Over the past few years Portland, Oregon, has become a highly-rated tourist destination on the West Coast of the United States. The story of Portland in the media, be it The New York Times, Popeye, or IFC’s Portlandia, has spurred hype around the world. Tourists who visit Portland seem drawn to certain places for food and drink. Which leaves plenty of alternatives for a tasty list of most underrated Portland restaurants, cafes, bars, breweries, and food carts.
When we first moved here, in 2005, downtown Portland was a dead zone. Today, lines wrap around the block at Portland-based chain restaurants like Tasty & Alder’s; millennials and retirees carry pink boxes from Voodoo Donut; and biking along the Waterfront park is almost impossible in the summer months.
The City of Roses is popular for good reason: food is good, beer even better, people are friendly, and trees abound. But it’s not just the downtown or the tourists. Portland’s popularity has reached all quadrants, drawing people from around the country who have moved and settled in the city’s nooks. Not a week goes by when we don’t notice a new apartment/condo building mushrooming where an empty lot or an old house (or a goat pasture) once stood. Portland is changing, and not for the better, you’ll hear older transplants gripe.
The side of Portland we have enjoyed as transplants for so many years is still present, however—and thriving.
Our “most underrated Portland” list is our personal compendium: neither fact nor fake news, just our opinion. Far from exhaustive, the list features places that were top of mind when we considered what establishments going under the radar of the Portland hype deserve more love and business.
Most underrated Portland restaurant: John’s Cafe
In operation for nearly 45 years, this tiny, low-key diner on the corner of NE Broadway and Everett offers classic American greasy-spoon fare. If you want something else than Killer Burger or Little Big Burger (and no Portlandia surcharge), the inexpensive burger menus or breakfast specials will feed you well. The clientele comprises people who work in the area, neighborhood regulars, and travelers heading to/from the nearby Union Station train/bus terminal.
It is the now-elderly Greek couple who own the place that make the place worthwhile: John, the father, sometimes joined at the griddle by the son, cooks, while Christina serves up food and grandmotherly eat-your-beans pressure. On one visit, the half-finished fries prompted her to tell us, “You can’t leave table until you finish.” And on another she told a friend, “What, you don’t like the food?” You may not get wild chantrelles or house-cured pork belly with your omelet, but you’ll get a bit of sass with no wait time.
Most underrated Portland restaurant runners up:
- Pho Oregon. Whenever we feel under the weather, cold in the depths of winter, or just down, we go here to eat the best pho we know in town. This cantina-like eatery on NE 82nd Avenue, is usually busy with clientele so diverse we always feel like travelers here. But the space is so big you get seated immediately. And it’s not just pho that’s good here: try the bún bowls and appetizers.
- Goose Hollow Inn. Famous for two things: the ownership by former Portland Mayor Bud Clark, whose likeness you’ll find on the walls and sometimes in person at one of the tables, and the reuben sandwich, truly the best in town. The place reminds us of “brown cafes” we enjoy in the Netherlands. The laid-back neighborhood vibe and great beer selection have made us into regulars.
- Oregon Culinary Institute Restaurant. Blocks away from Goose Hollow Inn, this is a student-run restaurant where reservation are required for the 3-course, $12 lunch at noon and 4-course, $22 dinner dinner at 7. Gratuities go toward awards and scholarships, and the coffee grounds in the bucket outside to neighbors for compost.
Most underrated Portland cafe: Bipartisan Cafe
Bipartisan Cafe was established in 2004, back before spots like Country Cat and The Observatory drew crowds to the Montavilla neighborhood of SE Portland. The owners intended for their cafe to be a hub of discourse and discussion, where the community could get together over coffee despite political or other differences.
These days, most patrons focus on their screens and laptops, but the political memorabilia on the walls, the friendly staff, and the haphazardly arranged furniture create an air of intellectual exchange (you’ll never see a Bernie fan this comfortable under a portrait of Nixon).
But really, we’re there for the pie.
There are few places in Portland that do pie, let alone do it right. One of us leans toward strawberry-rhubarb while the other to key lime, but fortunately Bipartisan Cafe is a place where the philosophy of to-each-their-own is not only embraced but encouraged.
Most underrated Portland cafe runners up:
- World Cup Coffee. What it lacks in funkiness we prefer in coffee shops, the only neighborhood coffee shop in the eastern part of Alphabet District makes up in quiet comfort, great lighting, and simple offerings of coffee (roasted on site) and tea, pastries, and sandwiches. Located on a busy through road, across the street from a hostel, which lends it a traveler vibe, yet it feels tucked away from busy parts of town. We come here to write and plan our world takeover.
- Southeast Grind. A 24/7/365 haven for students, techies, and other laptop-afflicted locals in an industrial area between train tracks and the Powell Boulevard artery road. Grungy furniture, productive atmosphere, and funky rotating wall art make it feel like a living room in a shared house.
- Costello’s Travel Cafe. A cafe devoted to travel! Yes, along with your coffee, panini, and scone you can watch scenes from non-narrated travel videos and browse travel guides to plan your next escape. Costello’s will transport you to a European cafe. And you only have to go as far as NE Portland’s Broadway strip.
Most underrated Portland bar/pub: Yur’s Bar and Grill
We have a saying for dive bars we know we should never go back to for because of dangerously cheap booze, sketchy clientele, and, well…smells: “[Bar name] is a mistake.” The Yukon is a mistake. Putter’s is a mistake. Yur’s, near the I-405 overpass on NW 16th Avenue, is not a mistake but it teeters on the brink. Which is why we love it.
If a friend hadn’t told us about it when we moved to the Nob Hill neighborhood we wouldn’t know it existed. Most of the time, it seems the rest of Portland hasn’t caught on either, except when the Seahawks are playing, or on New Year’s Eve when no bar in town is spared. It’s the perfect place to settle into a booth, nurse a beer from their extensive list, and munch on free popcorn.
If you’re hungry, their bar food is above par. Try the Great Pyramid-sized plate of nachos or the chicken strips with a side of ranch and BBQ sauce.
Ladies, don’t be surprised by the shower curtains for doors in the restroom stalls.
Most underrated Portland bar/pub runners up:
- Beulahland Coffee and Ale House. With proliferating competition, the joint has declined in popularity. Its decent greasy-skillet brunch food (no lines!), respectable beer selection, and quirky decor, including a Tom Waits mosaic, a Virgin Mary statue, and an official portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, have stayed the same for years. Beware, it gets crowded during Portland Trailblazers and Timbers games and loud on DJ nights.
- Roadside Attraction. The patio reminds us of something a crazy old hippie artist with a lot of time and scrap wood would construct in his backyard for his jam band to play Towns Van Zandt songs around the bonfire. It makes us feel right at home. Sometimes you just want to sit outside and sip cheap drinks, and this haven on SE 12th is the place to do it. The inside is nice too. Bring cash.
- Lowbrow Lounge. A dark cavern hunkering beneath the Pearl District’s high rises and construction cranes. Whatever you do—hide away, canoodle, or plot government overthrow over cheap, cheap drinks—don’t try to read.
Most underrated Portland brewery: Culmination Brewing
You’re probably not going to find Culmination Brewing by stumbling upon it, unless you live in the triangle-shaped neighborhood north of Sandy Blvd. between the Pepsi Bottling Factory and the giant rotating Sunshine Dairy milk carton.
Culmination is a relatively new addition to the saturated Portland microbrew scene, but their focus on sustainability and quality make them a welcome one. The beer is excellent and the taproom sharing the warehouse with the brewery makes you feel like you’re part of the neighborhood.
Their menu is small, the tacos fabulous, and Sundays vegan (because why shouldn’t you take a break from animal products at least once a week?). On Monday you can compensate with their Candy Bacon.
Most underrated Portland bar/pub runners up:
- Occidental Brewing. In the far north reaches of Portland, at the edge of Cathedral Park, under the St. John’s bridge, there lives an unpretentious brewery specializing in German-style beers. We’ve rated their Bohemian-Style Pilsner as a top three Oregon Pilsner. ‘Nuff said.
- Baerlic Brewing. A tranquil stop on an afternoon walk through Southeast Portland. Friendly staff, excellent brews, and crowds drawn to Blitz Ladd Sports Pub next door. Their Eastside Oatmeal Pilsner took silver in on our Best Oregon Pilsners ranking. They serve a limited selection of bar snacks but don’t have a kitchen, so if you want to eat, bring your own.
- Tugboat Brewing Company. Tucked away on a side-street off SW Broadway in downtown, Tugboat is overshadowed by more notorious attractions such as Mary’s Club and Saucebox. If you are a hop head in search of a bitterness that strips paint from cars, you must visit Tugboat for their house brews. You won’t find them anywhere else. For the rest of us, the guest taps are milder, and the $4 happy hour wine can’t be beat. The interior is dim and broody. If you’re bored there are books to peruse and board games to pursue. Or take a seat by the window and watch the reality show that is downtown Portland pass by.
Most underrated Portland food cart: Casablanca Cuisine
The kofte tagine from Casablanca Cuisine, located at the downtown pod at SW 2nd between Stark and Washington, is like nothing else we’ve tasted. We know next to nothing about Moroccan cuisine, but the dish is the country’s best advertisement: a perfect blend of a dozen ingredients that makes each bite different. It’s even better when the friendly owner Omar’s cousin makes it (“He’s an engineer,” Omar told me, “Very precise.”).
Most underrated Portland food cart runners up:
- Que Bola Cuban Kitchen. There are many fantastic carts at Portland Mercado, the Latin-American cuisine pod in SE Portland. The simplicity of Cuban cuisine used to leave us, Mexican-food lovers, wanting. Chef Jose Perez’s ropa vieja and Cubano sandwich changed our minds. Pair with tepache at the nearby Barrio bar.
- Savor Soup House. Rainy for much of the year, Portland is a perfect place to eat lots of soup. Pho and ramen get a lot of attention these days. But sometimes we want a creamy soup and grilled cheese sandwich to comfort our rain-soaked souls. The menu at Savor Soup House, on the corner of SW 10th & Alder, changes daily, but they always have their signature tomato to go hand-in-hand with the perfect GCS.
- Namu. Hawaiian and Korean BBQ with three locations and a large, affordable menu. Their Vegan Bowl is only $5 and very filling. You can also satisfy your kalua pork craving with a traditional Plate Lunch. The Bulgogi Cheesesteak Sandwich lights our fusion fire. Malasadas, anyone? Now if only we could channel the sun, beach, and palm trees, we would be in business.
What would you add to (or even subtract from) this “most underrated Portland” list?