Longtime Portland Chef and Social Media Standout Ricky Bella Now Helms the Kitchen at Palomar

Bella has reignited the space by weaving the flavors of his Mexican American heritage with the restaurant’s Cuban staples.

It’s been a long series of mostly unfortunate events that brought Palomar and chef Ricky Bella together, but now everything feels as if it is how it should be.

COVID hit both Palomar, the buzzy Cuban bar on Southeast Division Street, and Bella, who was working as the chef de cuisine alongside chef Doug Adams at Bullard, hard. Palomar closed temporarily during the harsh first winter of the pandemic, while Bella struggled to help keep Bullard open.

But Palomar reopened, and Bella left Bullard and bounced between a few different posts, including one at Jojo. Then, in September, Bella, a Portland native who grew up learning to make his grandmother’s recipes, took charge of the burners in Palomar’s kitchen, reigniting the space by weaving the flavors of his Mexican American heritage with the restaurant’s Cuban staples.

Oh, God help me, I’m about to quote the Grateful Dead: Every silver lining’s got a touch of gray.

In 2018, a WW reviewer called Palomar “almost as much a restaurant as it is a bar.” I can confidently say that it is now equally both.

It’s best to bounce around all sections of the tight, one-page menu, but there are a few non-negotiable appetizers. The first is the ceviche de camarones ($15) made with Peruvian leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, the traditional citrus marinade that cures the sweet shrimp to juicy satisfaction. The dish gets its richness from avocado, its texture from cucumber, and more tart acid from diced pineapple, and it is served with mariquitas, plantain chips, on the side. It’s a signature dish from a chef who has been waiting for the chance to make a menu of his own.

The beef tartare ($16) is given a Latin turn as well, with jalapeño, cilantro and a heaping topping of crispy sweet potato threads joining the more traditional capers, smoked paprika, mustard and egg. All the produce-based dishes were also standouts, from a classic Mexican melon salad with Tajín ($7), to the incredible remolachas ($9), red beets laid down over goat cheese whipped with avocado and spiced peanuts.

The main plates are better for sharing, from the lechon con mojo ($16), an herby, citrusy braised pork, to the solid frita Cubana ($13), the California burrito of burgers, a beef and pork patty with cheese and onions, generously topped with potato strings.

The camarones con tamal ($16) featured four absolutely ideal shrimp: We’re talking properly spiced, fat and tender. But the coconut tamal ($16) was a bit jarring—spoonfuls of soft corn grits contained chewy, thick slices of dry coconut, creating a contrast that wasn’t welcome. I’d have preferred the coconut infused in the cooking broth rather than feeling like I accidentally ate a piece of paper that fell into the pot.

I’ll take a moment here to remind everyone to order a cocktail or three: The program is set up by Palomar owner Ricky Gomez, known for his years of skilled bartending at Ox and Teardrop Lounge locally, and at Commander’s Palace and Compère Lapin in his hometown of New Orleans.

The classics are always done just right: The blended strawberry daiquiri ($13) is perfectly tart and sweet, and a Cuba libre ($12) brings me back to my favorite college drink while reminding me that I drank trash back then. But spend time on the signature drinks, like the matcha flip ($15), with vodka, matcha, coconut, yellow chartreuse, and egg white frothed at the top, or the martini ($14) made with a pineapple-infused gin, like James Bond went to the Caribbean (and didn’t get all weirdly racist or rapey).

As perhaps the most online chef in the business, Bella has a built-in following. He garnered an entry in this year’s Best of Portland for his Twitter account, @rickybellspdx, a blend of Blazers fandom, hyping up his line cooks, and being overall hilarious. Specials like his munchwrap, a take on Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme, are announced on Twitter and always draw hordes.

On a recent trip to Palomar, I was confused by a line of 10 or so dudes on their phones waiting to get in. Turns out, I’d come on the night Bella was re-releasing his cult hit Grandpa Guero’s hot sauces, and they were there to get a bottle. We scored the special of wings coated in Bella’s chipotle sauce, which was super smoky with a nice kick. I’d argue for them to be a mainstay.

I asked Bella (on social media, natch) how it was going fusing his Mexican background with Cuban cuisine, and he answered: “Fun man. Real fun. Only rule is, does it fuck? If so, serve it!”

In my humble opinion, that’s the only way to cook.

EAT: Palomar, 959 SE Division St., #100, 971-357-8020, barpalomar.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday.

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