Cheesesteaks: Grant’s Philly Cheesesteaks
1203 NW 23rd Ave., 503-477-7133. 11 am-7 pm Sunday-Friday. Second location at 15350 NE Sandy Blvd.
This is the best sandwich in Portland. Other contenders abound: Taste Tickler has its partisans, and Bunk's cubano is in the running. But the champion, the Rocky Balboa of hoagies, the oozing, melty well of dinnertime bliss that can turn a bad day into a great night? That's Grant's. So many small touches make these cheesesteaks sing: the soft but sturdy Amoroso's rolls shipped in from Pennsylvania, the sweet and cherry peppers, the housemade potato chips. (For maximum decadence, get a side of dipping whiz for what amount to Philadelphia nachos—it's how I stress-eat during important Blazer games.) The only real debate is which cheese variation is best. Dark horses include the "Philly Philly," whose cream cheese pairs unexpectedly well with beef, and the "American Buffalo": a concoction of Frank's Red Hot, blue cheese dressing and chopped chicken that results in a wing feast without the work. But I swear by the "Portland" ($6.75, $12.50), because the Tillamook cheddar so deftly melds with the grilled onions. I can rarely eat one without cussing from joy. Damn it, I want one now. AARON MESH.
Pizza: Escape From New York
Once, many years ago, Escape From New York epitomized Northwest 23rd Avenue. When it opened in 1983, it was, like the neighborhood then, unkempt and a little uncouth, with décor made up of stickers and old photographs and strict policies against ranch dressing, credit cards and customer bullshit. Gradually, though, a new neighborhood grew up around it. Today, Portland's original by-the-slice pizza counter is a greasy outlier in a shopping district marked by twee gift shops, fast-casual restaurant chains and Kitchen Kaboodle. But if the shop now seems out of place, the pizza—classic, thin yet wide East Coast pies, brought over by owner Phil Geffner when he himself escaped New York in the '70s—is never out of time. The dough is slow-proofed, leading to a sturdy, bready crust, and the sweet, herby sauce simmers for hours. Toppings are limited to pepperoni and whatever the special is that day, but the thinking seems to be that if you get the foundational elements right, why add unnecessary distractions? It's an old-school philosophy, but this is an old-school place, and its endurance is a testament to digging in your heels and committing to doing one simple thing really damn well. But that's not to say nothing here has changed—employees still take no shit and serve no ranch, but they do accept credit cards now. MATTHEW SINGER.
You have a favorite burrito place—an obscure spot with a perfect barbacoa that each day you wake up fearing will be plowed under to make room for a Mud Bay. So do I. But I'm not here to talk about that place. I'm here to talk about Pepino's. You know the spots: the pastel-chalk menus, the cheeky inauthenticity of a Señor Frog's on spring break, the "El Cheapo" burrito for $4. But the thing about the El Cheapo? It's a freakin' great burrito—the best bean-rice-cheese ratio in town, and even better if you shell out an extra $1.25 for the "sweet tequila" sauce (a cousin to the bourbon sauce that is the traditional cuisine of mall food courts). There's not a bad thing on this menu, and nothing costs anything. Viva Pepino's. AARON MESH.
Sushi: Fish & Rice
Not all affordable sushi in Portland arrives via conveyor belt. Nestled along Westover just off 23rd Avenue, Fish & Rice boasts not only a formidable $13, two-roll lunch plate but a superlative cute factor that will tempt a visit long after the combination special expires at 3 pm. The restaurant's name speaks literally to the extent of the menu: fish and rice, in the forms of sushi ($6-$14), nigiri ($4-$7) and poke bowls ($10-$13), all distinguished with a dash of experimental house sauces. The simple Pacific roll ($8) is a slab of salmon, red pepper and garlic aioli, dusted with furikake. Then there's the Red Panda ($13), an albacore tataki-salmon special roll that includes asparagus, radish sprouts, takuan, avocado and homemade basil oil (basil, spinach, olive oil, mirin and lime). An octopus poke bowl costs the same, featuring cucumber, wakame, radish kimchi, takuan and K-pop sauce, which is a combo of Korean red chili paste and sesame oil. The drinks and food are brought out to you based on the adorable seating numbers set in mini succulents. And if it's available, you can pass the brief time before your meal arrives playing a few rounds on the equally precious, tiny Super Nintendo Classic while you sip. LAUREN YOSHIKO.
BBQ: Kim Jong Smokehouse
It's tempting to use phrases like "fusion" or "mashup" to describe Kim Jong Smokehouse. After all, its name is a not entirely creative compound of the two businesses whose marriage made it happen, Kim Jong Grillin and Smokehouse Tavern. But that would be underselling the end result. This isn't some gimmicky cross-cultural Frankenstein—the blend of Korean street food with American smoked meats is so much greater than the sum of its parts you wonder how the convergence didn't happen a half-century ago. Nowhere do the two culinary traditions mesh in such perfect harmony as in the bibimbap bowls ($14-$15). These are served in cast-iron pans, and you choose the protein—options include tender beef brisket, smoked pork and cured salmon—which comes nestled atop a bed of pickled daikon, crunchy scorched rice and a fried egg. You also get a choice of sauce, but there really is no choice—go for the spicy gochujang, which unites the individual elements with pungent, world-beating flavor. MATTHEW SINGER.
Wildcard (Mediterranean): Gastro Mania
A lunch counter so unlikely it feels poignant, chef Alex Nenchev's cart-turned-apartment anchor prepares Mediterranean dishes you'd expect to find at a white-tablecloth joint and serves them at people's prices. Its very presence amid the luxe-rental boom in Slabtown is a middle finger to Orange Theory gym members. Or maybe I've misread the room: Maybe brogrammers recently decamped from Palo Alto have been longing for a grilled octopus salad on spring greens and squid ink rice ($13) or a beef brisket sandwich with carmelized onions melting into the horseradish ($9). Gastro Mania is so singular, so clearly the product of one cook's idiosyncrasies, I assumed when it opened in 2016 it wouldn't last a year. But a recent Saturday saw the place packed until closing. I'm grateful to be wrong—it means I get to keep ordering a gyro packed with a salmon steak ($8). AARON MESH.
Those with a carnivorous bent will be pleased to know Bhuna's emphasis on Kashmiri specialties means adequate meaty choices. The pinnacle is rogan josh ($16), which begins with chunks of tender lamb that really tastes like lamb, embellished by a rambunctious, elaborately spiced sauce, unsparing with chili heat, tempered with yogurt and flecked with cardamom seeds.
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