Apparently I’ve started a tradition. Clarklewis began my Dining Month Portland reports last year. I hadn’t realized it, but I hadn’t been in since. As with Tabla, it tends to be a place I think about when I think about pasta and I don’t think about pasta very often. But I could do a lot worse than returning to Clarklewis which has been a sold restaurant through multiple owners and multiple chefs.
Dining Month Portland is back — now in its second year, a reincarnation of the 25 for $25 from a decade ago. Many of Portland’s best restaurants (and a few, frankly, that I wouldn’t even consider going to for free) offer three course meals for only $25. Last year, I went to five different spots during the first five days and I’ve decided to do that again this year, starting with Tabla.
I’ve always enjoyed Tabla. It’s one of Portland’s best values. I’d probably go more if I ate pasta more, but being on a perpetual low-carb diet — or at least telling myself I am until a delicious dessert gets plopped down in front of me (or until blackberry season) — usually precludes a visit. But I wanted to get back. Since Ten-01, its sister-restaurant closed, there’ve been some changes in staffing.
Baking pastries at Yesenia’s in Hillsboro. See video below.
There’s something wonderful about the aroma of bread baking. Even Franz with its Wonder-soft loaves smells good when the ovens are on. But Mexican bakeries—panaderias—are a whole other world. They use cinnamon, anise and orange in their fragrant pastries, called pan de dulce or pan dulce, filling them with guava, pineapple, coconut and vanilla cream. Savory breads are often stuffed with ham. Cookies even come in the shape of a pig. While every Mexican market in PDX carries these kind of goods, a smaller number make their own breads and pastries. Of these, two are a step above the rest: Yesenia’s and La Espiga Dorada. Don’t be shy. Just follow the grandmother with toddlers in tow, or the day laborer picking up some quick fuel, or the professional getting a box of sweets for the office. Grab a tray and some tongs and load up from the bakery case or the racks. (Hint: Items from the rack are fresher.)
Whether you want to avoid seeing people making googly eyes and kissie faces at each other while you try to eat or whether you just want to avoid paying double for a meal served by a frazzled waiter, here are 10 options to escape the trappings of dining out on Valentine’s Day. They’re un-hip and non-trendy. And most are inexpensive and casual, too. Also, because most of these places are rarely slammed, it’s a good list to keep around for a Friday or Saturday night when waiting 45 minutes for a table sounds especially miserable.
Valentine’s Day is all about romance. And by “romance,” I mean sex. Whether you’re trying to get sex or you’re trying to comfort yourself because you’re not getting any, chocolate is your friend. Whatever the mood or reason, the following artisans, shops, restaurants, and chocolatiers will supply your wildest cocoa fantasies:
In the Oregonian’s recent anti-foodie invective, Lee Williams highlighted Taco Time as a place where patriotic, American-cheese-loving Portlanders eat Mexican food. Todd Pedersen, owner of two local Taco Time stores, though, laid down the gauntlet:
“A lot of foodies don’t want to go to chains even though they might actually have some good food, just because of the thought….They might go to (fast-food restaurants); they just don’t admit it!”
[Pedersen] challenges his menu against the few and favored Mexican carts, trucks and taquerias of the foodies: “Come on,” he says. “Let’s blind taste-test them.”
He doesn’t just claim that Taco Time can compete against some random mom and pop Mexican joint, taqueria, or taco truck. He says it can compete against the very best. Okay, as El Mariachi would say: “Let’s play.”
Three weeks ago, the Oregonian’s editorial team decided, apparently, that the Portland area restaurants and shops most overlooked and in need of promotion by their paper were Shari’s with nearly 100 locations, Taco Time with over 300 locations, Old Spaghetti Factory with nearly 40 locations, and Dutch Bros Coffee with over 150 locations. They also featured Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen, the only non-chain — an old school steakhouse that’s been around since the end of World War II. The author of the story, Lee Williams, questions why it’s been ignored by foodies. He wonders why a place serving a 72 ounce steak wouldn’t get more notice. The owner offers an idea:
“A lot of the time, just because of our geographical location — we’re not downtown, and trendy, so we’re not on radar screens,” says Dave Sayler, 41, of why foodies tend to ignore Sayler’s. Dave Sayler is part of the third generation of Saylers to run the family steakhouse.
“Foodies don’t like anything big,” Dave’s father Gene, 65, says with a laugh.
You won’t find pommes frites, charcuterie or lobster foam here. Sayler’s is steak. And chicken. Lobster tails. And prime rib.
Enough people have attacked the ridiculousness of Williams’s portrayals of foodies in Portland that I’m not going to repeat that here. (Although, dude, pommes frites is just French for fries and, yes, they have them.) However, Sayler’s and Williams’s comments do show a basic misunderstanding: it’s not that foodies don’t like big food, it’s that we prioritize quality. Given two items of equal quality, we’d be overjoyed at a large portion or low price. Duh. (In fact, my favorite steak in town is the 2 lb porterhouse at Nostrana. Its unusual size doesn’t bother me at all.)
Sayler’s other point, though, does have more than an inkling of truth. Being downtown, in the Pearl, or in one of the trendy neighborhoods in North, Northeast, or Southeast Portland has its advantages. There are clearly foodies, such as myself, that go out of our way to explore the outskirts and promote restaurants off the beaten track. Hell, if anyone asks, I always say my favorite restaurants is El Inka in BFE Gresham.
But I often complain as restaurants I love disappear that Portlander’s aren’t willing to drive 15 minutes out of their way for great food. So maybe Sayler has something here. Maybe he’s a victim of snobbery and geographical distance. Only one good way to test that: eat there. So that’s what I did. In the same day, I ate at both El Gaucho and Sayler’s, then followed those meals the next day with a visit to Laurelhurst Market. I ate a ribeye at each. Following are the results.
Man cannot live on burgers alone. You need a french fry — or perhaps some pork rinds — now and then, too. Following are my favorite sides that you can order with your burger in Portland.
How many burgers did you eat?
Seventy-two distinct bistro burgers. But I had several of these more than once. I also tried a dozen or so lower-end burgers that I didn’t even bother rating. I even made sure to get a burger from In-N-Out on a quick trip through Las Vegas.
What’s the most burgers you ate in one day?
Four, although on one occasion I shared a couple with fellow Willamette Week contributor Liz Crain and even suckered my wife into finishing a couple.
How much weight did you gain?
I’m not fat—I’m pregnant, about to give birth to a Bob’s Big Boy. Ironically, I gained less weight than when I tried a vegan diet for a month.
Why would you do this to yourself?
About five years ago, I started systematically eating burgers of all types around Portland metro. I quickly learned that bistro burgers were worth the premium price. Even the worst bistro burger is still decent. After trying a couple of great burgers at new places, I wanted to see who had the best burger. I figured after tasting 10 or 15 burgers I’d have a good idea of who had the best. Then people kept sending me recommendations and I kept finding more places with burgers using top-quality ingredients. I felt obligated to try every burger with even a chance of being really good. I’m not sure if I’m a glutton or a glutton for punishment.
What makes a great burger?
Top-quality ingredients and balanced flavors. A well-seasoned patty and good pickle go a long way, as does a bun that doesn’t fall apart with these hefty burgers. If it has American cheese on it, it probably isn’t worth bothering with.
Are you too good for fast food?
Kind of. My favorite burger joint while going to college in Utah was Crown Burgers. They served a flame-broiled quarter-pound cheeseburger smothered in “fry sauce” and topped with a quarter-pound of pastrami. I loved it. It was the inspiration for the pastrami burger at Kenny & Zuke’s. (It’s pretty damn awesome, if I do say so myself).
And now for the top 10….
The first burger I can remember ever truly craving was in college: Royal Burger’s Royal Burger Special. It was a flame-broiled quarter-pound cheeseburger topped with a quarter pound of pastrami. The Pakistanis who ran the Provo, Utah, fast food joint also made an exquisite grilled cheese, club sandwich, and reuben. They cared about good food. Unfortunately, the people of Provo, Utah, didn’t. They closed some time after I graduated.
However, Royal Burger was modeled after the Salt Lake chain, Crown Burger. I’ve been back several times and it is still a very good fast food burger, one of the best I’ve ever had. The burger was the inspiration for the Kenny & Zuke’s pastrami burger. In fact, in a way, the burger was the inspiration for Kenny & Zuke’s. While Ken grew up in Queens, I grew up in Oregon and California. I’d been to some decent delis in LA, but I’d never been to Katz’s or even Langer’s. Prior to making our own for the Hillsdale Farmers Market, the best thing I ever ate with pastrami was the Royal Burger Special. When I mentioned to a college friend and fellow foodie that I was thinking of going into the pastrami business, his first words to me were “pastrami burger”. “I know,” I said. I never convinced Ken to put it on the menu on Hawthorne, but when Kenny & Zuke’s opened downtown, I made sure it was there.
I like to think that all of these wonderful burgers in the top 25 have a similar backstory — that a chef, cook, or restauranteur has a burger from their childhood that they don’t just want to recreate, but want to perfect, and that we’re the lucky beneficiaries.
Remember to pick up a Willamette Week for a first glance at the top 10. Now, on to the rankings….