I don’t know much of this phenomenon they call Mom’s home cooking–my mother shopped for the family groceries at co-ops in Santa Cruz, and we ate a lot of sprouts and sunflower seeds and drank a lot of fresh squeezed vegetables and flax seed smoothies growing up. Sometimes, when Mom went out of town, Dad would buy a small box of Velveeta and some ultra soft ‘n squishy Home Pride bread and we’d set the adjustable cheese slicer to High Cholesterol and really hoop it up, then burn the evidence, but those little splurges were few and far between. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the joys of meatloaf, mac ‘n cheese, haystack-sized mounds of french fries, and real grilled cheese sandwiches. As a result, I approach comfort food as more of a guilty pleasure than a birthright, but maybe that makes it taste all the better. Here are a few great places where you can eat your comfort food with pride, and you won’t even have to incinerate a Velveeta box after you pay the check.
24th & Meatballs
Balls, both meaty and vegan, are the star of the show at this fun, bawdy little kitchen (official motto: Put Our Balls In Your Mouth) anchoring the eastern end of NE Glisan’s mini-restaurant mall, The Ocean. You’ll find balls over polenta, balls between (slider) buns, spaghetti ‘n balls, three ball-heroes, and even dessert balls–hot golden waffle orbs with chocolate, berry or dulce de leche dipping sauce. Vegans, get the nut, rice & lentil-based balls with hazelnut arugula pesto. For those on the go, takeout is a quick call away—just dial 50-EAT-BALLS. (Seriously, I couldn’t even make this up.)
This pierogi-sized Polish bar is packed tighter than a cabbage roll with those seeking respite from the dark n’ stormy Portland nights and solace in a Traditional Polish Cocktail, aka “vodka on ice.” The straightforward menu is as hearty as they come—gorge yourself on smoked whitefish with rye bread, homemade potato pancakes and applesauce, and the incomparably meaty Bigos—a beef, pork, bacon, house-smoked kielbasa and cabbage-choked hunter’s stew so thick you can stand your spoon straight up in it, a Traditional Polish Dinner Party Trick.
The only thing more comforting than lunch at Blueplate Lunch Counter and Soda Fountain is a binky. Knife and fork meatball hoagies, bacon mushroom mac and cheese, meatloaf sandwiches, Northwest sliders with Tillamook Cheddar and a side of mashed potatoes, some of the best grilled cheese with tomato soup in town…and I haven’t even gotten to the shakes, housemade sodas, and sundaes. Feeling under the weather? I’ve got a prescription for you. One order of chicken ‘n biscuits, an egg cream, and a food old-fashioned hot fudge sundae with strawberry ice cream, marshmallow whipped cream, chopped nuts, sprinkles, and a cherry on top. I bet you feel better just reading this, don’t you? Blueplate–the edible binky. Read full write-up>>
Embracing the philosophy that a bar should be named after some other place you ought to be instead–i.e. the Office, Library, Court Hearing–this crystal decanter and priest portrait-lined house of whiskey worship is feeding and watering the Kerns flock with Fernet-blessed Hang Your Cross cocktails and Southern-style eats like shrimp and grits with corned beef and fried green tomatoes with pickled ramps. So now when someone asks what you did on the Sabbath, you can truthfully say you were filled with soul food and Old World Prayer–nobody has to know the latter is made with Monopolowa and Green Chartreuse.
And the prize for most dramatic NW 23rd Avenue transformation goes to The Fireside, which replaced lauded labyrinth o’ tunes Music Millenium with a light-filled modern neighborhood spot sporting plenty of leather stool-lined bar space. Thoughtfully-positioned mirrors so you can check for brisket in your teeth, and two fireplaces round out the decor. Since where there’s fire, there must be smoked trout, eat from a menu of “outdoor-inspired” cuisine like picnic boards, elk chili, and the signature S’mores. While you’re at it sip refined cocktails like the mezcal and rhubarb amaro-accented Backyard Grillin’ and A Foragers ‘tail, made with Isle of Skye scotch and mushroom tincture.
Grilled Cheese Grill
Everything about the Grilled Cheese Grill is genius, from the logo to the old school bus dining room, complete with tattered green leather bench seats and old class pictures blown up and laminated as tablecoverings. They’ve even got Capri Suns! And grilled cheese sandwiches, of course. They’ve got your basic model, the Kindergartener (white or wheat, American or Cheddar), fancier versions like the BABS (bacon, apple, blue cheese, and Swiss on rye), and sweets like The Jaime (mascarpone, Nutella, and grilled banana on grilled cinnamon swirl bread). Then there’s the mighty Cheesus–a fat juicy hamburger cradled between two grilled cheese sandwiches (one with chopped pickles scattered amidst the melted cheese, one with diced onions). Creamy tomato soup is optional, and you can opt for vegan cheese or gluten-free bread as well. And did I mention the Capri Suns??
This minimalist downtown hot dog shop elevates everyone’s favorite ballpark staple—the beer-boiled frankfurters are sourced from Olympia Provisions and Sabrett, the pretzel brioche buns are custom made by nearby Nuvrei Bakery, and the standard issue relish, onions and sauerkraut-slathered Harvey is under $5 (optional Tim’s jalapeño potato chips upgrade for a dollar). If you like to sit while you eat, get there right when they open, because there’s one table, otherwise it’s the standing bar or outdoor bench. And if you happen to be around between 3 and 6pm, take advantage of the Harvey Hour–your very own Harvey plus a beer for only $6.
Irving Street Kitchen
The sort of place you can take almost anyone—dates, colleagues, family, friends, tipsy girls’ night out expeditions—and have an excellent time, this Pearl District restaurant’s creative Southern-influenced New American cuisine feels both sophisticated and hearty, with dishes like creamed white corn soup with chanterelles, maple-smoked brook trout and arugula salad, grilled duck sausage over gingersnap basmati rice, and divine desserts like the pecan skillet pie, strawberry soda floats, and legendary butterscotch pudding. Service is friendly and accommodating, and little curtained booths offer you sanctuary from the merry melee–if you’re a recluse, want to get romantic or just need a nap after downing the blackberry crème fraiche-smothered cornmeal waffle during brunch, you can close the curtains and hide/smooch/nap, whilst plotting how to nick the milk-bottle chandeliers. Read full write-up>>
Unless you just got back from Saint Petersburg, and maybe even if you did, it’s probably been a while since you had a proper Ruskie Zakuski Experience accompanied by nine shots of vodka, Siberian pelmeni in fancy broth, short rib borscht, and Russian ice cream sandwiches dipped in black currant tea milk caramel. So thank goodness for this utterly charming Russian gem in the ever-evolving inner SE, where chef/FOH team Bonnie and Israel Morales dish up buterbrod, blini and beef tongue stroganoff with a side of infallibly gracious service. And vodka, obviously—nearly 70 local, international, and house-infused varities are served.
To put it delicately, kalé–the “addictive” “ultimate comfort food” of Japan, as enthusiastic kalé champion and chef/owner Makoto Yoshino bills it–is not going to win any crowns at the beauty pageant. In the most fundamental of its four forms, it’s a dark brown, gravy-like beef stew over plain white or brown rice, in the glammed-up Doria version, it’s that with cheese baked on top until hot and bubbly, cultivating delightfully crispy, chewy edges. But looks aside, this dish is quite simply one of the most delicious one-trick wonders ever, and the perfect match for Stumptown, where its belly-warming properties are particularly well-suited to the long, dark, cold winters. And if you’re headed to a PCPA show, Yoshino’s roomy, rarely-crowded downtown restaurant is particularly well-suited to a casual, filling pre-theater supper.
Montage is one of those iconic Portland restaurants that everybody knows about, despite it being located under a loud, sooty bridge in a sketchy part of town and sort of resembling a decrepit, deserted corner market at first glance. But there’s no mistaking the young, hip crowd clustered outside, clamoring for bowls of hot, hearty mac ‘n cheese after a long night. Wonderfully quirky, with eclectic decor and dramatic foil takeaway sculptures, it’s the only place in town where I’d order something called Spold, aka “the perfect blend of spicy and old”, Bobo–biscuits, gravy, pork sausage and cheese grits, or Green Eggs and Spam. And being able to pile in at 2 am when post pub crawl cravings set in seems nothing short of a miracle…mac ’n cheese manna.
Chef Lisa Schroeder doesn’t mess around when it comes to comfort food, in fact she’s pretty much built an ironclad Portland institution celebrating the stuff at Mother’s, a beautiful, genteel dining room with buttery yellow and white-striped walls, glittery chandeliers, and thoughtful, motherly touches like the little cookies that come with your bill. Anybody would be proud to take their mother there for the Chopped Liver (from the chef’s own mother’s recipe), the hot cheesy mac ‘n cheese du jour, or one of the signature dishes–chicken & dumplings, beef pot roast, and Mom’s meatloaf and gravy. Lisa even has a Mother of the Month program (MOM), where she highlights a different mother every month and a few of their traditional recipes. Now, where did I put that application for my mother and her Free-Range Pinto Beans recipe?
Just when you thought the intersection of NE Killingsworth & 30th couldn’t get any tastier, enter restaurateur Dayna McErlean’s lovely new Nonna, neighboring DOC’s casual counterpart, a chic but homey trattoria focusing on Italian-inspired small plates and good wine. Even if you swear you don’t like them, try the excellent Brussels sprouts with chile flake and lemon cream, then continue feasting on chef Jobie Bailey’s mussels, manicotti, and good old spaghetti with meatballs, then get a second bottle of Barbera d’Alba with your brown butter hazelnut cake, just like your Nonna would.
Pacific Pie Company
While our knowledge of savory pies here in America is largely confined to the supermarket frozen food section, savory pies are huge in Australia, land of Vegemite, Shrimp on the Barbie, and Hugh Jackman. So we Portlanders are bloody fortunate to have this spunky Southeast pie shop filling the culinary void with warm golden fresh-baked Australian-style pies–beef and stout pie, roast lamb pie, Moroccan chickpea pie, creamy chicken pie, PLUS deliciously savory sausage rolls and a whole lineup of carefully crimped pasties. Like your pies sweet? The Blueberry Anzac pie, peanut butter chocolate pie, and cherry whiskey tarts should do, especially paired with some sparkling Australian wine and a rugby game on the bar telly. So, sorry my dear Hugh Jackman, you’re lovely and everything, but I’ve decided that pie is Australia’s tastiest export.
Pine State Biscuits
There’s nothing as comforting as a good hot biscuit. Abraham Lincoln ate them with Chicken Fricasee. Aerosmith wrote a dirty song about them. Google biscuits and you’ll pull up 14,100,000 links. Even Oprah loves biscuits, which is why she mentioned Portland’s very own Pine State Biscuits in her O magazine not long ago, lauding the Reggie Deluxe–a huge piece of crispy fried chicken, bacon, cheese and a fried egg all stacked on a biscuit and slathered in gravy. Pair that with a side of golden brown ham-studded hash ups, and maybe a slice of pecan pie and a glass of Champ’s Gourmet Chocolate Milk, and you’ll be ready for anything–hit songwriting, the presidency, maybe even another biscuit. Okay, so that last one is a little farfetched.
Most of us have various contraptions around the kitchen with which to perpetrate next level gastronimical feats, ie, induction cooktops, sous vide machines, and carrot sharpeners, but very few of us actually own a genuine full-size rotisserie. Fortunately, we can outsource rotisserizing to this schmaltz-drip-sized Concordia chicken shack, which has a hard-working winner winner chicken dinner spinner that turns out golden-skinned Mexican-style rotisserie chicken for all those times when you can’t be bothered to construct a DIY version in your backyard using cinder blocks and rebar. As an added bonus, there’s cabbage and onions slow-cooked in the fat drippings, a handful of tasty sides, and homemade tortillas and salsas, plus cold beer that you can upgrade to a michelada for a dollar.
Portland Penny Diner
Our most famous of coins may be imperiled, what with the ongoing debate over abolishing the cent, but in downtown Portland, the (giant) penny isn’t going anywhere, firmly ensconced as the proud mascot of this casual corner café. Set inside the Hotel Lucia, Imperial restaurant’s weekday-only sister eatery targets the early bird and lunch crowds, since those who work 9 to 5 desperately need access to homemade toaster tarts, duck bologna breakfast sandwiches, Rueben croissants and frybread-wrapped beef belly “Bun Me” from 7 to 3.
Judging from the lines around the block and clusters of intrepid brunchers come weekends, there are a lot of people being comforted by Screen Door’s down-home Southern cooking. Describing their food as a “survey of the south,” Screen Door’s inspiration come from everything everything from South Carolina lowcountry cuisine to Cajun one-pot cooking to the fancy French Cajun food in New Orleans, with some soul food in between. There’s an evident commitment to sourcing locally, and the food is seasonal, fresh, and well-seasoned. Set in a warehousey space at 24th and Burnside, the cavernous dining room would feel industrial if it weren’t softened with long flowing curtains, a nice bar, and shelves of wine and jars of pickled things, which all adds up to a dining experience that comforts both your soul and your belly. Read full write-up>>
Tamale caterer turned tamale cart turned tamale cantina, this super cute Woodlawn resident charms with bright muraled walls, cold beer, mezcal-spiked hibiscus flower iced tea, melon mint margaritas, and mucho, mucho masa—the menu is divided into Oaxacan-style tamales, Norteño-style tamales, and dessert tamales dulce-fied with sweet peanut butter crunch masa and jam or strawberries and chocolate chips, all of which are handmade by owner Jaime Soltero’s very own tias.
The Tannery Bar
Sometimes we all wish we could change identities, but having learned from Jason Bourne that it’s no piece of cake, few actually do. Under ‘exceptions,’ enter chef Caleb McBee’s Tannery Bar, which shed its old Skin & Bones bistro concept last autumn and transformed into a snug candlelit tavern where exceptional craft cocktails reign, and bar food is exiled to the menu’s back page. It manages to enchant nonetheless, particularly the unforgettable Monte Cristo built with airy slices of Fleur de Lis’ Pullman loaf, and served with marionberry preserves.