With over 300 restaurants in this little city of ours, there is no shortage of mouthwatering, memorable dishes.
But despite our many choices and the respect I have for chefs, I don’t usually rush to restaurant openings. Even if it’s a chef I know and food I love, I wait. Because I prefer to allow a chef to work out the kinks in her or his menu. I think some people rush to new restaurants just to be one of the first — a position that will give them bragging rights; and that’s only, of course, if the restaurant is a success. Perhaps I’ve been around the block too many times to care about bragging rights. I just know what I like and I return to my favorites again and again.
People who dine out a lot will tell you that there are a handful of restaurants they consider their go-to places. They know exactly what they like on the menu. The food is consistent, and consistency is what all restaurants strive for. I am fairly certain most chefs have a favorite dish, a dish that they either worked on for years or a dish they created by accident. As long as customers continue to order that dish, either works.
Knowing this means a great deal to me. It feeds my fantasy that my favorite dish at a particular restaurant is also the chef’s favorite. I’m fully aware that this is unrealistic. However, it is after all, my fantasy.
Many lie awake at night with real life worries: Will I have the money to pay the electric bill this month? How can pay my son’s college tuition this year? Are Trump’s ties to Russia going to be his undoing? My current nightly thoughts are much more superficial. When I am stressed out about life and politics, I turn to food. When I lie awake at night, I think about Lolita — specifically their Torchio dish — and I wonder if they’re open. There are dishes in Portland that are so delicious, I want to eat them no matter the hour.
With that in mind, here are the five dishes I lie awake thinking about:
The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa
1. The Mother Clucker from Hot Suppa | I’ll start with my favorite breakfast dish. Often, food is all about memories and certain foods have the ability to take you back to a particular time and place. I discovered Southern food during my college years in North Carolina. Some dishes were an acquired taste, to be sure. My first exposure to sausage gravy left me feeling ill and disgusted. Two or three more tries and I loved it. Hot Suppa's Mother Clucker includes fried chicken breast, buttermilk biscuit, cheddar curds, and sausage gravy. Then you get to choose a side, from hash browns, Geechie Boy grits or baby kale. I go for the grits or the hash browns. Kale might be in conflict with the rest of this dish. | Hot Suppa, 703 Congress St., Portland | www.hotsuppa.com | Mon 7 am-2 pm; Tues-Sat 7 am-2 pm, 5-9:15 pm; Sun 7:30 am-2 pm | 207.871.5005
The coconut-base Chicken Tom Kha Gai from Veranda Thai
2. The Chicken Tom Kha Gai at Veranda Thai | With chicken and the potent herb of galanga in a coconut broth with mushroom and onion, this soup is spectacular. It was a very recent discovery for me, having been stuck on another menu item. I had been to Veranda Thai several times, but I had been in the habit of only ordered the orange chicken (which would have made my top ten list, had I named ten). | Veranda Thai, 9 Veranda St., Portland | Mon-Thu 11 am-9:30 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am-10:30 pm; Sun 3-9:30 pm | Veranda Noodle House, 245 Commercial St., Portland | Sun-Thu 10 am-9:30 pm; 10 am-10:30 pm | http://verandanoodlebar.com/ |
Torchio pasta from Lolita [Photo by Megan Swann]
3. The Torchio pasta dish at Lolita | This sublime pasta dish is my favorite dish at one of my favorite Portland restaurants. I understand from the staff that customers have stated that if the torchio comes off the menu, they will no longer return to the restaurant. The dish includes Torchio ‘Nduja (a peppery salami) and peas. This pasta dish is absolute perfection. It is spicy, the pasta is al dente, and the peas add color and compliment the dish. | Lolita, 90 Congress St., Portland | Mon-Fri 3:30-10:30 pm; Sat-Sun 10:30 am-10:30 pm | www.lolita-portland.com | 207.775.5652
The Paitan ramen from Pai Men Miyake
4. The Paitan ramen at Pai Men Miyake | Chef Bryson told me it took him eight months to perfect the broth of this ramen dish, which includes chicken and pork broth, pork belly, soy-marinated egg, scallion, and a strip of nori. When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, my experience of Asian food consisted of traditional Chinese restaurants and Korean fare, and the latter only because I worked for a Korean couple and home cooked Korean food was part of my daily workday. So I consider this wonderful Japanese-inspired dish a gift given to me as a mature adult. | Pai Men Miyake, 188 State St., Portland | | Mon-Thu 11:30 am-11 pm; Fri-Sun 11:30 am-midnight | http://www.miyakerestaurants.com/paimen/ | 207.541.9204
The kimchi fried rice from Izakaya Minato.
5. Kimchi Fried Rice at Izakaya Minato | This dish is the newest on my list, and therefore has recently occupied most of my quasi-dream state. I had kimchi for the first time when I was 17 years old, delivering booze by bicycle for a liquor store in Brooklyn. Now, many years later, I realize the owners wanted me strong for four hours of night bike riding. That’s fine, their plan worked and I have them to thank for my great love of Korean food. Where are the Korean restaurants in Portland by the way? Anyone? Izakaya Minato’s kimchi fried rice provides a wonderful sense memory. | Izakaya Minato, 4 Washington Ave., Portland | Mon-Thu 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-11 pm | www.izakayaminato.com | 207.613.9939
The problem I have with any of these dishes is that once one of them enters my conscious mind, I cannot escape the desire to have it. I have yet to find a solution to this problem and I’m not sure I ever will. In the meantime, I’m thankful to the chefs and restaurants for providing me with yet another thing to daydream about.