Restaurants & Bars

Where Ken Likes to Eat - Vol. 1 (long)

chefken | Aug 5, 200512:44 PM     15

Whenever I meet someone new at my restaurant (Ken’s Place), or do a demonstration or teach a class, two of the first questions are invariably: Who cooks at home and where do you like to eat out?
The answer to the first is this: No one very much. I cook probably one meal per week, which is usually something fairly simple, like steak or a roast chicken. My family eats at the restaurant 3 or 4 nights per week. The rest of the time is usually take-out or a dinner out. Which leads to the second question:
Chefs are often asked for recommendations, the theory being that if we’re in the business we must have the inside scoop. Sometimes true, but I think the recommendation is only as good as the taste of the chef, and I’ll leave that judgement to the eye, or tastebuds, of the beholder. I tend to take most recommendations with a grain of salt - sometimes quite literally - unless I know the person or their history. These food boards are a nice way of developing that trust in history.
And most chefs don’t get out all that often - we work a lot of nights. Still...one has to eat, so here is my “by no means comprehensive and feel free to take it with a grain of salt” list of where I like to take my meals, and a few where I don’ts:

Nice meals out:
Not something I get to do too often, and invariable Asian in nature, since that’s the food I both enjoy and don’t cook very much.
Haven’t been to Genoa, mostly for fear of committment to that extensive a meal. New Chef Robert Reynolds is a friend and a good guy - not to mention a helluva chef - so I expect I’ll get over there before too long.
No desire to go to Gotham or clarklewis or whichever new Ripe group’s restaurant has opened this week. Despite reports of often good food I just can’t get into all their hype. Reinventing the restaurant indeed - with their snooty VIP lists, exclusive dining cocoons and press agents, they sound like the worst excesses of New York restaurants in the 80’s and 90’s. Been there...done that. Yawn!
Been to Higgins and Paley’s twice each and wasn’t impressed with the food and their a bit too serious about it for not being that impressive. Go to Wildwood’s bar once in awhile, which I like better than the dining room...especially the Fried Oyster and Pancetta Salad, which I invariably order every time, and the Mussels. Haven’t been to Hurley’s, but admit that I’m not that interested in chefs making tall architectural food towers with very expensive ingredients. I tend to like cooking instead.
Andina is very popular and very mediocre. I like Castagna Cafe; their main restaurant’s a bit austere for me, though the food is good.
Haven’t been to that many other fine dining restaurants, but here’s where I tend to go:
Syun Izukaya - The only reason I’d ever make a trip out to Hillsboro, and well worth it. I’d eat here twice a week if it was closer. A Sake Bar - a large variety by the galss or bottle (you can buy a bttle and leave it there with your name on it) - with really nice atmosphere and warm, helpful service. Wonderful food - good sushi, but the real reason to go is their menu of perhaps 60-80 small, appetizer-sized plates ranging from $3-8 (careful, they add up). Delicacies such as Pumpkin Tempura, Grilled Nori-wrapped Sea Scallps, Seared Beef with Ginger and Sweet Onions, Grilled Monkfish Liver, etc, etc. My two favorites: Grilled Mackeral, and Sauteed Fresh Spinach with Chunks of Bacon. Always terrific and two people can stuff themselves, with beer, for about $50-60.
Murata - Easily the most authentic, and I think best, Japanese restaurant in Portland. Fabulous sushi - their eel is amazing..literaly melts in your mout. Great crab, unusual specials, terrific oysters. Eating at the bar is a revelation, especially watching the 70-80 something owner at work, but for perhaps the best dinner in Portland, get the Kaiseki dinner. You’ll need to order 2 days in advance, and they’ll quiz you about what you’ll eat and not eat and prefer to eat. The menu is designed for you and is different depending on the season. 8 courses for $45 or $65. Get the $45 dinner - it’s more than enough and amazing. Heavy protein shock, absolutely breathtakingly beautiful food, and as delicious as it loks. I’ve done this 5 times and it’s always different and incredible.
Pho Van - Either the Pearl location or 82nd, very consistent and always delicious. Great place for either a $7.00 meal in a bowl pho or a shoot the wad elegant dinner. Great Tamarind Clams, Fish in Caramel and Duck with Green Papaya Salad.
Golden Horse - Usually a once a week take-out destination, though the food is better there, as anywhere. Good Chinese for Portland (note the qualification) with terrific vegetable dishes (try something called Ong Choy when in season - like a combination of spinach and chinese broccoli), good fish dishes - Whole Steamed with Ginger and Green Onions and Salt-Pepper Squid are favorites - and try the Steamed Chicken with Ginger and Green Onions and especially the Sizzling Short Ribs with Black Pepper. Great value.
Wong’s King - Okay...I’m going to give this place one more chance because so many people have sworn by it. Been there once for Dim Sum and, admittedly, it was late (about 2:00), but still... Saw the same 6 carts again and again and again. What we had was okay, not great, and little variety (which should pretty much be the hallmark of good dim-sum). As for dinner, I think their menu is too ambitious, and they should cut the scope of it. Really good Squid, the rest of the dishes we had both times we were there were simply good, not great or even very good. For the prices and the hoopla, expect better.

New York, New York: Pedigree and Predjudices:
Having been raised in the city and having cut my professional teeth there and owned my first restaurant there, I’m quite naturally infused with a realistic sense of the glories of New York, and the inbred knowledge of the things that are done well there. And sometimes only there. And no matter where one lives after, there’s always that qualifier - a good bagel for Chicago, good rye bread for Boston.
There are, in fact, some things that are just better in New York than anywhere else, to the point where those “other” place’s versions become, well, reasonable facsimilies. Bagels, for instance, barely exist in Portland. I get around this by calling our versions rolls, let them go stale a bit, then toast them. Closer. Corned Beef or Pastrami. Okay, rest of the country, here’s rule #1 - you don’t cut these meats on a slicer. Hand cut in thick slices with some of the fat still attached, straight off the steam table. That’s just how it’s done, Kornblatt’s. And hero sandwiches, or subs, or hoagies, or grinders or whatever else you want to call them. They need good bread - crusty, but not hard, chewy, but not jaw-breaking - not air-filled toothless-crusted reshaped Wonder Bread. Let’s not even get started on decent meatballs to fill them. And what about Chinese food delivery?
Which leads me to pizza. New Yorkers so take for granted the availability of good and great pizza on almost every other block that they’re startled when they move elsewhere and have to search for it. It’s not that there isn’t any elsewhere, it’s just that there may only be two or three good places in a city of half a million.
So Apizza Scholls, which I haven’t been to but have heard great things about, qualifies as the best that Portland has to offer. But I’d probably have to wait on line for it, and the thought of doing that for good pizza is a bit anathema to a New Yorker. But I’ll probably get over it. Tried Kustom Pizza at Glisan and NE 28th the other day and really liked it. Vincente’s is often good, sometimes not. Flying Pie, same thing. Escape from NY, same. I’ve had good pies at Bridgeport Brewpub. Pizzicato isn’t really Pizza, more of a concept. Pizza Schmizza is disgusting. That’s about it.

Guilty Pleasures and Innocent Obsessions:
Everything else I tend to put into the category of informal, quick eating, whether snack or take-out or sit-down, and some define categorization.
BBQ: Not really a barbecue town, though neither is New York. Haven’t been to LOW on Mondays, but have had their Q at the market and at their little shack (late of Hawthorne) and thought it was great, so I’ll be their one Monday. Cannons is sometimes good, especially their Ribtips Bucket. Not too much else I’d recommend - haven’t tried Reo’s though I’ve heard good things, and Russell St. serves babyback ribs, which are really cocktail food, not ribs.
Best tacos in town are from the little truck on Division and about 32nd (thanks Robert!) - wife makes the tortillas by hand and Husband fills them and they’re terrific! And at $1.25 beats the heck out of Tacqueria Nueva’s at $3.50 or so, and I’m not impressed with their overpriced food anyway, except their Tres Leches cake, which is almost worth going there for. Nuestro Cucina is often quite good and reasonable, especially the prawn appetizer.
I don’t go to Starbucks on principle - I only support local businesses - not to mention their coffee isn’t so great. Crema, at 28th and Ash, has the best coffee around - it’s Stumptown and they brew it French-press style for their house coffees and they’re true artistes with their espresso drinks. Plus they’re a bakery, so they have terrific cookies and pastries and good sandwiches made with their own bread. Plus, they’re nice people and it’s a great place to hang and read or people watch. I’m usually there Weds-Fri middays for a couple of hours, so find me and we’ll chat.
I love Cali Sandwiches on Glisan around 61st. Great Vietnamese sandwiches at around $2.75 each...I can put away 2, barely, but most will eat one. Same thing with Fred diCarlo’s Sausages at the downtown farmer’s market.
I’ve been exploring the menu a lot lately at Pambiche. Used to not like them as much, but then started trying their main dishes such as Arroz con Pollo and Oxtail Stew and like them mucho better now. And a good Cubano sandwich, though again (sorry!) not as good as any of a hundred corner bodegas in Manhatten and Queens.
Fire on the Mountain - in my neighborhood and good chicken wings, very good fries, and great sweet potato fries. Can’t eat there more than once every 3 months, though or I’ll get a coronary. But good food, just the same.
That’s about it, for now. Not a comprehensive list - just where I go and like eating.

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