Author Rudyard Kipling may have famously noted that “East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” but these days, in Oregon’s foodiest city, the Southeast is where it’s at. Across the Willamette River from downtown, Portland’s southeast quadrant is now home to some of the city’s coolest eateries. From a wildly imaginative prix-fixe dinner experience in an urban winery to a trendy Russian vodka-and-tapas bar, we’ve got the lowdown on a half-dozen restaurants that make up 2015’s best of the Southeast.
Wow. Mmm. Wow. That’s what the 16 lucky diners around the counter or at the communal table at Holdfast keep saying as chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks bring out course after course of innovative modern fare. After running Holdfast as a pop-up eatery, Preisch and Stocks relocated in February to a comfortably industrial space in the Fausse Piste Winery, where they serve prix-fixe dinners by reservation only four nights a week. Thursday evenings include six courses, while Friday, Saturday and Sunday see a parade of nine plates, paired with wines or with freshly made juices. We recently swooned over dishes like raw spot prawns with slivered rhubarb, crispy prawn heads plated atop creamy almond purée, baby octopus with olive crumbs, and pork belly bites paired with fresh pea leaves and a just-quivering egg. And that was before we got to the handmade bonbons and the cornbread Madeleine topped with parmesan and a honeycomb. Don’t miss this inspired dining experience.
Imagine a Russian grandmother’s countryside dacha crossed with a Portland hipster bar, and you’ll get the vodka-loving vibe at this Russian restaurant and lounge. From the long list of spirits, hailing from Moscow to the Pacific Northwest, choose a tasting fight to sample different varieties. Like a true Russian, you’ll want to be sure you have plenty of snacks to go with your drinks and, fortunately, Kachka’s menu emphasizes zakuski, the Russian version of tapas. Fill your table with small plates of cured black cod, Baltic sprat buterbrodi (pumpernickel toasts topped with tiny smoked fish and pickled onions), pelmeni (delicious dumplings filled with a mix of beef, pork and veal), housemade pickles and an assortment of caviars, and you’ll be ready to toast and taste.
Before chef Andy Ricker opened his beach-shack-style Thai restaurant on Southeast Division Street, the neighborhood was a fairly modest residential community. Post-Pok Pok, Division is lined with restaurants, including Ricker’s original, where diners still queue nightly for his vibrant Southeast Asian flavors, cool cocktails and “drinking vinegars.” Sip a tamarind whiskey sour or a kaffir lime-infused gin and tonic, while you wait for your muu paa kham waan (soy-glazed, charcoal grilled boar served with chilled mustard greens), yam samun phrai (a herbal salad of betel leaf, basil, lime leaf, carrots, parsnips, dried shrimp and ground pork) or the ever-popular Vietnamese fish-sauce chicken wings.
If the crowds are too thick at Pok Pok, wander down Southeast Division to two more of Ricker’s Portland outposts: Sen Yai, which specializes in Thai-style noodles, or the funky Whiskey Soda Lounge, which cooks up “Thai drinking foods” like plaa meuk ping (pressed, dried cuttlefish) or naem sii krong muu thawt (sour-cured pork ribs).
Another leader in the Southeast Division’s renaissance was Duane Sorenson, who opened Stumptown Coffee Roasters on the street way back in 1999. More recently, the Stumptown team launched Ava Gene’s, a notable Roman-style dining room where executive chef Joshua McFadden and his team do wonderful things with vegetables; look for combinations like radishes, feta, sunflower seeds and sprouted barley or snap peas, turnips, frikeh, almonds and yogurt. It’s not all plant food here, though, with plates of salumi, handmade pastas and rib-eye steak served with fava beans, porcini mushrooms and anchovy butter impressing diners who’ve made the short trek from downtown.
Roman Candle Baking Co.
Both veggies and Italian tastes star at Ava Gene’s next-door sibling, Roman Candle Baking Co., which is part bakery, part coffee house and part pizzeria. Breakfast warms you up with avocado toasts, polenta sticks with jam and all manner of pastries. Later in the day, it’s all about the Roman flatbread — giant slabs of pizza that you cut with a scissors — and Stumptown’s cold brew. Pair your pie with a substantial raw kale bowl dressed with garlic, chilies and lemon or a farro salad with ricotta cheese, carrots, pistachios and dates. And save room for the mascarpone gelato.
Feeling adventurous on a Sunday morning? Then put yourself in the kitchen’s hands at this cheerful café — sibling of more posh Castanga Restaurant next door — for a “chef’s choice” brunch, where Pacific Northwest ingredients meet Middle Eastern flavors. As you sip your coffee or a refreshing hibiscus lemonade, you’ll get a procession of plates that might include carrot hummus with warm pita bread; a salad of spring greens, kohlrabi and apricots; chili-roasted potatoes; and a hearty shakshouka (eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce). If you’re lucky, you’ll sample their signature cardamom-scented donuts, too, served warm with a housemade jam. The whole thing is a steal at just $15 a person, so you’ll have plenty of cash left over for cab fare back downtown — after your eating adventure in Southeast Portland.