When I told one of my friends that I was reviewing a tapas restaurant this week, she promptly said, "I hate tapas." Now, given that Portland doesn't have too much going on in the way of Spanish restaurants, I doubt she's actually had tapas; but the word—which in Spain refers to snacks that are usually consumed between meals, while drinking—has entered common parlance to mean "small plates," and "small plates," of course, effectively translates to "someone is trying to rip me off."
Should you be one of the many folks laboring under this particular and reactionary culinary bias—I strongly urge you to let it go (or at least temporarily suspend it), and head over to Toro Bravo for one of the best meals you've had in ages.
John Gorham (formerly of Simpatica) recently opened Toro Bravo on NE Russell, on the same bustling block as the Wonder Ballroom. And yes, some of the plates at Gorham's tapas restaurant are small—but they're also priced appropriately, lovingly crafted, and, most importantly, damn delicious.
Toro Bravo's menu is divided into three sections: pinchos, tapas, and paella. The pinchos are basically appetizers, like the superb pork rillettes—a shredded pork spread served with bread, strong mustard, and wine-braised cherries. Tapas comprise the bulk of the menu, with dishes covering a full spectrum of Spanish-inspired dishes, from a radicchio salad, served with toast and a tangy olive tapenade, to clams cataplana, swimming in tomatoes and bits of ham (menu items do rotate). It's very easy to over-order; many of the dishes were larger than I expected (having some residual small-plate biases myself), particularly those that don't include meat. Seven dollars will get you a decent-sized bowl of spicy, velvety polenta, studded with English peas; $8 translates to a large portion of Singing Pig greens topped with raspberries and a large wedge of caña de oveja (sheep's milk cheese, which makes several appearances on the menu); while $14 will get you several beautifully tender pieces of chicken, wrapped in crisp Spanish ham and served with ratatouille-like vegetables.
On both of my visits there was a wait for seating—about 45 minutes one Sunday, and 20 on a Tuesday. One of the many indicators that the restaurant really is concerned about its patrons, not just its bottom line, is that ample provisions have been made for waiting. Small tables are available where you can order a drink and an appetizer, which means that instead of feeling desperate and ravenous by the time you get seated, you'll be mildly buzzed and ready to dive into Toro Bravo's intriguing, two-page menu. Don't hesitate to ask for help if you need it: On both visits, the staff was friendly, cheerful, and happy to answer translation questions (just because you don't know what boquerones are doesn't mean you wouldn't enjoy eating them, right?).
Make sure you're ready to share, because the best way to experience the food here is to order a bunch of dishes and pass them around the table—and make sure that you save room for dessert and after-dinner cocktails, because it would be virtually criminal to leave without trying a bite of olive oil cake with cherry sauce, or the surreptitiously decadent baked berries topped with sour cream ice cream. Toro Bravo is already busy and it's only going to get busier, so don't miss out on this new restaurant that is going to change the way Portlanders think about tapas.