Do you remember the first time you had Indian food?
I was in college in Ohio, and my Eastern philosophy professor offered extra credit to anyone who presented a receipt from the only Indian spot in town, which he was afraid would close.
My embarrassing unfamiliarity with the most basic elements of the cuisine of a billion-plus people popped to mind after a recent chat with Christopher Kimball of America's Test Kitchen and Milk Street when he came through town. Kimball is old enough to have vivid memories of his first encounter with Mexican cilantro and California goat cheese.
"I thought it was some exotic thing. Now you can probably go to the 7-Eleven and get goat cheese," he said. "We're at the point where there's sumac and zaatar and duqqa and Aleppo peppers everywhere."
While editing this year's edition of Willamette Week's Restaurant Guide, I've been thinking a lot about my talk with Kimball, and about how far American food has come in the past decade.
In Portland, we tend to think of our food scene as distinct. It's true we have plenty to crow about, from an unparalleled backroom Thai restaurant to the most-hailed Russian restaurant in the country. But the trends that most shaped our city's restaurants this year aren't unique to us—our city is getting bigger and the globe is getting smaller.
Portland is becoming a much more worldly place. There's more wealth and more diversity, and we're seeing that show up in our food scene, where so many of the city's new restaurants were either high-budget openings in hotels, or casual spots focused on cuisines once unfamiliar to the city outside of small immigrant communities.
The trend we're most excited about, and which we're recognizing in the space reserved for Portland's Restaurant of the Year, is the influx of exciting new East Asian spots in the central city.
For years, we've encouraged our readers to avail themselves of the excellent Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese foods available in the area. Too often, we heard that traveling to 82nd Avenue or the suburbs is a hassle, or that they wanted a more polished experience. With the arrival of hand-cut Dongbei-style noodles at Chin's Kitchen in Hollywood, and the soul-stirring dumplings at XLB on Williams and Han Oak in Kerns, there are no more excuses.
The other trend we're excited about is the influx of excellent new plant-based fare. Veganism has exploded worldwide, but Portland's socially conscious population and access to top-notch produce has made this city a showcase of the emerging cuisine. Tusk, while not strictly vegetarian, has become one of the country's most influential restaurants through its creative and bold vegetable dishes, and new spots like Kati and Aviv have upped the available level of meatless meals.
Probably the biggest difference you'll notice between this year's guide and past editions is the presence of counter-service spots, pop-ups and carts. We don't think of ourselves as particularly stodgy, but we've always limited the guide to traditional restaurants that accommodate walk-ins and offer sit-down service.
I'm old enough to remember my first encounters with Indian, Thai and Ethiopian food. My toddler never will—she's been eating at Enat Kitchen since before she had teeth. To me, there's something inspiring about that. Food is always a great way to bring people together, and Portland is fortunate enough to be the type of city that attracts people from all over the world.
As always, this guide is intended to help you explore our city's incredible food scene. There's more to explore than ever, from pizza good enough to cure a New Yorker's homesickness to a meticulously sourced fish house with a 90-deep list of by-the-glass sakes.