One of the goals I've set for myself in my five-day stint as the Powell's guest blogger is to cover as much ground as possible in Portland's vast, diverse dining scene — a microcosm (microblosm?) of the aims of the new Fearless Critic Portland Restaurant Guide, which reviews 300 places to eat in and around the city.
For anyone who wants to come debate and discuss food, our big book release/Q&A/booksigning event is tonight, 7:30 p.m., at the Powell's on Burnside. I plan to show up prepared with several ballpoint pens, a few shots of local aquavit, and a bullet-proof vest.
So, for today's blog entry, I asked myself this question: What's the opposite of the esoteric Chinese dishes I described yesterday? What would be the furthest I could get from Cantonese roast suckling pig, Hong Kong-style "pineapple buns," live bait shrimp, Szechuan peppercorns, and cubes of duck's blood with ginger and scallion?
How about simple, basic comfort food?
After a lot of soul-searching, I'm ready to name the top five comfort-food dishes in Portland. This being comfort food, and thus utterly subjective, these dishes probably won't match up to your top five, and at least one might even elicit a "yuck" (a sentiment the Fearless Critic panelists have done their best to strike from our collective psyche, or at least a sentiment about which we've chosen to live in denial).
In sum, I'm willing to put my ass on the line here. Bring on the comments. I'll count down my five favorite comfort food dishes in PDX, David Letterman-style:
5. Euro Dish (better known as the "Traditional Polish Food Cart").
Central European food is the original comfort food — but it's rarely emulated with much verve in America. One thing's for sure: only in Portland would you be able to find stuffed cabbage this soft, comforting, and delicious at a food cart. Throw in sausages with mustard, potato-and-cheese-curd pierogi, pork-sausage-sauerkraut stew, and delicately fried schnitzel, and you've basically got an all-star lineup of comfort foods at this food cart in the midst of food-cart central at SW 10th and Alder.
Stuffed cabbage (with sausage in background), Euro Dish.
4. Tacos (de pescado, camarón, barbacoa, al pastor, etc.), Taquería 7 Estrellas, Tigard.
This place is completely off the map — I mean, completely. It has never been mentioned by any mainstream media outlet, unless you count our new book as a mainstream media outlet. Even the user-generated restaurant-review websites have a debate as to its exact address (it's 12198 SW Main St, Tigard, OR, in my opinion). But serious Mexican-food-nerd-style tacos have long been one of my standby comfort foodsand these are perhaps the best tacos in the greater Portland area. The atmosphere is nothing — just a few cafeteria tables and a small, distracted staff — but battered, fried fish and shrimp are treated with the utmost respect here, as is meltingly juicy barbacoa. Even the tortillas are just right. And that's not to mention the torta ahogada, a Guadalajara specialty that's hard to find anywhere in the U.S. — never mind Tigard. It's a perfect lunch stop for anyone on their way to an afternoon tasting session in Oregon wine country.
Tacos (camarón, barbacoa, al pastor, pescado), Taquería 7 Estrellas
Taquería 7 Estrellas: An atmosphere that encourages you to focus purely on the food.
3. Slowburger, Slow Bar.
In a city of great burgers — don't ever forget the downmarket burger at Nob Hill Bar & Grill, its upmarket equivalent at Bluehour, or the cookout-to-order burger at Ned Ludd — the burger at this hipsterish dive bar outlasts the competition. And I mean outlasts, in the sense of serving the burger for about three hours longer than almost any other kitchen in town, even on weekdays. Painted Hills beef, gruyère, butter lettuce, pickle relish, and, yes, onion rings (on the burger!) + late-night hours = the ultimate comfort food. The Slowburger is kept from the #1 slot only because the staff is unable to cook the meat to temperature — it always comes out a notch or two overcooked.
Slowburger, Slow Bar.
2. Borjomi sparkling water, Good Neighbor Market.
Here's the oddball pick, and I stand by it. This totally unknown Russian grocery store on 82nd Ave. may be the only establishment in the Fearless Critic restaurant guide more underreported than Taquería 7 Estrellas. But it's not clear to me why nobody in downtown Portland seems hip to the spectacular selections of smoked fishes, caviars, 29-cents-per-pound cabbage, artisanal butters, farmer's cheeses, home-baked breads, and ryazhenka (cooked cultured milk) on offer here. More importantly (with respect to this article), is there anything more canonically comforting than Borjomi, the fizzy, salty mineral water taken from Georgian springs that many Russian believe to have unique medicinal qualities for hangovers? Better still, as you can see from the photo, all the price tags are in Cyrillic. That'll appeal to the escapist in you.
Good Neighbor Market: magical Borjomi mineral water.
Good Neighbor Market: welcome sign.
Good Neighbor Market: cabbage for 29 cents per pound.
1. Pizza, Scholls Apizza.
This still-humble pizzeria in Southeast Portland gets more local and national press than it possibly deserves — and then justifies every word of it (and the absurd queues, which begin at about 4:30 p.m. on weekdays) by reliably turning out better pizza than anyone else in the city. The secret? There's no secret. Scholls uses an ordinary metal pizza oven. None of these wood-burning, brick-oven hijinks. Ridiculous.
Scholls Apizza: pizza with sausage.
Scholls Apizza: main dining room.
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Robin Goldstein has an A.B. in neuroscience and philosophy from Harvard University, a J.D. from the Yale Law School, a certificate in cooking from the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and a WSET advanced wine and spirits certificate.
Books mentioned in this post
Robin Goldstein is the author of Fearless Critic Portland Restaurant Guide 2010 (Fearless Critic)