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Portland is just about the eatingest city you’ll find, and for good reason. Our food scene is known worldwide for its accessibility, diversity, seasonality, and overall quality. Want Burmese food served by a robot? Top Burmese has got you covered. Fun natural wines served with super-inventive, hyper-seasonal plates? Head to Street Disco, Heavenly Creatures, or OK Omens.
We could fill a whole encyclopedia about Portland’s food, but here are five reasons we love eating here right now:
1. Earl Ninsom chose to make his restaurant empire here
Chances are if you’re making a must-eat list, all of Ninsom’s restaurants would make the cut. The Thai native started with his flagship Southeast 28th Avenue venture, Paadee. After building a following for the killer boat noodles and tamarind-glazed wings, he opened Hat Yai in 2016. It’s now grown to two locations, and the Southern-Thai fried chicken combo with roti and curry is on any list of iconic Portland plates.
Ninsom is also behind Langbaan, the prix fixe affair that offers a haute look into hyperlocal Thai cooking: one month it may be an homage to Bangkok’s Chinatown, another, drawing from the Northern region. Ninsom’s also one of the partners behind Eem, the ground-breaking mashup of Matt’s BBQ’s Texas-style meats with curries and fried rice, along with one of the most celebrated cocktail lists in town.
And there’s more! Ninsom is also behind the new Phuket Cafe in Northwest Portland. Sit in the converted train car outside, and have a grand time eating one of the best pork chops ever, served on the bone with laab and tomato relish.
2. Sex work and food are intertwined
It all started with the affectionately nicknamed A-Crop, AKA The Acropolis. Open for more than 40 years, it’s one of the oldest strip clubs in Portland. Its owners have long made sure you can get steak with your legs, and for a sexy price: an 8 oz sirloin special still runs under $10. Spend the savings tipping the dancers. Casa Diablo, on the opposite end, was the first vegan strip club in the country.
But more recently, the movement has been to support the sex workers themselves. In 2019, chef Nikeisah Newton opened Meals 4 Heels, which bills itself as “the world’s only late-night meal delivery service that caters to sex workers and sex positive clientele.” I like the GTP (Gettin’ That Paper), a bowl loaded with Tom Kha roasted cauliflower, sweet potato noodles, pickled cucumbers, truffled tomatoes, herbs, honey Sambal sauce, toasted coconut, and veggie furikake.
And this spring, inside the Lil’ America pod on Southeast 10th and Stark, stripper Dahlia Hanson opened Speed-O Cappuccino. Staffed entirely by sex workers and dancers, you’ll get a queer, bikini barista experience, plus plenty of tasty vegan stoner food like smash burgers and corndogs.
3. Our food cart pods keep leveling up
Back in the day, the Rose City’s model for food carts were cheap and tasty clusters of vendors offering everything from gyros to pho in converted parking lots.
But today, they’re so much more than that. That Lil’ America pod we just mentioned? It’s queer and BIPOC-owned, and features carts that are owned by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ chefs exclusively.
Hinterland Bar & Food Carts on Southeast 50th Avenue drew in huge cart names like Burger Stevens and Matt’s BBQ tacos. Built into a former acupuncture office, there’s a great bar to accompany all the food. Orders are served on metal trays or renewable bioplastic plates, and you’re gonna get a real fork and knife, which are washed on-site. It’s heated, it’s covered, and it’s wonderful. Park the Carts on Northeast MLK Jr. Boulevard has several Black-owned carts, and offers indoor and outdoor seating.
4. We’re all about the new, but old time places hold our hearts
There’s always something new opening, and we love that for us. But Portlanders also know to save room in their hearts, and stomachs, for the OG restaurants. They’ve been here for decades, but they still sling sandwiches, steaks, and Spanish coffees better than anyone.
Meaty favorites include Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen and the RingSide. Sayler’s has been around since 1946, serving gargantuan T-bones at a manageable price (and a 72-oz ribeye challenge) out on Southeast 105th and Stark. The RingSide on West Burnside has been a premier spot to splurge since 1944, with unforgettable onion rings and an epic wine list.
There’s Taste Tickler, serving incredible teriyaki subs for more than 50 years on Northeast Broadway. Opened in 1879, Huber’s is Portland’s oldest restaurant, where waitstaff have been putting on an elaborate flaming show while crafting Spanish coffees since before you were even a thought in your parents’ mind.
5. Kristen Murray has dug in her heels and kept Maurice humming downtown
Maurice opened its sunny doors in 2013, offering a sanctuary for a cheery French-Norwegian lunch and divine fika (sweets).
Maurice was beloved from the jump, especially for its black pepper cheesecake and dreamy meyer lemon pudding cake. But the tiny space was walloped by the pandemic, and then by an increase in vandalism. For some months, Murray had to board up her huge plate glass windows following a break in.
But she persisted. Today, it’s hopping, the glass now frosted to let in the light. There’s still delicious wines by the glass, a robust tea menu, and that cheesecake. The savory lunch menu changes constantly, depending on Murray’s whims, but a recent trip offered a wonderful savory polenta clafoutis piled with dungeness crab. It’s just about the best place to start a day of downtown adventures, and I’m thrilled Murray has stuck it out.