On Dec. 31, 2009, a difficult final run for the Portland restaurant scene’s otherwise triumphant decade dragged one more local favorite to the grave.
No one would have blamed sisters Sarah and Jane Minnick for calling it quits after closing their Lovely Hula Hands that night. The restaurant had survived a move from its original remote Victorian to the heart of North Mississippi Avenue and a menu shift from comforting Asian fusion to riskier seasonal fare and a rotating cast of chefs, most prominently Troy MacLarty, who was already planning to open his first Bollywood Theater on Northeast Alberta Street.
But construction was already underway on their next project, a pizzeria and ice cream shop that would open in a space next door less than three weeks later.
“We were going to have both restaurants for a time,” Sarah Minnick says today. “But now, looking back, I don’t see how that would have worked. It got slower after Troy left, and there was the recession, and people were coming to think of it as a special occasion place, which was the real kiss of death.”
As it so happens, the new restaurant, Lovely’s Fifty Fifty, would tap into many of the major restaurant trends to emerge in the 2010s: a stark shift from finer dining to something more casual; a vegetable-forward menu (save for a little prosciutto or fennel sausage), much of it grown on cult-favorite local farms; a charming list of mostly natural wines, many of them made by female producers. They even beat Salt & Straw to the artisanal Portland ice cream party.
According to Sarah Minnick, the aim for the original Hula Hands wasn’t that different than Fifty Fifty — to open a neighborhood place. But after hiring a higher caliber of chef, and beginning to use better ingredients, things just started to escalate, Minnick says.
“I remember one day in 2008, I think it was New Year’s Eve, we had a price-fixed dinner and my friend brought a table of eight, including my daughter and a bunch of kids. And they came and sat at the table at the front, and they were loud, but not misbehaved, just noisy. And an older couple that had a reservation for the dinner got really mad. And I just thought, ‘This is not what I want to have. I’d rather have a family place. I want a place where people can come once a week.’ And it does work a lot better for us. We can have all the same farm stuff, the same changing menu, we can fit in the things that we like whether they’re fancy or not. But we can be a family place, too.”
Along the way, Sarah Minnick’s grew from a front-of-house manager to one of the most well-regarded pizza chefs in America. That’s enough to put Lovely’s Fifty Fifty right at the top of our list of Portland’s defining restaurants of the decade. (Well that, and we’re listing them chronologically by opening.)
Before we get to the list, a few notes: For this exercise, we included only restaurants that opened this decade. That meant leaving off places such as Le Pigeon, arguably Portland’s best restaurant for half the current decade, as well as Laurelhurst Market, the modern steakhouse that was The Oregonian’s Rising Star and a Bon Appetit best new restaurant in 2010, but actually opened the year before. We also chose not to include restaurants that closed (or announced closures) this decade, meaning you won’t find Little Bird Bistro, Old Salt Marketplace, Tanuki, Trifecta Tavern & Bakery, or The Woodsman Tavern.
Below, find our guide to the 10 restaurants that defined Portland in the 2010s.
LOVELY’S FIFTY FIFTY
Opened: January 2010
Why it matters: Portland’s status as a good pizza city was built on the twin pillars of Apizza Scholls and Ken’s Artisan Pizza, which both opened in 2006. But if you’re looking for why someone might, however improbably, call us America’s greatest pizza city, you should start on North Mississippi Avenue, home to gorgeous wood-fired pies topped with super seasonal veggies, wild mushrooms and cheeses you had to Google the first time you saw them. Don’t expect this decade to end like the previous one. After wrapping up their most successful year to-date, sisters Sarah and Jane Minnick aren’t planning any big changes for Lovely’s Fifty Fifty. “If this closes, then it means we moved somewhere,” Sarah Minnick says. “Or married up.”
Signature dish: Pizza with some veggies, potent cheese and an (optional) farm egg.
See also: Speaking of pizza, Bunk sandwich kingpin Tommy Habetz branched out this decade with Northeast Portland’s Pizza Jerk. And Portland’s three best slice joints — with apologies to Escape from New York — all opened this decade: Baby Doll, Scottie’s and Checkerboard. And former Lovely Hula Hands chef Troy MacLarty’s Bollywood Theater made its own mark, with the counter-service chaat spot opening expanding with a second location on Southeast Division Street, complete with its own supper club, Churchgate Station.
Opened: September 2010
Why it matters: Let’s be honest. When this pork-loving, Italian-American-ish sandwich cart made its debut on Southeast Belmont Street, the chef inside blasting rock music and searing porchetta on a 24-inch grill was a clear-cut ringer. Rick Gencarelli, who had already run major kitchens in Boston, San Francisco and Vermont, had moved to the land of craft beer and bicycles with a plan: Get his name out locally, team up with Kurt Huffman’s ChefStable group and open a restaurant or three. And that’s just what he did, grabbing the cheffed-up sandwich crown from Bunk right around the time Lardo’s first brick-and-mortar opened on Southeast Hawthorne in 2012, and never looking back. Gencarelli’s mini Portland empire now includes a beer bar, two Portland Lardos, a third in Las Vegas and two fast-casual pasta shops in Grassa, with a third on the way.
Signature dish: Porchetta, pork shoulder or the pork meatball banh mi.
See also: Two other ChefStable restaurants have a strong claim on this spot, including the flagship, St. Jack, a rustic French restaurant that opened in 2010 in Southeast Portland and was The Oregonian’s Rising Star in 2011. The group also backed one of the first half of the decades biggest blockbusters, Ox, Greg and Gabi Denton’s wood-fired Argentine steakhouse, which was The Oregonian’s Restaurant of the Year in 2013 and eventually birthed a traditional French spin-off, Bistro Agnes.
SALT & STRAW
Opened: August 2011
Why it matters: Because Kim Malek doesn’t play around. The former Starbucks marketing exec, who first opened her small-batch ice cream scoop shop as a Northeast Alberta Street push cart, now boasts 20 locations up and down the West Coast, with an East Coast expansion landing soon in Miami. The shop, which proved that Portlanders would line up for something besides Voodoo doughnuts, has long been known for the quirky flavors drummed up by Malek’s cousin, Tyler, and his team, a process they renew in each new city by partnering with local food producers.
Signature flavor: Sea salt with caramel ribbons, the caramel macchiato of the ice cream world.
See also: All other Portland ice cream shops now live in Salt & Straw’s shadow. Still, Fifty Licks made a splash when it opened its second location on East Burnside. Meanwhile, at Blue Star Donuts, owner Katie Poppe took on the Portland doughnut kingpins at Voodoo and lived to tell the tale.
Opened: December 2012
Why it matters: Perhaps we’ll look back on the early 2010s like we did the 1970s in cinema: a time when indies went mainstream, and auteurs were handed the budgets to back up their visions. Following in the footsteps of Little Bird Bistro and its own sister restaurant, The Woodsman Tavern, Ava Gene’s opened with a gorgeous dining room and bathrooms that looked like a million bucks, money that founder Duane Sorenson earned from selling the bulk of his Stumptown Coffee Roasters in 2011. Ava Gene’s was rewarded with the No. 5 spot on Bon Appetit’s 2015 list of America’s best new restaurants. Now owned by chef Joshua McFadden & Co.’s Submarine Hospitality group, the vegetable-loving restaurant has undergone a recent remodel, adding a back-room events space and a highly anticipated next-door pizzeria, Cicoria.
Signature dish: Salad.
See also: Ava Gene’s vegetable-focused approach was replicated with more Middle Eastern spices at Tusk, Submarine’s successful sequel. And the 2010s served up another Italian-inspired stunner in The Oregonian 2015 Restaurant of the Year, Renata, while the low-key Luce landed its own surprise spot on Bon Appetit’s best new restaurants list in 2012.
Opened: February 2014
Why it matters: Even if it had only lasted long enough to give birth to Hat Yai, the southern Thai curry and fried chicken restaurant inspired by one of Langbaan’s early menus, this restaurant would have been noteworthy. But Langbaan, found behind a trick bookcase at the back of Issan hotspot PaaDee, is special in its own regard, a high-concept Thai tasting menu unlike any seen before in America, home to both talented chefs and a famously long waiting list. We might not have known at the time, but Langbaan’s opening also marked the moment Earl Ninsom began to overtake Pok Pok chef Andy Ricker as Portland’s most important Thai restaurant owner, a position he further secured with Eem, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s 2019 Restaurant of the Year.
Signature dish: The crispy little rice cup starter that collapses on the tongue with a wash of scallops, coconut cream and herbs.
See also: 2014 was Portland’s year of the pop-up, a time when every spare commissary kitchen, back-room restaurant or garage was hosting unusual dining experiences. Most prominent among those were Nodoguro, Ryan and Elena Roadhouse’s creative Japanese pop-up that hosted its first dinner that April (and went on to become one of Portland’s best restaurants), Holdfast Dining, the pared-down tasting menu from former Park Kitchen chefs Will Preisch and Joel Stocks, and Coquine, a restaurant you’ll find further down on this list.
Opened: April 2014
Why it matters: Back in the early days of 2014, how many of us knew that Portland would soon be the home of modern Russian cooking in the United States? Yet that’s exactly what happened, in large part because of the work of Bonnie and Israel Morales, whose Kachka took the fishy bits, aspic and mayonnaise-drenched salads of the former Soviet Union, paired them with craft cocktails and flights of horseradish-infused vodka and served it all in a space decorated to resemble an old-fashioned Russian vacation home, only right at the heart of the city’s Central Eastside Industrial District. The Oregonian’s 2015 Rising Star has since moved to a bigger home about eight blocks away, turning the original space into more of a bar, Kachinka.
Signature dish: The herring under a fur coat, a gorgeous round of “7-layer dip, but Russian” stacked with fish, root vegetables, mayonnaise and sieved egg.
See also: When he’s not opening new restaurants in downtown Portland hotels, James Beard Award winning chef Vitaly Paley likes to play with the Russian food of his youth through his occasional DaNet pop-ups. Up in Northeast Portland, Kargi Gogo focuses on khinkali, khachapuri and other signature dishes of Georgia (the country, not the state).
Opened: July 2015
Why it matters: Coquine — which, yes, began life as a pop-up, first in the backyard of chef Katy Millard and partner Ksandek Podbielski, and then at various Portland-adjacent farms — is our local overachiever, a destination-worthy neighborhood spot that does everything just a little bit better than it has to. From its humble home on the shoulder of Mount Tabor, Coquine toppled Le Pigeon as the city’s top restaurant a few years back behind the strength of Millard’s exacting cooking, Podbielski’s polished service and one fantastic cookie. It’s a little less easy these days to drop by for an impromptu bowl of pasta or glass of wine, except, that is, during the occasional Pasta Monday dinners, when Coquine ditches reservations and morphs into Portland’s best pasta restaurant.
Signature dish: The smoked almond, salted caramel and chocolate chunk cookie, available throughout the day.
See also: Opened in 2013, Northwest Portland’s Ataula takes a similar over-achieving approach to its tapas and paella, only with a distinct Barcelona flair from chef Jose Chesa.
Opened: July 2015
Why it matters: Because Matt Vicedomini, a skinny kid from Long Island, showed Portland how good Texas-style brisket could be. Just like Austin’s famed Franklin Barbecue, that started with a food cart, originally parked on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where Vicedomini plied the smoked meat trade he had learned, improbably enough, at a barbecue spot in Australia. Eventually, Matt’s BBQ moved to the lot at German beer bar Prost, where a larger crowd learned what some of us already knew — that Matt’s BBQ had long ago stole the crown from Podnah’s pit as the city’s signature smoked meat destination, and was soon to inherit Nong’s Khao Man Gai’s title as Portland’s most important food cart.
Signature dish: Brisket.
See also: Matt’s BBQ’s sister cart, Matt’s BBQ Tacos, picked up The Oregonian/OregonLive’s top food cart prize and a best new restaurant nod from Bon Appetit in 2019, while Eem, the Thai-spiced barbecue restaurant Vicedomini opened with Langbaan’s Earl Ninsom, is our reigning restaurant of the year.
Opened: February 2016
Why it matters: The modern Korean restaurant built inside Peter Cho and Sun Young Park’s Northeast Portland home is one of the city’s most exciting places to eat, opening first as a launching pad for pop-ups including Nodoguro and Tusk, then morphing into a weekend-spanning noodle and dumpling party. And The Oregonian 2017 Restaurant of the Year certainly knows how to throw a party. During the Feast Portland food festival two years ago, Cho and his team raided an H Mart for all of its nuclear-hot Korean instant ramen for the after-party of the year. Then, last year, they carried out boards topped with 6-foot Korean party subs in an homage to beloved Lloyd District sandwich shop Taste Tickler. Where else would you find that but Han Oak?
Signature dish: Pork and chive dumplings.
See also: Though it closed (again) this year, Johanna Ware’s Smallwares served a similar after-hours role for the Portland restaurant industry during its original Beaumont neighborhood run in the first half of the decade. Another early-2010s opening, Aviary, caught Portland’s attention with its own brand of Asian-influenced finer dining, while the since-closed Okinawan/Korean-inspired omakase spot Tanuki ruled the decade as Portland’s most idiosyncratic restaurant.
Opened: April 2018
Why it matters: The newest restaurant on this list, and The Oregonian’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year, Canard made a near-instant impact by channeling the free-wheeling early days of its next-door sister restaurant, Le Pigeon, only here in an all-day cafe space fronted by a curved marble bar. With more than 100 distinct dishes under their belts in their first year alone, chefs Gabriel Rucker and Taylor Daughterty put an anarchic twist on everything from bistro classics (oeufs en mayonnaise, here reimagined with smoked maple syrup and trout roe) to fast food (the steam burger, a phenomenal White Castle-inspired slider scented with French onion soup mix).
Signature dish: The steam burger.
See also: Canard was hardly the first Portland restaurant to make a splash with a sister bar. Beast chef Naomi Pomeroy and partner Kyle Linden Webster opened the great Northeast Portland cocktail bar Expatriate in 2013, offering an eclectic menu of Asian-inspired stoner fare, while the St. Jack team boasts the Southeast Portland mussel bar La Moule. And Rucker isn’t the only chef capable of late-career reinvention — Ha (Christina) Luu and William Vuong continue to make waves at their second restaurant, Rose VL, while Departure chef Gregory Gourdet just announced plans to leave his lofty downtown perch to open a restaurant of his own.
— Michael Russell
Source: Thanks https://www.oregonlive.com/dining/2019/12/meet-portlands-restaurants-of-the-decade.html