4605 NE Fremont St., 971-229-0995, smallwarespdx.com.
[BIGGIE SMALL] Johanna Ware runs the tightest kitchen in town. Seriously. Sit at the bar, order some small plates and watch her marshal traffic from behind the hood while staff buzzes through with an efficiency seen by Portlanders only when watching New York kitchens on TV. Smallwares was already runner-up for WW Restaurant of the Year in 2012, but it’s come even further into its own. The place hums like a transformer. The mountain of fried kale, thick candied bacon, mint and fish sauce ($10) remains the restaurant’s hallmark—still a dish of startling originality and simplicity, a reminder that true innovation still happens at the level of the dance floor. But a summer plate mixing cantaloupe, blackberries and kimchee with East Coast-standard Benton’s ham ($9) was a lovely surprise. It’s farmhouse humility mixed with abandon— like The Dukes of Hazzard of Asian fusion, reckless and aw-shucks but still tight on those hairpin turns. Another standby, the oxtail with scotch bonnet ($17), remains wholeheartedly Jamaican all the way to the eye-watering heat, while the soft mapo dofu ($9) feels like the tender love of a baby for its mother. Or maybe it’s like eating a baby. Who knows? Not every dish succeeds—the oysters don’t need that fish sauce, for example—but do yourself a favor and just keep those plates coming until adventure feels like the only home you know.
Ideal meal: This and that. And that. And that. Trust us: You won’t screw this up.
Best deal: That fried kale with bacon, at $10, is almost a meal by itself.
Pro tip: Those on a budget should check the late-night menu at neighboring Barwares on Wednesday for $1 oyster night. Hold the fish sauce.
5-10 pm daily. $$-$$$.