Once, many years ago, I overheard a waiter scold someone for asking for a side of ranch to go with his pizza. It was not all that subtle—and included a mention of the chef taking offense to the request. Though I was young, the meaning of this exchange at a now long-shuttered upscale Italian eatery in Tigard was clear.
Consider this my introduction to the real taboos surrounding food. No, not guidelines like "no talking with your mouth full" or "please don't drape your entire torso across the table to reach the margarine" (in my family, we eloquently asked someone to "shoot the grease"). This was different. From the corner of my eye, as I watched that diner swallow his pizza, and perhaps a little bit of pride, without the assistance of a creamy dressing, I was secretly glad it hadn't been me who'd made the request for ranch. Using slices of pepperoni to sop up condiment cups brimming with ranch was as natural in my hometown as pouring milk over cereal. That day in Tigard I learned people are willing to call you out for violating an arbitrarily constructed norm.
About pizza, of all things.
I hadn't thought about the ranch-shaming incident in years. It came back to mind when I was working on one of my entries for this year's Restaurant Guide, Ranch PDX, a pizza joint so enamored with the sauce, it named itself after the dressing instead of the pies. In kitchens across our city right now, it's no longer surprising to me that some of the most tongue-stunning flavors in Portland's food scene are the result of upending conventions. We have a restaurant-dwelling chef who simply follows his whim instead of tradition when creating Korean dishes. We also boast the bold return of a pan-fusion favorite that takes blending culinary styles to a new level by zigzagging from country to country in plates as if they were private jets.
But our Spinoff of the Year is one that truly speaks to the ethos of rule-breaking. If anyone can pull that off, it's Portland's powerhouse chef Gabriel Rucker. By opening Canard, now his third much-buzzed-about project, Rucker has managed to pay homage to those humble, taken-for-granted products from grocery store shelves and drive-thru windows. It's stuff you wouldn't expect to garner the attention of a two-time James Beard Award winner, but Rucker seems to be having a flat-out glorious time elevating accessible food.
This is the first Restaurant Guide in which I've held the role of editor, and I'm excited to be changing things up in Portland's longest-standing and most-reliable restaurant compendium. Instead of ranking our top 100 selections, as we have in years past, our picks are now organized by neighborhood along with honorable mentions. If you're like me, the debate about where to go for dinner is often fixed to geography. This directory is crafted to help you find just the right spot wherever you happen to be.
Throughout the guide there are also recipes for times when you want to stay in—but eat like you're going out. Five iconic Portland chefs have given us step-by-step instructions for their quintessential dishes.
Finally, we've long neglected the kitchens that are really in the trenches of food service: office cafes and cafeterias. Turns out, a lot of hungry people rely on their convenience and daily specials. We scoured the city's skyscrapers, office parks and hospitals for deals that'll keep you fed Monday through Friday.
This project helped me look back at notable meals I've experienced here over the years. I realize many of my favorite feeds didn't come with fanfare or celebrity chefs. Those that stood out centered on family—the kind of dinners where you scoop out a second helping the first go-round and relatives revisit the same stories because they're actually that good. Those tight bonds reinforced through cooking are what define our Newcomer of the Year, Master Kong. Amy and Kang Zhu are the sister-and-brother team behind the little restaurant that packs a big punch with food that's a mashup of cuisine from two distinct regions in China. In a way, it feels as though they've allowed us to come inside and experience their family meals, an invitation we'll gladly accept many times over.
So jump in and allow your expectations to bend a bit. Explore the many surprising offerings coming out of the metro area's restaurants. And if you see something a little odd, say, like someone drinking ranch dressing by the ladleful while nibbling on pizza, withhold judgment. Demolishing those sacred cows, one bite at a time, makes our restaurant culture all the more vibrant.