Downtown Is Coming Back, Along With What Was Always Its Most Beloved Feature: Restaurants

Downtown dining isn’t dead.

Some say it’s scary. Others call it disgusting. Many, though, have agreed on one term to describe downtown Portland: dead.

The past two years have taken a toll on our central city, to be sure. But a lot has changed since 2020, when empty offices, theaters and hotels turned that area into a ghost town. Downtown is coming back, along with what was always its most beloved feature: dining. You can hardly stroll a few blocks without running into a restaurant that’s opened within the past year filled with people drawn by either good word of mouth, Instagram or both. In fact, some spots are teeming with new life: Southwest 12th Avenue and the Portland State University campus are hot spots right now, and you may have had no idea if you’ve steered clear of these neighborhoods.

In addition to the exciting newcomers are classics that stuck it out through COVID—institutions you probably visited in the past to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries or just a Friday night out on the town. This list includes some of both—established brands and those that just made their debut. Dig in. It’s fun to be part of a comeback.

Country Boy Breakfast at Grits N’ Gravy

215 SW 6th Ave., 503-227-3903, 7 am-3 pm daily.

“With a name like Grits N’ Gravy, you’ve got to do two things right,” says owner Brandon Stevens. “You’ve gotta get your grits right and you better have your gravies right.” The diner does, in fact, nail its marquee items: four scratch-made sauces and grains prepared creamy and buttered or fried. But every single Southern breakfast staple on the sizable menu will not only fill you up for the better part of a day; you’ll leave satisfied and half convinced you somehow strolled to Louisiana for your meal. Stevens, founder of the popular Mumbo Gumbo Cajun-Creole food carts, modeled his first brick-and-mortar after his family’s long-standing Sacramento, Calif., breakfast restaurant Stagecoach, estimating that 75% of the menu took its inspiration from there. That includes the Country Boy Breakfast, an 8-ounce sweet pork sausage patty laid atop two softball-sized buttermilk drop biscuits (the primary vehicle for your country gravy, which wouldn’t be out of place on the Thanksgiving dinner table), three eggs (cooked to your liking), and grits. While contemplating porridge or fried with my server, a customer one table over couldn’t help but share his enthusiasm for the version that is bathed in hot oil. Never one to ignore the advice of an obvious regular, I went with fried and was rewarded with golden hashbrown-like squares, perhaps my new favorite apparatus for sopping up egg yolk.

The Nacho Bag at Teote Outpost

Pine Street Market, 126 SW 2nd Ave., 503-206-6224, 11 am-8 pm Wednesday-Sunday.

Growing up, I always marveled at my dad’s wide variety of interesting jobs: public school teacher/magician, painter, graphic designer, salesman. But to my young eyes, his most exciting entrepreneurial turn happened the summer he purchased an old hot dog stand and set up shop. That was also the year I became acquainted with the Frito pie, which Dad added to the menu to help move the daily supply of chili. Crunchy, salty, spicy and meaty, it was a textural delight with layers of deep, savory flavors you wouldn’t expect to find in food from a sidewalk vendor. Plus, using a fork to eat out of a variety pack chip bag was simply fun. Since then, I’ve rarely spotted the Frito pie, so you can imagine my delight when I wandered into Pine Street Market and discovered Teote Outpost was advertising a “Nacho Bag.” Here, original-flavor Doritos—dangerously addictive all on their own—are dosed with more cheese in the form of a smoky queso dip and crumbly queso fresco. To truly elevate the snack, add one of the five proteins. I went with El Diablo, bits of pork belly, roasted poblanos and a glaze made with reserved pork fat, maple syrup and ground California chile pepper. It is the Frito Pie 2.0.

Pork Loin Katsu Sando at Tanaka

678 SW 12th Ave., 503-914-3326, 10 am-7 pm Sunday-Thursday, 10 am-8 pm Friday-Saturday.

I pity the noses of the hardworking employees at Tanaka. That may sound strange, but while bussing my table, I remarked how wonderful the shop smelled to a worker collecting plates. “I am immune to it,” he responded, “except when I walk in first thing in the morning.” What those poor sniffers are missing out on is the intoxicating, slightly sweet and slightly funky yeasty aroma of baking milk bread. The feathery loaves with just a whisper of crust are the foundation of Tanaka’s sandos—a twist on Osakan comfort food. Open since June, the shop is a spinoff of Japanese-based chain Kushikatsu Tanaka, which specializes in skewers (kushi) of bite-sized, breaded cutlets (katsu) served with a dipping sauce whose recipe has remained a well-guarded family secret for 70 years. While our Tanaka doesn’t serve meat on a stick, you will find panko-coated proteins, like a tender, walnut-brown slab of twice-cooked pork loin, along with that highly classified condiment in sandwiches. As you bite in, take an extra big whiff and savor the scent of that milk bread again for all of the workers who cannot.

Hot & Spicy Housemade, Hand-Shaven Noodle at Tasty Corner Chinese Restaurant

624 SW Hall St., 503-954-1835, 11 am-2:30 pm and 4:30-9pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-2:30 pm and 4:30-9:30 pm Friday, 11 am-9:30 pm Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.

Every noodle in the Hot & Spicy dish at Tasty Corner is a snowflake. And, no, that’s not a MAGA-style insult. Quite the opposite, really. These noodles are incredibly firm, delightfully chewy yet super slurpable. To achieve that superior texture, Tasty Corner hand-shaves the staple in this boisterous assembly of Szechuan peppercorns, dried red chile peppers, vegetables and protein of your choice. It’s a multistep process that takes incredible knife skills, resulting in jagged-edged ribbons, and no two are exactly alike—testament to the hard work of people in a kitchen rather than a machine. Owner Daniel Chen explains that his noodles begin with a wheat-based dough that’s sheared with a special blade, resulting in strips that range in thickness from one-half to three-quarters of an inch. After boiling, the noodles are immediately chilled with ice so they don’t get too soft or sticky. And it works. There’s not another bite in town that is as springy and supple as these bands, which soak up a sauce made of peppercorns, garlic, onion and ginger. For tender tongues like mine, the heat level is a pleasant sweat—like enjoying the challenge of lingering in a sauna. And for fans of Hillsboro’s Szechuan Garden, the June opening of Tasty Corner on the Portland State University campus should be welcome news—that’s also Chen’s shop, so you no longer have to fight Highway 26 traffic to get those lovely, hand-shaven noodles.

Bird in Hand and Empanadas at LeChon

113 SW Naito Parkway, 503-219-9000, 4-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 4-10 pm Friday-Saturday.

By now, it should be time for happy hour—a ritual dropped by many restaurants during the pandemic—but LeChon has (happily) maintained the tradition of offering late-afternoon discounts. Perhaps that’s why there was a line out the door when it opened on a recent Saturday. Don’t worry—the crowd moves quickly, and you should be able to snag a seat at the bar for a view of one of the most stunning behind-the-counter displays in town: two aquariums totaling 1,300 gallons holding jellyfish, tropical fish, and a coral reef. Keep the vacation vibes going with a Bird in Hand cocktail—a spin on the Jungle Bird that was the traditional welcome drink for Kuala Lumpur Hilton guests in the ‘70s. The blend of pineapple rum, coriander- and coconut oil-washed Cynar, lime and housemade blackstrap molasses was concocted by one of LeChon’s bartenders who “likes to mess with tiki drinks, because they’re fun.” It’s perfect for sipping alongside an order of piquillo pepper empanadas, two hot pockets of sturdy, flaky dough holding a lava flow of queso. Pro tip: When you finish that drink, a pineapple- and coriander-flavored ice cube awaits at the bottom.

Tagliatelle al Burro and Focaccia of the Day at Dolly Olive

527 SW 12th Ave., 503-719-6921, 5-9 pm Tuesday-Saturday.

When Sesame Collective announced in June its newest restaurant would focus on dishes made from simple ingredients, the team wasn’t kidding. My favorite plate at Dolly Olive so far has a handful of components: tagliatelle, Parmigiano extravecchio, French butter and cracked pepper. It’s a combination of Rome’s two most iconic pastas: fettuccine Alfredo and cacio e pepe, making it one of those creations that’s better than the sum of its parts, which were already pretty great to begin with. The gift-wrapping ribbonwide noodles have an inviting sheen, and as you work your way through the silky tangle covered in cheese shavings, the sauce becomes thicker and thicker. While the ingredient list may be uncomplicated, the same can’t be said of the dish’s execution. Sesame Collective culinary director Natalie Gullish learned how to roll and hand-cut the pasta while living in Rome, and it’s prepared the same way in Dolly Olive’s kitchen. I’m typically stuffed after what’s truly a lick-the-bowl-empty meal, but always make room for the focaccia of the day. The spongy bread can assist with the dish-cleaning process, plus it’s always exciting to see what new produce has been baked into the lofty brick. During a recent visit, it was purple potatoes and caramelized onion, which made the crispy top, coated in shredded Pecorino Romano, look as pretty as a stained-glass window.

Korean-Fried Chicken Wing Flight at Toki

580 SW 12th Ave., 503-312-3037, 5-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 9:30 am-2:30 pm and 5-9 pm Friday, 9:30 am-2:30 pm and 5-10 pm Saturday-Sunday.

Your new favorite late-night drinking snack is currently being served at Toki. Well, that’s if you consider 10 pm or earlier “late night,” because that’s when this Han Oak sister property closes. But the Korean-fried chicken wing flight really is the perfect “before you summon an Uber home” snack, because it’s not too large or filling, the flavors veer from savory to sweet to spicy—enough to wake up a palate that’s been drowned in alcohol, and it helps to be a little buzzed to muster the courage to eat these in public, because you will make a mess. Some of the featured sauces and spices are a nod to celebrated chef Peter Cho’s Northeast Portland flagship, including the Essence of Instant Ramen, which was an experiment with kimchi and onion powders that originated at Han Oak in order to re-create the flavor of those little seasoning pouches in packaged noodles. And fans of the original restaurant’s fried cauliflower Romesco will recognize the sweet-and-spicy gochujang tamarind sauce. It’s the most complex flavorwise and messiest of the bunch. By the time you’re staring at a plate of chicken bones, your white, cloth napkin will look like it was used to wipe down a crime scene. Toki knows it’s just a sign that you really enjoyed your wings.

Chocolate Peanut Butter Brownie Sundae at Mother’s Bistro & Bar

121 SW 3rd Ave., 503-464-1122, 5-9 pm Wednesday, 9 am-2 pm and 5-10 pm Thursday-Saturday, 9 am-2 pm and 5-9 pm Sunday.

When you’re downtown and in the mood for a dessert that is rich, comforting and served with classic flair (dainty paper doilies and syrup art are a must), Mother’s awaits with cans of whipped cream at the ready. Owner-chef Lisa Schroeder moved her bistro three years ago to its current, larger home, making room for a bakery that whips up cakes and pies for a display case as well as smaller-portioned treats on the daily specials menu. When available, order the chocolate peanut butter brownie sundae. The base is actually several layers—sandwiching the fudge brownie is a shortbread crust and a peanut butter mousse made with cream cheese and marshmallow fluff. The bar alone would be a satisfying ending to an epic day of eating extravagantly, but Mother’s kicks things up another notch by plopping a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream (also made in-house) onto the brownie. Finished with a drizzling of caramel and dark chocolate sauces and a sprinkling of candied chocolate peanuts, the dessert looks like a Christmas present with a giant powdery snowball instead of a bow. Don’t stare too long. Put your spoon to work before this masterpiece melts.

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