June 17, 2024

CPS

Travel Adventure

Ten Years of Food Reviews (and One Apology)

5 min read

Take a moment to remember spring 2014. “Happy” by Pharell topped the Billboard charts, and The Lego Movie was peak cinema. Skinny jeans were awesome, and I was 29 years old. I rented in Northeast Portland, and I also published my first column as the food critic for the Portland Mercury.

It’s now 10 years later. I rent in North Portland, am experimenting with surprisingly large pant silhouettes, and will be freaking FORTY YEARS OLD this fall. I have shed a husband, gained some weird aches and pains, honed my palette, and been front and center for the massive change this last decade of Portland’s culinary scene.

Many places I reviewed as a newbie haven’t made it. But several are still open, going strong, and better than ever. Here are four places (including one I WAS WRONG ABOUT!) that I revisited to celebrate 10 years in the biz. It’s been an honor—thank you for letting me be a part of your food world for a full two-fifths of my life. Xoxo, Damewood.


Photo by Katie Summer

Langbaan

If there were a timeline for Portland’s restaurant scene in the style of the Geologic time scale for the Earth, the opening of Langbaan would definitely mark the start of a new era.

Chef and owner Earl Ninsom started Langbaan in a secret room behind a bookcase inside Paadee, and was one of the first to bring a non-Japanese or European concept to the prix fixe format in this city. Ninsom unleashed a parade of haute Thai dishes inspired by different regional cuisines.

In 2014, this menu was $45, and I said: “Like a salmon ceviche with Thai eggplant and orange, Langbaan is the kind of thing Portland didn’t know it needed until it was served to us, perfectly spiced.”

Ninsom carried Langbaan through the pandemic, making it one of the few fine dining restaurants to survive pandemic shutdown, and moved it from Paadee to its own space next to Phuket Cafe in Slab Town. It’s still absolutely essential Portland eating. 

Now, the set menu is $125, and the dishes have a decade of refinement behind them. May’s menu was a celebration of their favorites from over the years, including the famous Kanom Krok, a crispy rice cup with Hokkaido scallop luxuriating in warm coconut cream with lemongrass and lime—a bite size haute Thai clam chowder. The meal is a parade of bites that sing with Thai chile, dance with shiso, mint and other herbs, and kiss you goodnight with textural elements like crispy pork belly skin and fried seaweed on barely seared Ora king salmon. 

Ninsom has built an empire of restaurants since the 2010s—Padee, Hat Yai, Eem, Phuket Cafe, Yaowarat—but Langbaan remains the jewel in his crown.

Langbaan, 1818 NW 23rd Pl, two reservation-only seatings, Thurs-Sun, langbaanportland.com

Photo by Kylie Antolini

Mama Chow’s Kitchen

In June 2014, I wrote a glowing review of this Chinese food cart: “Mama Chow’s is one of those gems that you can tell is going to make it, good press or not.” I mean, look at my little Nostradamus ass calling it! Ten is like 50 in food cart years, and I’m thrilled this little green cart really did make it.

This spring, Mama Chow’s, still run by chef/owner Jeff Chow, threw a massive celebration marking this milestone at its new location in the Farmhouse Carts on Southeast Division. The wonton noodle soup, full of plump shrimp and pork handmade dumplings, is still one of my favorites. And people are seriously obsessed with the lollipop wings, marinated in honey, soy, garlic, and vinegar, over yakisoba noodles (I had a former coworker who had Chow on speed dial for his frequent lunch orders.)

Back then, people complained about a lack of good Chinese food in Portland. That wasn’t true then and it’s especially not true now, thanks to places like Mama Chow’s. 

Mama Chow’s, 2415 SE 35th Pl., instagram.com/mamachowskitchen

Photo by Katie Summer

Maurice

When I visited Maurice for the first time, I wrote: “I can see [owner and chef Kristen] Murray picking her way through flea markets, hand-selecting each chair that lines the bar and every decorative colored-glass jar and dried flower. I don’t know her, but because of the atmosphere she’s crafted—along with some darn fine midday fare and inventive desserts—I think I like her.”

Turns out I do like Kristen, and I absolutely love Maurice. Located just across Burnside from Powells, it’s where I’d send an out of town friend who has taste. I recently treated myself to a solo lunch sitting at the bar, watching massive slabs of rich butter be unwrapped for quiche making. An afternoon with a glass of wine, a few oysters, and whatever’s on special—I had a perfectly cooked portion of halibut with yellowfoot chanterelles and yellow lentils in a brown butter sauce—is a great way to spend an hour.

Of course, dessert is a must. The always-on lemon souffle pudding cake and black pepper cheesecake are de rigueur for the uninitiated, but I grabbed a tart rhubarb pastry to eat there, and a smoky lapsang souchong-infused chocolate cake for the road. Mas oui!

Maurice, 921 SW Oak, mauricepdx.com

Photo by Carl Kiilsgaard

Life Of Pie

To round out this little trip down food memory lane, I’d like to offer an apology to Life of Pie. I panned it totally in 2014, though for some fair reasons. They served me a burnt-to-carbon pie, the crust was dry, and a Caesar salad gave big bagged salad energy.

But, Life of Pie has improved and flourished, opening a second location on Northwest 23rd, along its flagship on North Williams. The restaurant’s main draw is an $8 margherita pie, available from 11 am-6 pm every day, a wood fired lunch or early dinner worth well more than the price tag. 

Confession: I hadn’t been back since writing my bad review until now, because I was a little afraid I’d get recognized as that jerk who called their pizza “ho hum.” Upon my return, many of the pizzas on the menu were the same. I still think the olive oil based bacon, goat cheese and leek pizza is too oily. I also still find the salami, Mama Lil’s peppers, goat cheese and honey pie to be a delight. The crust is dramatically improved, with a good tang, and even better glutenous chew. I’m not adding Life of Pie to my top 10 pizza list, but I am willing to say that it’s way better than I said it was.

Life of Pie, 3632 N Williams; 1765 NW 23rd, lifeofpiepizza.com


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