It wasn’t difficult to come up with candidates for Restaurant of the Year. Many terrific new ones have opened, and others have matured. I didn’t have any trouble sitting down and dashing off a list of ten.
I started revisiting all the restaurants, and quickly narrowed it down to three. In making my decision, I took into account ambiance, value, service, and food. My winning restaurant scored high on every factor.
My final candidates in alphabetical order are Lovely Hula Hands, PokPok-Whiskey Soda Lounge, and Toro Bravo. Interestingly enough, they are all fairly new, or in the case of LHH, have been completely overhauled.
Lovely Hula Hands has soared since moving north on Mississippi Avenue. From the cocktails to the appetizers, the entrées to desserts, they rarely miss a step. Of particular note are the salads; the combination of ingredients and execution have been stunning. There have been a few times when I’ve wanted to walk into the kitchen and hug the pantry chef. Though the entrées may not always stun you with unexpected new twists, they are reliably good – something that seems very difficult to achieve in this town. Furthermore, from the warm space and welcoming service to the comforting food, this is just the type of place that draws me during these uncertain times. Even better, the price point is low enough so you can go out to dinner without needing a special occasion for an excuse.
Don’t miss the Radicchio with Pear Butter Vinaigrette and Brie, the Yellowtail Carpaccio with Fennel and Citrus Salad, and if it’s on the menu, the Leek and Goat-Cheese Soufflé.
In a comment on this site, writer Kevin Allman said it best “So many PDX restaurants remind me of those “American Idol” style female singers who are all five-octaves and melisma; you want to tell them to settle down, stop trying to show off, and just sing the damn song. LHH is the opposite of that – self-assured, understated, non-trendy, and just top-notch in all respects.” Note: Lovely Hula Hands closed in early 2010
For good reason, PokPok is a darling of the Portland food scene. Never one to overreach, owner Andy Ricker has carefully paced himself, adding dining areas and more complex menu choices with additional authentic ingredients as he goes. In this time of weakening economy, I’m sure many restaurateurs wish they had picked his more conservative path.Throw away any preconceptions you may have about Thai food. Eating here is an education in the cuisine – a wakeup slap to those who thought the cooking was limited to pad Thai and various curries. The menu frequently rotates, with daily specials asking diners to stretch their imaginations and try something new. Looking back over my visits, I have to dig deep to come up with any complaints, which are limited to occasional dishes not quite living up to expectations. Finally, PokPok is a victim of its own success, with long waits almost every night of the week. I try to sneak in during lunch when I can usually get a table, though the menu is a bit different from nighttime.
Even with the crowds, dining here is an experience that should not be missed. Some standouts include Fish Sauce-Marinated Chicken Wings, Hoi Thawt – a crispy broken crepe with mussels, eggs, garlic chives and bean sprouts, Khao Soi Kai – a curry noodle soup with homemade curry paste that will cure anything that ails you, and Yam Samun Phrai, a Northern Thai herbal salad. PokPok is always a terrific dining option in Portland. Full Review
Toro Bravo is a wonder – from opening week they have been overrun with customers, yet have handled the rush with efficient smooth service that recognizes the value of a single happy customer. This is a casebook study on how to open a restaurant. Owners John and Courtney Gorham have created a restaurant with an attractive, convivial atmosphere that makes people want to laugh and talk to their neighbors. The food is fairly consistent, with only one major kitchen misstep in at least 15 visits. Though waits can be considerable, they do their best to make it as painless as possible, offering bar service to those in the queue.Once seated, you are bound to have a good time exploring the variety of tapas plates. Some don’t-miss options include Boquerones (or anchovies) on toasted bread, Salt Cod Fritters, Oxtail Croquettes, and Griddle Shrimp with Chilies. The prices are quite reasonable. I usually waddle out for about $30.00 a person – a rarity these days.
My only complaint is many of the items on the menu are of a similar deep-fried variety. It would be nice to see them drop some of the duplicate items, branch out a bit more, and explore more of the range that Spanish food has to offer. Unfortunately, the qualities which make Toro Bravo such a find have also brought crowds. Be there when they open, or be prepared to wait. Full Review
Looking back over my list, I notice a few things that set these three restaurants apart from much of the crowded Portland market: consistency, service and value for your hard-earned money. In all my visits to these restaurants, they have never missed the mark in these categories.I could easily give my Restaurant of the Year to all three, but based on overall dining experience, one stands slightly higher than the others. It’s the little details; the warm unrushed atmosphere, the easy smiles, and the little part of me that covets my neighbor’s salad while I’m eating my own. When I’m already planning what I’ll have next time, I know the experience is a winner. My Restaurant of the Year is Lovely Hula Hands.