meals like heaping spaghetti and meatballs come with a salad, anti-pasta platter and bread, so prepare to leave the restaurant stuffed to the gills. Try the eggplant parmesan, ravioli, manicotti, or stop by on Sunday, Monday, or Tuesday nights for all-you-can-eat spaghetti. Also, DeNicola's can be delivered using Delivered Dish (delivereddish.com) in case you, say, happen to have a horrendous hangover and need mountains of food for relief. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
MEATBALL ENORMITY: E

Dot's
2521 SE Clinton, 235-0203

Dot's this, Dot's that. Dot's, Dot's, Dot's. What's the big deal with this place? Greasy, cheaply made sandwiches run you $7 and up, and don't even include fries or chips. Beer's overpriced too, and the drinks are nothing special. It's got a cool, smoky ambience with a lot of velvet paintings and vintage knickknacks, but it's so dark most of the time you can't see anything, so what's the difference? I mean, it's not like I WON'T hang out here; I just don't get why everyone loves it so much. JUSTIN W. SANDERS

FOOD: N
SERVICE: S
"VELVITUDE": E

Escape from New York Pizza
622 NW 23rd, 227-5423

Escape from New York is still the best joint in town for a greasy, floppy slice of New York-style pizza, dished up by Escape's affably surly staff. Toppings are minimal—you won't find any artichoke hearts here—but a focus on quality ingredients and a sheer mastery of the Holy Trinity of pizza (sauce, cheese, and crust) make Escape perhaps the only reason to ever set foot on NW 23rd. ALISON HALLETT

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
EAST COAST ATTITUDE: E

Foti's Greek Deli
1740 E Burnside, 232-0274

Foti's was great when I moved into Portland proper five years ago, and it's never flagged. The heaving, garlicky lamb gyros will destroy you with the awesome power of pure deliciousness. The Greek fries will break your heart (literally), and the veggie souvaki will manhandle your taste buds, which like it rough. I wish the place was just a little less stingy with their ketchup, but aside from that, I hope Foti's never changes. JWS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
KETCHUP DISTRIBUTION: N

Fuller's
136 NW 9th, 222-5608

A small-town diner in a big city neighborhood, Fuller's is a weird island of unchanging affordable down-hominess in a sea of sleek Pearl District affluence. A counter snakes all around the place, alleviating the need for tables, and the food is prepared in front of your eyes with all manner of grills and fat fryers. BLTs. Cobb salads. Breakfast served all day. It's all here, and it's all just dandy. JWS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
GREASE: E

Horse Brass Pub
4534 SE Belmont, 232-2202

On a constant quest for local craft beers and darts served in an English-style public house (who isn't really?), as soon as I walked into the Horse Brass Pub, I knew I was home. This cavernous yet cozy space has been bringing smiles to people who love no-frills, traditional British fare (Guinness and fish and chips, and lots of it) for 30 years, and feels like it could keep doing so for 30 more. As evidenced by the crowds that pack the place nightly—it will. JCB

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
FLAT, WARM BITTERS: E

Justa Pasta
1336 NW 19th, 243-2249

When I worked in the neighborhood, Justa Pasta was a once-a-week necessity. Now I have to drive clear across town—and I do, because their food is as good as ever. The homemade pastas and raviolis are incredibly delicious and affordable, and their spinach salad is divinely simple, dusted with pine nuts and lemony dressing. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
REASON FOR NEVER GOING TO PASTINI AGAIN: E

Khun Pic's Bahn Thai
3429 SE Belmont, 235-1610

Still hidden in the shadows of the Avalon, Khun Pic's is still cozy, still picturesque, and still bursting with piquant curries (either red or green) and a pad thai worth writing Sharon Stone about. Some patrons bemoan the hours-long wait but, when considering there's only one server and one cook, and considering how stunning the food is, you can afford to be patient. Save this place for the second date, when you actually deserve some tail. WILL GARDNER

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
"RIP VAN WINKLE" FACTOR: E

Kornblatt's
628 NW 23rd, 242-0055

When it comes to knishes and rugelach, Portland is pretty low on the ground. Kornblatt's is known for being one of the rare places at which to scratch that itch, but it's far from ideal. The egg salad is mediocre, the veggie Reuben is unimpressive, and the service is consistently curt. The bagels and knishes, on the other hand, are worth crossing the river for; just phone ahead to make sure they haven't run out. WG

FOOD: N
SERVICE: S
PRONOUNCABLE MENU ITEMS: N

Le Bistro Montage
301 SE Morrison, 234-1324

The Montage suffers from the same syndrome as many other legendary Portland restaurants, in that now that they're an icon, they've started phoning it in. What used to be a cheap and reliable Cajun restaurant is now a slightly expensive mac and cheese factory. The pan-fried oysters I had last time I ate there were rock hard and the veggie side was soggy and gross. The red beans and rice, however, are still good. I would still recommend this place if you're starving late at night as the food is serviceable (plus great drinks and a spectacular wine list)—I just wish it was better. And while I'm recommending things, the Montage's bar, La Merde, is dark, cozy, and awesome and has a pretty neat little happy hour (try the mussels or crawfish cakes) on weekdays from 4-6 pm. KS

FOOD: N
SERVICE: S
STAFF HOTNESS: E

Ling Garden
915 NW 21st, 227-6052

There are times when only Singapore fusion, vegan Thai, fancy pho, or quick bento will do, and then there are times when the only thing that'll make your day is classic Chinese grub like hot and sour soup, chicken lo mein, and crunchy fortune cookies. When that mood strikes you, Ling Garden's a great joint to hit—they've got off-street parking, a sizable menu with all your favorite standbys, adorable Chinese waitresses—and they're cheap as hell, to boot. What's not to love? CHAS BOWIE

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
FRILLS: N

Lovely Hula Hands
938 N Cook, 445-9910

Lovely Hula Hands remains the place for fine, classy eating in North Portland, and for good reason. Their commitment to locally grown ingredients manifests in all sorts of deliciousness, from the Thai-style flat iron steak with sticky ice and prik nam pla (fresh lime, fish sauce, and Thai chili peppers) for dipping, to the Cuban pumpkin rice with fried plantains and tomato coconut curry. The only complaint that can be leveled against Hula Hands is that it's far too tiny, resulting in long waits, both at the door and again at your table. That'll all be changing in October, as they're moving from their celebrated pink house location to more spacious digs with outdoor seating further up Mississippi. CB

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
EXTERIOR COLOR SCHEME: N

Nicholas' Restaurant
318 SE Grand, 235-5123

Portland's most celebrated Mediterranean restaurant provides portions big enough to kill you, for less than $10. And what a way to go! Veggie kabobs over a mountainous bed of saffron rice. Giant mezza plates (hummus, falafel, tabbouleh, spinach pie, etc.) with classic Middle Eastern simplicity. Then there's Lebanese pizzas, sandwiches, grape leaves, Escalade-wheel-size flat bread, peach smoothies.... Can't fuck with the classics; Nicholas' could run the same menu for 20,000 years (and maybe has) and still taste timeless. ADAM GNADE

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
PRICE-TO-DELICIOUSNESS RATIO: E

No Fish, Go Fish
3962 SE Hawthorne, 235-5378

Originally started with a downtown cart, and later a North Portland restaurant, No Fish, Go Fish has now found its home in a cozy spot on upper Hawthorne. While naughty Friday night bouts of Strip Jeopardy have catapulted the place into destination status, the food has never faltered. NFGF has the most delicious and reliable soup-and-sandwich fare in town, plus inventive dinner options like buffalo, venison, pheasant risotto, and standards like tuna niçoise salad—and don't forget weekend brunch complete with mimosas or Bloody Marys. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
STRIP JEOPARDY ON FRIDAYS (10 PM): E

The Old Spaghetti Factory
0715 SW Bancroft, 222-5375

As packed to the gills night after night as ever, at first I thought that the Old Spaghetti Factory has gotten worse over the years, but maybe I'm just not as impressed with bloat–inducing portions and spumoni ice cream as I was when I was eight. The ornate building on the Willamette is still a great place to take children (and visiting grandparents), and you can still get coffee, bread, salad, dessert, and a heaping bowl of mediocre pasta for a pittance. OSF is what it is. AH

FOOD: S
SERVICE: S
HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS: E

Old Wives' Tale
1300 E Burnside, 238-0470

There's very little negative to say about this 26-year-old restaurant. The food is well planned, almost all vegetarian, and includes one of the few salad bars in town not found in a strip bar. Diners with young children will find Old Wives' Tale appealing because, as a seven-year-old I know says, "the play area is dope." At the same time, there's nothing spectacular. I come here whenever either (1) a friend from Eugene or (2) a relative with children comes to visit. WG

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
SCREAMING CHILDREN: E

Pho Jasmine
714 N Killingsworth, 283-0398

Undoubtedly, as its now legendary reputation dictates, Pho Jasmine serves some of the best pho in town, and I've come to believe it's the only pho restaurant in North Portland. A few things I've noticed, though: As the restaurant's word of mouth has steadily improved, the service has gotten steadily slower; and, like so many Portland restaurants, they're consistently closing shop at 8:30 pm even though they're allegedly open until 9 pm. Perhaps, like most of us, they're sick of the daily grind. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
PROPER "PHO" PRONUNCIATION: E

Stepping Stone
2390 NW Quimby, 222-1132

A Mercury favorite when our office was on NW 23rd, the Stepping Stone has undergone some changes. The menu items haven't changed, nor the prices, nor the way they make their hash browns (sliced potatoes—the best kind), but the old-fashioned cash register has been replaced with a new-fangled ID card till. The important things are the same (the portions are still substantial), but this one modernization makes me wonder whether there's someone dangerous in charge—someone who doesn't completely understand what people love about the place. WG

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
COOL REGISTER THAT GOT TAKEN AWAY: N

Takahashi
10324 SE Holgate, 760-8135

This faraway knickknack-filled sushi spot is beloved by those lucky enough to know about it, and is definitely one of the best in town. Their spicy tuna hand roll is a must-have, as is the spider roll, and the extremely fresh uni (buttery sea urchin). If you're on a budget, visit Takahashi on Wednesday, when sushi is 40 percent off. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: E
RAW FISH EAST OF 82ND THAT WON'T KILL YOU: E

Thien Hong
6749 NE Sandy, 281-1247

Thien Hong's salt-and-pepper squid is the stuff of legend. Huge tentacled pieces of deep-fried squid arrive at your table in a huge pile, dusted with generous amounts of salt and pepper. Don't miss it. Thien Hong also makes great entrees like moo shu pork, spicy pork spare ribs, and fresh (as in live when you get there) shrimp dishes. And weekday lunch specials are a steal. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
TENTACLES: E

Tin Shed Garden Café
1438 NE Alberta, 288-6966

While I wasn't totally keen on this spot when it first opened, the Tin Shed has really come into its own, finally becoming almost as good as everyone says it is. The menu is still full of dorky entrée names like "Everything Naughty" and "Everything Nice," but now at least it's worth the embarrassment of ordering it. Omelettes are creative and tasty, and don't miss their potato pancakes, which taste like they were made with sour cream. Burgers are piled high and made with quality beef and their cocktails are wonderful, especially enjoyed on the shady garden patio. KS

FOOD: E
SERVICE: S
HEAVENLY PATIO: E

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