Portland is no stranger to Southern comfort.
Over the last decade or so, it's hard to argue the local cuisine has been influenced by anything more than the fancy comfort food trend. This is a town that loves fried chicken and brisket. Here are the fried chicken and brisket spots we love best.
Call it the smoke cycle. The best barbecue in Portland tends to start in carts, then grow into bricks. Well, we're back at the start again. The city's two best barbecue spots are now Matt's and Botto. Matt Vicedomini is our new baron of brisket, serving slices with thick black barque and a glorious pink smoke ring that metaphorically side-eyes all sauces. The slaw and ribs are great, too.
This Texas-style cart recently popped up in a barbed-wire lot behind the Sherwin-Williams warehouse on the fringes of Slabtown. The meats come by the pound on butcher paper, the music tends toward country, and Cokes and Topo Chicos come in heavy Mexican glass. Get the pepper-rubbed and extra-smoky racks, the finest in this city, with a thick, black barque that slides off the bone like a banana peel.
5027 NE 42nd Ave. (behind Old Salt Marketplace), maepdx.com.
Maya Lovelace had me at the iced tea. Her twice-weekly supper club in the backroom of the Old Salt meat market serves up sassafras sweet tea, a flavor missing from the West Coast recipe box, which immediately transported me back to the hollers of ol' Virginny. From there, it's a parade of lard-fried joy paired with Lovelace's vivid storytelling—cornbread with a hint of crispiness on its shell, outrageously gooey mac 'n' cheese, and a spicy-sweet succotash stuffed with market-fresh produce. MARTIN CIZMAR
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The élan with which Roost pulls off farm-to-table dishes comprising more than six ingredients is truly incredible. Look for a quality poultry dish like a roasted coriander chicken with couscous salad, yogurt, feta, mint and basil. Likewise, the richness and complexity of flavors in a greens salad with green goddess, bacon, heirloom tomatoes and avocado is at odds with the simplicity of its presentation.
Chicken and waffles. Chicken and waffles. Chicken and waffles. Yes, Screen Door became what's probably the most interminably packed restaurant in Portland—one whose shape-shifting jumble of almost-diners has become an omnipresent metaphor for our city's decadence—on the back of that gut-bustingly beautiful mountain of crispy, juicy goodness, fluffy starch and syrup ($14.95).
Once you summit Mount Chicken and descend to the rest of the menu, you'll find a wealth of thoughtful pan-Southern cooking that isn't necessarily the grease fest you've been imagining.
The Screen Door Plate ($14.75) lets you mix and match sides like fried catfish and baked beans with seasonal salads from a rotating "local/organics" menu, like a take on a caprese with heirlooms and sherry vinegar that was a nice complement to a sizable scoop of mashed potatoes served in a ramekin of gravy.
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But make no mistake, Screen Door is soul food through and through. You'll struggle to find a way to order less than 2 pounds of food, and even those who triple down on salads will find themselves in a rock slide of Gorgonzola or Quadrello di Bufala. Screen Door may have blown up because of the chicken, but the depth to its menu keeps everyone coming back.
Any Southern-inspired kitchen of distinction begs comparisons to Screen Door. And, sure. But Country Cat holds its own in the high-end fryer wars. Fish dishes like the pastrami-crusted salmon ($23) are certainly worth exploring, but the visage of Guy Fieri stenciled in neon on the open kitchen's ventilation hood begs patrons to ask their server how it is one gets from this Montavilla space to FlavorTown™. The answer lies in the two pieces of cast-iron skillet fried chicken, served boneless atop bacon-braised collard greens and mashed potatoes with gravy.
In a strip mall amid the stately Victorians of Old Buckman, Smokehouse Tavern eschews put-on Southern charm in favor of rich flavors and accessible portions of barbecue and soul food classics. Most meats are served sauceless and available in quarter-pound portions. Pork cheeks and burnt ends are packed with flavor, while barbecue beans and bacon molasses-glazed cornbread are delicious upgrades on sides that are often forgettable.
Nine years in, Rodney Muirhead's flagship Texas-style barbecue joint is still among Portland's top sit-down spots for self-induced meat comas. Don't play favorites: Order the Pitboss ($26), a massive platter of brisket, pork ribs, pulled pork and a delightful hot link with fixins that's easily enough for two.
There are restaurants with open kitchens, and then there's Trifecta. With a dining room sandwiched between an operational bakery and a bustling kitchen, you feel like you've stepped into a Georgetown dinner party set on a production floor.
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Located in a former auto shop, Trifecta offers a tavern-style menu of seeming working-class fare—wood-grilled steaks, pasta, and seasonal vegetable plates—amped up to 11.
Start with a something from the cocktail menu, which features everything from the classics to a selection of yacht cocktails that amount to high-end tiki drinks. At a restaurant owned by baker Ken Forkish, always get the bread plate ($3 with fresh-churned butter). The pimento double-cheeseburger ($15) is one of the most memorable burgers in town—two juicy patties slathered in sharp pimento cheese and creamy aioli and tucked into one of Ken's perfect buns.
The deviled eggs are highly recommended, on our visit topped with either poblano relish or smoked trout. But make sure to try a few of the seasonal vegetable dishes that are executed with impressive finesse. A watermelon salad ($13) sprinkled with feta and arugula and topped with shaved, pickled melon rind was vibrant and refreshing, while the roasted beets glowed like uncut rubies.
At Tapalaya, you can get solid versions of all the old classics, but the most interesting plates stem from New Orleans-raised chef Anh Luu's Viet-Cajun upbringing. These include a terrific lemongrass-pesto blackened catfish small plate ($8) made with Luu's own personal take on blackening seasoning, grits with pork belly doused in pho ($11), crawfish that take lemongrass in the boil, and excellent happy-hour wings that get the Vietnamese fish-sauce treatment.
EaT: An Oyster Bar
Cajun sister the Parish in the Pearl is gone—but EaT is still serving farm-fresh oysters in countless forms, including alcoholic shooters with chili-infused heat that lingers, baked oysters with a touch of absinthe flavor, and an oyster po'boy with comeback sauce that tickles the palate with pickling, not to mention plenty of catfish. But the owners have indicated they expect the place to change a bit over the coming months as they double down on the place—with reformulated cocktail menus and happy hours.
Where to begin at this delightful surprise of a Cajun-creole bistro tucked into a row of faux-Tudor bars on Fremont? Start with the crab—a Louisiana blue soft-shell crab ($14), lightly battered whole with its eight legs akimbo, ready to pick and pull into a bed of cotija cream and pico de gallo made from green tomatoes. It's the single best dish I've had this year, and epitomizes Acadia's strengths: meats and seafoods prepared with bright sauces and a cloudburst of vegetables, like plated van Gogh paintings. Most Cajun joints rely on their jambalayas and gumbo, but while these staples are more than serviceable here—with a dark, spicy stock and plenty of Gulf shrimp—new head chef Seamus Foran successfully aims to create hallmark dishes that aren't on other Portland menus. An almond-crusted sea bream ($26) comes garlanded like a bride, with floral sprigs, corn and more of that blue crab. Hush puppies are stacked like batting-practice baseballs above a marmalade fragrant with orange peel. The hanger steak is larceny at $30—a cut of meat this tender, swimming in a red wine reduction, buoyed by Anna potatoes and local chanterelles, barely seems possible at its price. It's a blissful dream.