EAT THIS CITY is your weekly tour of the best restaurants in one of our favorite cities, as chosen by top chefs. This week, we visit Portland, Oregon, with husband and wife chef team, Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton. Seems Portland is for Lovers, too!
Anyone who’s seen Portlandia has a vision of Portland as a hot bed of coffee snobs, feminists, and obsessive recyclers. A place where people get eggs from the chickens in their backyards, and carry their dogs in harnesses. A Mecca for farmers’ markets, independent bookstores, and sustainable brunch. The stereotypes — expertly exaggerated by Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein — aren’t completely fabricated. But who wouldn’t want artisan donuts and single origin sipping chocolate?
The truth is, it sounds pretty great to live in an eco-friendly town that cares about equality and art, and also has lots of awesome places to eat.
Portland is also a great place to move if you’re ready to settle down, but want to hang onto a little bit of urban edge (in a laid back Pacific Northwest kind of way). That’s what Chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton did in 2008 after their “romance was set ablaze” at the grill station in Napa. They opened OX in 2012, honoring the wood-firing traditions of Argentina, and the culinary heritage of Spain, France, and Italy. They were James Beard Finalists for Best Chef’s Pacific Northwest in 2015, and have a new restaurant called SuperBite opening up in March.
Greg Denton says that being a husband and wife team usually means the press wants to put you in your separate boxes (okay, who’s the pastry chef and who’s the executive chef here?), but he insists they are fifty-fifty owners and co-head chefs. They come up with all the dishes together in an environment of complete trust and mutual respect. The dream of the ’90s is alive!
Here’s what Greg & Gabi say you shouldn’t miss in PDX (after visiting OX, of course)…
This is a tie: Apizza Scholls and Lovely’s 50/50. We love the classic East Coast style of large, sliced pie at Apizza Scholls, but the total experience of really beautiful salads, wood-fired vegetable dishes, and house-made ice cream at Lovely’s 50/50 makes it tough to choose a winner. Lovely’s 50/50 pizza is smaller so we can get two different pies there, and the crust has a sourdough flavor that we both love. It is also closer to our house in Northeast Portland, so we find ourselves there more often.
Salbutes and burritos are what we go for here (though their Yucatecan stews are also great). The salbutes are puffy tacos with a very unique texture to which they simply add your choice of chicken or steak (we always get steak), cilantro, and some chopped white onion. The burritos are pretty simple here, as well, except for one great distinction. The true genius of these burritos is that, when they cook the carne asada on the griddle, they melt the cheese over the meat, and then cook it until the cheese goes frico (crispy). Then they put it in the burrito.
When was the last time you had a burrito that was super hot with crispy and melty cheese all the way through? They also serve two tasty salsas on the side, one green and one habanero that really embellish the food with some good heat and flavor.
Don’t think of this as your normal Thai takeout place. LangBaan is a Thai restaurant that serves only a multi-course tasting menu and is booked out for months. The menus change every month. Usually the inspiration for the menus comes from different regions of Thailand, and sometimes the inspiration is from different periods of Thai history. Earl also owns Paa Dee, another great Thai restaurant, but LangBaan is something very special.
Nong’s has taken the Portland food cart industry by storm. What’s crazy is that it is made with some of the most simple and unsuspecting ingredients out there: chicken and rice. The rice is beautiful, the chicken is tender, but when you add the special sauce and drink the broth that comes with it, it will stay with you, and you will crave it almost every day. Insider tip: ask for double sauce, crispy chicken skin, and chicken liver.
These high quality candies can be bought in many shops around town or at the source, in a modest storefront in downtown Portland. The magic here is the flavor combinations that owner Jamie Curl comes up with. Caramel flavors such as Maple + Black Pepper, Jacobson Sea Salt Caramel, and Peanut Butter + Roasted Banana. Gumdrops, lollipops, and marshmallows all follow that suit and are all delicious too.
Don’t miss the salted black licorice!
Justin Woodard, the chef of Castagna, is extremely talented. He has an incredible pedigree in the restaurant business and it shows in everything that comes out of his kitchen. If the Michelin Guide came to Portland, I believe Castagna would really be the only restaurant in contention for two stars. The food is that perfect.
Vitaly Paley is the chef and owner here, and our good friend Doug Adams is his chef. The combination of their talents yields a juggernaut of intelligent comfort food. The fried chicken is dynamite and the burger ranks as one of the best in the city. We are personally very proud of Doug, because he worked for us for several years. With Vito’s mentorship, he has become an up and coming star to watch.
Bollywood Theater has a ton of great vegetarian dishes, but our favorite one that we must order every time we go is the paneer kati roll. It has seared fresh paneer cheese, lots of pickled and fresh veggies, egg, and green chutney, all rolled up in the most lusciously flaky and buttery paratha flatbread. One of these and a Pimm’s cup make the perfect inexpensive meal.
We don’t do a lot of brunching, but when we are in the mood for breakfast food, we like to go to this old-school diner in the Pearl District. It isn’t really a brunch place per se, but it serves breakfast and lunch items at the same time, so that equals brunch, right? It has everything we crave when it comes to breakfast: great egg dishes, good coffee, quick and friendly service, HOT FOOD, and good toast made from homemade bread.
It is cash only and they close in the early afternoon, focusing on breakfast and lunch only.
**Greg adds, “It brings this east coast kid back home when I am missing some of those diner staples.”
ICONIC FOOD OF THE CITY
Kim and Tyler Malek may be newbies when it comes to icon status, but there is not a restaurant-based business in Portland that has as much upside and growth potential as Salt & Straw. Anyone who can get people to line up 50 deep during the winter for ice cream is doing something crazy right. They both are about the nicest people in the world to boot.
ODD CULINARY EXPERIENCE
Eating in a movie theater? It’s sounds cool, but it kind of sucks when your dishes and unfinished food are just sitting in front of you for two-plus hours.
Greg says: I might get in trouble for this, but this burger is so much better than In & Out. The reason for me is that they do the same thing as In & Out, but they wrap the burger in foil after they make it. What this does is allow the burger bun to get even softer, and the cheese melts, as well. The fries are good, too, and they give you a shit load of them.
Rick Gencarelli is a badass chef. I don’t think he gets the credit for being as good of a chef as he is because he runs and owns Lardo, a very successful sandwich shop. Every time that we have cooked at an event with him or have been to something that he has catered, it is always some of the best food I have had. So, when he said he was opening a pasta place, we got very excited. It is a very casual pasta place that has both traditional and creative pasta dishes and sides. The cacio e pepe is Gabi’s go to and mine is the Bolognese. We also love the antipasti salad. There is nothing like fresh homemade pasta to make you feel better after a long night of drinking.
At first sight, this restaurant doesn’t come off as a particularly romantic place. But the Alpine cuisine served here more than makes up for it, and it is exactly the kind of cooking that makes us feel cozy and romantic. We love to start with an order of the escargot and an order of the sauteed mushrooms. They are both garlicky, buttery, and herbaceous and really ought to be enjoyed with some baguette and a bottle of crisp, Swiss white wine. We also like to share the Wiener schnitzel with spaetzle, as well as the rosti potatoes with melted raclette cheese over the top.
Even though we end up waaaay too full after all of this, we have to share a cup of hot chocolate. Theirs is the best, made from both melted milk and dark chocolates so that it’s not too bitter and just the right amount of sweet.
RESTAURANT RUN BY A FRIEND
Le Pigeon and Gabe Rucker
There are a lot of great chefs in this city that have been here for a long time, but when it comes to chefs that have directly inspired us and our business, no one has done it more than Gabe. He is very kind and generous with his time, and he pushes himself and his crew to not be afraid of taking chances. When we were just starting out here in Portland, he came down to the restaurant that we were working at and did a whole goat dinner with us. Since then, we have worked together several times and he always surprises us with his humor, flavors, and humility.
Thanks, Greg & Gabi, for your inspiring love story and your mouth-watering recommendations!
Stay tuned for more EAT THIS CITY — where each week we’ll feature a premier-level chef in a different city sharing their insider eating tips! Missed a week? Here you go: Chicago, Austin, Los Angeles, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Providence, Memphis, Orange County, Boston and Detroit.
Next week we leave this country, and travel down under!