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Chau Down: A Portland Food Diary

Our resident food correspondent takes a trip to Rip City for the first time to explore the rich diversity of restaurants embedded within the whitest major city in America

Illustrations of three soup bowls Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For one reason or another, I’ve kept Portland at arm’s length. The first time I was made aware of Portland as a culinary destination was when Pok Pok, a Northern Thai restaurant founded by Andy Ricker, expanded from local anomaly to a national story of cultural obsession. It was named Portland’s restaurant of the year in 2007 by The Oregonian; Ricker was honored with a James Beard Award; and there is even an hour-long documentary on Ricker’s journey to becoming the country-spanning restaurateur he is today. I kept tabs on all of it, but my first thought when I heard about Pok Pok was “Wait, is there a Thai community in Portland?”

Here was a self-contained notion of a hyperspecific cuisine that few in the city were aware of, much less ready for. And it fell in their laps out of the blue. Ricker had done the hard part in his travels: conversing with the masters, translating recipes, committing to memory his experiences. Ricker established a dialogue behind the scenes; what Portland got was the academic lecture. Considering its success, maybe it was more of a TED Talk.

The calculus should’ve changed in 2015, when the Portland-based establishment opened up a branch in Los Angeles, home to a Thai enclave nearly six decades old and just a few miles from Pok Pok’s Chinatown residence. (Ricker chose the location in part because it was within walking distance of a Thai food warehouse.) But instead of furthering a dialogue with the city’s already-rich history of Thai food, Pok Pok seemed to impose its own isolation. Thai dishes many Angelenos had grown up enjoying for years were being spelled out back at them in what felt like mandatory explainer notes recited by the waitstaff. The food was good, but the sense of disconnect was overbearing. Pok Pok in L.A. couldn’t last, and it didn’t. Its closure in 2017 only seemed to corroborate my suspicions about why it exploded in Portland. Pok Pok was the only Portland restaurant of its kind for a while; when there is nothing to measure up against, consensus can be inevitable. Ricker’s Thai empire is the example at the fore, but I wondered how that kind of monolithic portrayal of certain cuisines affected the city’s dining scene across all cultural lines.

Several writing assignments brought me to Portland for the first time last month, and I jumped at the opportunity to examine, and potentially rebuke, my own preconceived notions about the city. There was fried chicken, fine dining, a strip club, and unexpected slices of home. Here’s what I ate in the whitest major city in America.

Han Oak

Behind a teal building that sits in the parking lot between two restaurants was the most transfixing dining experience I’ve had this year. Through the door that reads “511” (Han Oak’s address number) was an elderly Korean man adding reeds to an outdoor fireplace. Behind him was a strange, hooded patio that almost resembled a small hangar in the middle of … someone’s backyard?

Han Oak is the brainchild of Peter Cho and Sun Young Park, a couple that understands the strain that a chef’s hectic schedule can have on family life, so they cut out the distance between the two and put a Korean restaurant literally in their backyard. Cho, a veteran of New York kitchens for almost a decade prior to his return to his home state of Oregon, can be spotted overseeing the kitchen stations with a baby in hand; his older child, Elliott, is often walking around the space, charming diners. “On a good day, his pants might still be on,” Peter tells me. Cho’s parents, who make the restaurant’s kimchi themselves, also patrol the kitchen, joking with the chefs on the line. It’s a completely immersive experience. What should be a clear line between upscale dining experience and family gathering is blurred.

Han Oak offers something that I’d never seen from a Korean restaurant: a tasting menu, a tour of the restaurant’s greatest hits across all its a la carte categories. Classics like bo ssam (pork belly) and galbi jjim (braised beef short ribs) run up against more modern stylings like a corned beef soo yook (boiled beef brisket) or Korean fried chicken wings with an umami-laden crust meant to remind you of instant-ramen flavoring packets.

In Los Angeles’s Koreatown, one of the most vibrant dining neighborhoods in the city, going to a Korean restaurant almost always means going for one specific dish. The market is saturated; life is too short to be eating something that the restaurant isn’t especially known for. “We’d never survive in L.A.,” Cho says. In L.A., where Korean cuisine is a cultural stronghold, it can be difficult to stray from tradition. But in the wilderness of Portland’s food scene, those rigid boundaries don’t exist—for better or for worse. Cho has the freedom to create something born of his own unique experience. I’m grateful for his family’s willingness to share it.

The Thai Food Scene at Large

I will be honest: I wanted to get some clarity on the mystique of the city’s Thai food. I went in with doubts; the number of Thai restaurants in relation to Thai residents in the city is astronomical. Palates can be developed for a certain type of cuisine, but it’s not the same as being born into it and having certain memories of the way dishes are meant to taste. Ricker’s Pok Pok was a clear forebear in the renaissance, but his diligent exploration of Thai culture doesn’t have a monopoly on the city the way it did a decade ago.

Let’s run through some of my stops:

Nong’s Khao Man Gai: From what I heard around town, Nong’s is one of the most universally beloved operations in the city. Nong Poonsukwattana put a national spotlight on Hainan chicken rice in a way few (if any) have in America. It’s a simple dish: sliced, boiled chicken with rice cooked in the chicken stock, and a bowl of the broth to chase the meal. There is almost nothing to hide behind: Every component has to work, or the dish falls flat. The dipping sauces change depending on the cultural adaptation: A three-sauce palette of dark soy, ginger-scallion oil, and a chili sambal is most common in Singapore and China. The Vietnamese version of the dish offers a pungent, sweet-and-tart fish sauce mixture with pulverized garlic, ginger, and chilies. The Thai sauce is similar to the Vietnamese version, but swap out fish sauce for a sweet-savory fermented soybean paste. To be honest, Nong’s version of the dish was fine. The rice was perfectly cooked (as in, the texture was my platonic ideal for rice—I’ve never had it better anywhere else), but lacked much in the way of a discernible schmaltzy flavor. Everything felt like it was meant to be slathered in the addictive sauce, but my favorite versions of the dish, no matter the cultural variations, have a distinct balance in flavor. I didn’t get that here.

Langbaan: Arguably the hardest reservation in the city. Earl Ninsom, a Thai restaurateur in Portland, has built a veritable empire in the city, and Langbaan is his flagship. Langbaan is a restaurant within a restaurant—a tiny, 20-seat nook in the back of his more populist Thai restaurant, PaaDee. Langbaan serves a themed tasting menu that changes every month. The restaurant started with Ninsom and Rassamee Ruaysuntia (who once cooked at Nahm, a Bangkok restaurant rated one of the best in the world) behind the counter—it was a triple distillation of a Thai experience miraculously found in Portland. But as Ninsom’s influence within the food scene grew, so too did the diversity in staffing. While holding true to its original format, Langbaan now scans more as an ode to Portland from a Thai perspective, and an appreciation of fine dining as a discipline. That isn’t to say the food doesn’t get funky. On its first day of the April 2018 menu, when I visited, the restaurant was inspired by Central Thailand; one of the final savory courses was a kaeng-om, a Sing Buri–style curry that featured a healthy dose of pla raa, a fermented fish sauce that, in its raw state, smells positively rotten. It was one of the best dishes of the night.

Hat Yai: Ninsom’s newest addition to his Thai stable is Hat Yai, named after a Thai city famous for its fried chicken. But unless you like your fried chicken overpowered by whole coriander seeds, the real draw of Hat Yai lies elsewhere. Its version of kua gling (ground pork stir-fried in a fiery turmeric curry paste) is redolent of fresh lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, and its Malay-inspired braised beef cheek curry is complex, with the uncanny texture of wet paint (all the better to adhere to the roti you’re eating it with). I’m frankly shocked that sup hang wua (oxtail soup) is on the menu: There are at least five whole Thai chilies in each bowl, and while it was the perfect heat level for my sensibilities, I couldn’t imagine the average Portlander tackling it without advance warning. I’ve had the dish once before—at a restaurant in L.A.’s Thai Town at a now-shuttered restaurant that specialized in Muslim Thai cuisine. Hat Yai’s was better.

Castagna

I had a visceral reaction to the first plate laid before me at Castagna’s 16-course tasting menu: a thimbleful of beef tartare shrouded entirely by a beet chip, pleated to form a four-pointed star. The chip had the deep, matte grain of fruit leather and the shape of an interdimensional artifact. I paused and gazed on the curious object—a snack, one of four staples that remain constant amid a hyperseasonal menu. Belle and Sebastian played softly over the sound system, and as I mouthed the lyrics to “The State I Am In,” I realized why I’d been so affected by the amuse-bouche: the color—a deep, lustrous maroon—was exactly the shade I’d pick out if I had the money and foresight to handpick my own coffin. “Yes, bury me in the sexy space sarcophagus!” I laughed quietly to myself and devoured my death wish, hoping my gallows humor didn’t somehow permeate the mind of the child who sat a few feet from me.

Since 2011, Castagna has been under the stewardship of Justin Woodward, a four-time James Beard Award nominee who, 10 years ago, spent a time cooking at the former WD-50 in New York, one of the foremost incubators of modernist cuisine—and modernist chefs—in the world. There, he worked with Alex Stupak and Rosio Sanchez, who have become empire builders in NYC and Copenhagen, respectively. The thoughtful, painstaking ingenuity of his early-career experiences can be tasted in the finale of the meal: a humble potato, whose essence is drawn out and highlighted in one of the best desserts I’ve ever had. Potato skins are slow-roasted for approximately three hours, wringing out every possible level of caramelization—the potato’s inherent earthy sweetness is doubled, then tripled down. The skins are then steeped in milk overnight, creating a rich infusion that is added to Castagna’s standard ice cream base. A buttermilk granita and drops of 30-year-aged sherry vinegar add depth and a rounded acidic component to the palate that both augments and counterbalances the complex roasted flavors in the ice cream.

The end of the meal circles back to the study of shape and form that is introduced at the beginning: The ice cream is topped with intricate structures built to resemble potato skins. Biting into one creates a light, foamlike snap—at first I thought it was a piece of potato skin that had been given the astronaut-food treatment of freeze-drying. In reality, it’s a thin layer of meringue, hand-painted brown on one side, then toasted—the heat warping the meringue into the fanciful formation it eventually takes. It is Castagna’s signature dish for good reason.

Matt’s BBQ

Matt’s BBQ used to exist in a Portland pawn shop parking lot on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For a long time, locals assumed it would never leave the location, if only because proprietor Matt Vicedomini felt he’d found the perfect placement for his two 500-gallon offset smokers. Barbecue can be ritualistic (and pitmasters are prone to superstition), but, as I learned with Charleston barbecue, variables like airflow matter. When it was effectively evicted from the space, Matt’s BBQ moved into a small colony of food carts in the outdoor patio area of Prost!, a German beer bar. A fence separates its two smokers from a house. I hope they appreciate the free smoke.

Vicedomini’s strange, winding story has been captured before, but it bears repeating: He’s a Long Islander who learned how to smoke meat in Australia, and brought his obsession to Portland, where he’s making Central Texas–style barbecue that is better than anything I’ve had outside of Texas (and Lewis Barbecue in Charleston). Matt cooks his brisket using only salt and pepper. The “simple is best” ethos is pervasive in barbecue lore, but from my experience, rarely adhered to in earnest—there’s always some secret in the mix. Nonetheless, both the point (fatty) and the flat (lean) of the brisket were cooked well: It precariously held on to its structural integrity; tender, but not yet collapsing into mush and grain at the slightest prod of a fork. On Saturdays, Matt offers pulled lamb, which is especially good in taco form—the brightness of the pickled onions and guacamole tempers the gaminess of the lamb that an hours-long smoking process highlights.

My favorite bite, however, was the smoked housemade sausage. Grease began to bubble up as soon as I pierced it with a fork. The snap from the casing was more akin to a crack of a whip. One of my bites sent a jet stream of grease hurtling to the table next to me, nearly hitting a dog right in the eye. Those things should come with a warning.

Acropolis

It was getting late. I was starving. I’d missed the last call on food by about five minutes at the neighborhood German bar. Sasha, a friend I’d made during my stay, had met me for a beer after his bartending shift. He’d been something of a spiritual Portland food guide during my stay, a fount of Portland beer knowledge with a phenomenal story about the gendered dynamics of food preparation abroad that ends with him unintentionally eating goat shit in Greece. The clock struck 1 a.m. on my last full night in Portland. Sasha knew exactly where to take me.

Welcome to A-Crop, a combination strip club and steakhouse that locally sources its beef because its owner owns both the club and a cattle ranch. I ordered a 16-ounce T-bone steak for under $12. As a veteran of Las Vegas early-bird steak specials, I thought I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. Turns out, more strip clubs should be owned by cattle farmers.

The best strip club steak I've ever eaten.

A post shared by Danny Chau (@dannykingchau) on

Kachka

What a place to forget your night. Get there early (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) or late (10 p.m. to 12 a.m.) for happy hour. Order what amounts to Kachka’s version of a boilermaker: a beer and 30 grams of one of their house-infused vodkas; the outstanding horseradish vodka ought to be used in exorcisms. Get the golubtsi, a ground mixture of beef, pork, and lamb wrapped in cabbage and cooked in a sweet and sour tomato sauce. You might find yourself compelled to order more of the infused vodkas, and then maybe also the beet-infused fernet. I might have forgotten many of my interactions at the restaurant by the end of my night, but I’ll fondly remember the sour-cherry vareniki: Ukrainian dumplings filled with a mixture of local sour cherries, topped with sour cream and ribbons of basil. It’s a dessert for people who don’t like dessert but like talking about layered, contrasting flavors and textures. Biting into the dense, toothsome exterior of the dumpling, immediately followed by the pop of the sour-cherry filling, was a gratifying sensation.

Beer Break!

This is maybe blasphemous, but does Portland have too many breweries? Modern Times, a San Diego–based brewery recently opened a location in downtown L.A. and it is almost always busy. Modern Times opened a Portland location about a week later, and when I visited in the afternoon, I had the place more or less all to myself. I learned that the company has a Slack channel where employees are encouraged to pitch beer name ideas based on random inspirations. Breweries: They create content just like us!

Here’s a rundown of my alcoholic intake in Portland, aside from my experience at Kachka:

Best beer drunk? Cascade Vlad the Imp Aler (2013).

Beer drunk most frequently? Breakside IPA.

Did I have a tallboy with my fried chicken at Reel M Inn? Yes, a Hamm’s.

Favorite cocktail? Oh, Snap! (Aria gin, snap pea, mezcal rinse, mint) at Ash Bar inside Nomad PDX.

Favorite brewery? Upright Brewing.

Favorite beer bar? Bailey’s Taproom.

Afuri

Somehow, the only two international outposts of Afuri—a popular ramen chain established in 2003 in Tokyo—are located in Portland. More than metropolitan influence, the company wanted to best recreate the highly calibrated experience of Afuri ramen in Tokyo. Ultimately, that boiled down to water. The company went on a search that spanned the entire United States and landed in Portland, where the soft, raw water of the Bull Run River was found to be nearly identical to the water taken from the wells of Mount Afuri in Kanagawa Prefecture, the water source for the chains in Japan.

The pH and minerality of the water matter because Afuri’s signature dish—a chicken shio ramen flavored with yuzu citrus—is impossibly light and subtle. There might be more leeway in a rich tonkotsu broth, where the robust flavors of long-simmered pork take center stage; Afuri’s yuzu shio, on the other hand, registers more like a tea infusion. Water is thus more of an ingredient than a conveyance. Not the biggest fan of yuzu’s intense aromatics personally, I was surprised at how that very specific citrus flavor fell into place with the rest of the bowl. It was a welcome departure from the ramen in L.A., which has, for the better part of a decade, engaged in a game of who could make the richest, silkiest, porkiest bowl of tonkotsu ramen in town; the quest for mastery ultimately hurt diversity. But perhaps that was in efforts of courting a Western palate.

Spin-offs often don’t resonate the way originals do. As bar manager Billy Noble told me, Afuri’s yuzu shio ramen isn’t the most popular item on the menu, which is perhaps too expansive for its own good. The Afuris in Portland aim to be a sort of Japanese food emporium, offering everything from robata to sushi. It’s understandable that patrons would feel a bit underwhelmed by the yuzu shio if their palates had already been blown out by the karaage or gyoza they ordered as appetizers.

Reel M Inn

Reel M Inn is a perfect dive bar, a place that was uniformly well regarded, which can be rare when fielding recommendations from locals. It opens early, closes late, and serves cheap beer (but it’s also Portland, so there’s a Boneyard IPA for you if you want it). On my right was a college student reading a novel; on my left was a middle-aged couple enjoying some fried chicken. You’ll want to enjoy some of their fried chicken. Back in 2013, celebrity chef Sean Brock revealed that Reel M Inn’s fried chicken was the inspiration behind the version you’ll get at Husk Nashville: Brock prebreads the chicken three hours in advance, just as the ladies at Reel M Inn do, which ensures that you won’t be disrobing your fried chicken of all its crispy skin upon the initial bite. Although, at Reel M Inn, I’m thinking the breading method was more of a logistical solution. The first thing you should do upon entering the bar is order the chicken, because for all you know, it might not come out for an hour. Two people work behind the bar, and those same two people are your fry cooks. There are only two fryers. Your order will invariably enter a queue. Still, it’s worth it: The thigh piece might be as big as Kawhi Leonard’s hand.

Growing up, when the world was small, my idea of an adventure was strolling up and down the aisles of the supermarket just steps away from my house, killing time while the person manning the Albertsons deli brought out a fresh batch of fried chicken straight from the fryer. There was just something magical about seeing a tray newly emerge in front of the heat lamps, still sparkling from the residual oil. The best fried chicken in the world at any given moment will always be the one with as much of the middleman cut out as possible.

Rose VL Deli

I walked through the doors of Rose VL Deli for the first time on a temperate Wednesday morning, but I swear I must’ve been inside the restaurant hundreds of times in the past. The pastel walls, the studio-quality family portrait with a stained gray background, the embarrassingly earnest ornaments with messages like “Bless the food before us, the family beside us, and the love between us”—all hallmarks of the Vietnamese households I’ve visited in my life.

William Vuong, the 78-year-old patriarch of the restaurant, sits at one of the free tables with a cup of coffee and the newspaper every morning, though he leaves his post often to chat with diners and take orders. On my first visit, I ordered in Vietnamese, leaving him in mild shock.

Rose VL is the offshoot of Ha VL, a Beard-nominated cult-favorite noodle shop famous in Portland for serving only two soups every day. Those are the options, and when they sell out, Ha VL closes up shop. The process begins at 5:30 a.m, and the soups are slow-cooked for three hours; the restaurant opens 30 minutes later. “This is home cooking, not restaurant cooking,” Vuong told me. “It’s completely different.”

My Wednesday arrival was strategic—that’s when Rose VL serves bun bo hue, my holy grail. A complex spicy beef (and pork) noodle soup powered by lemongrass, annatto seeds, and fermented shrimp paste, bun bo hue is the dish I most often dream about. My mom’s version is the standard to which I compare all other renditions. Most fall desperately short.

Rose VL treats its bun bo hue with finesse—the flavors are subtler than what I eat at home, and the composition is streamlined. Tradition holds that sliced beef shank, pork knuckle, and coagulated blood cubes be added to the bowl. But Rose VL omits the blood completely and swaps out knuckle for an unctuous pork cut more familiar to the Western palate: pork belly. It’s one of the better restaurant renditions I’ve had to date, but the search continues.

Vuong estimates that 80 percent of Rose’s clientele is white, which is not too dissimilar from the city’s main demographic at large. After I finished my meal, he sat at my table and eagerly told me his story, one he seems to have told many, many times before. He was a battalion commander during the Vietnam War, a Provincial Reconnaissance Forces commander working with the CIA. After the war, his American ties put him in jail for 10 years. He had earned his teaching degree in English in his 20s, but it wasn’t recognized in America by the time he landed in Portland (though, years later, he would teach a few courses at Portland State University). There are three statements of purpose painted on the outside window of the restaurant: “Meticulous Soups,” “Authentic Style Cooking,” “Exceptional Hospitality.” Vuong’s past has helped to succinctly define his present. As Vuong makes the rounds and talks to each of his patrons—whether it’s to ask about their day or to guide them in how to properly eat an unfamiliar dish—they tend to speak with a sense of reverence. He’s earned that level of respect.

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