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Taste of the City: Chow Your Way Through Portland in Five Plates

Each month in food-focused Portland brings a crop of new restaurants, pop-ups and must-try food carts. It can be hard to keep up. Here, though, are five-tried-and true favorites that locals embraced from the start and still can’t get enough of.

For Portlanders, these dishes taste like comfort, like goodness, like home.

Khao Man Gai — Nong’s Khao Man Gai

Nong Poonsukwattana took the city by storm when she opened a food cart that served one dish — ambrosial Thai-style chicken and rice. She has since expanded to a second cart and a small restaurant.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai is tender, poached light- or dark-meat chicken atop rice cooked in stock and herbs. The signature sauce is funky, with fermented soybeans brightened with mild chili and sharpened with ginger.

Also on the plate: some light chicken soup and slices of cucumber to cleanse the palate. Eat it for lunch at the food carts near the Central Library or Portland State University. Both locations are great for people-watching. Or head over to the east side brick-and-mortar restaurant, which stays open through dinner.

Herring Under a Fur Coat — Kachka

portland restaurants
Don’t mind the name. Kachka’s Herring Under a Fur Coat is unforgettable. (Photo: CarlyDiaz | Courtesy of Kachka)

Ride the streetcar to Kachka’s narrow storefront and step into a dining room filled with Soviet-era tchotchkes and posters. Start with zakuski — Russian appetizers/small plates.

The local favorite is the marvelously named Herring Under a Fur Coat. Admire it before you eat. It’s a visual feast. Bright yellow shaved egg atop layers of hot-pink mayonnaise, magenta beets, carrots, potatoes, onions and dill. They are all bit players to the star in this layered salad: salt-cured herring.

Chef Bonnie Morales wanted to bring Russian home cooking to Portland, and she’s succeeded. The comfort is deep. And the vodka selection is epic. After a few shots you might just go around the corner in this burgeoning warehouse district to try your luck at Voicebox Karaoke.

Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings — Pok Pok Wing

“I’ve been craving these all week,” says a bearded guy in line at Pok Pok Wing. He’s waiting for Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Chicken Wings — marinated in sugar and spice, deep fried, tossed with caramelized fish sauce and served glistening, plump and studded with garlic. Enjoy them with toothsome house-cured pickled vegetables, including jicama, carrot and cabbage.

This counter-service store is the fourth Portland outpost of Andy Ricker’s mostly Thai street-food empire and offers wings at a discount. Don’t miss the drinking vinegars, and if you’re feeling adventurous, try the durian ice cream for dessert. For the full menu and “drinking food” (snacks to eat while imbibing) that propelled Ricker to national fame, head to the original Pok Pok or to Whiskey Soda Lounge on Division Street.

Neapolitan-Style Pizza — Apizza Scholls

After an afternoon spent shopping for vinyl tunes and vintage clothes on funky Hawthorne Boulevard, stop in at Apizza Scholls for some of the finest Neapolitan-style pizza in the U.S. Brian Spangler is Portland’s pizza king. His secret’s in the dough — crackly on the outside, airy crumb inside.

Add to this a perfect sauce-to-cheese ratio and a char that is deep and rich but never burnt and you have achieved the perfect pie. Now join the locals in the eternal debate: whether to order the Apizza Amore with capicola (cured pork shoulder) or the Sausage & Mama with Mama Lil’s Kick Butt peppers. Insider’s tip: Whatever pie you choose, be sure to order the Caesar salad.

Street-Style Tacos — Uno Mas Taquiza

At Portland’s Uno Mas Taquiza, it’s all about the authentic street-style tacos. A taquiza is a taco party, and the offerings at Uno Mas go way beyond the standard al pastor and carnitas (which are both excellent).

Try the polpo — octopus bright with lime, red chile and epazote — or the house-made morongo (blood sausage). Vegetarian offerings of mushrooms, fried cheese and cactus are delicious in their own right.

The east side location of this bare-bones taqueria in The Ocean, a micro-restaurant complex, was so successful that chef Oswaldo Bibiano recently opened a west side branch with expanded offerings.

Soccer fans take note: The new location is right across from the Timbers’ stadium and stays open late. Do what the locals do and get the chef’s choice platter to share. Twelve tacos come with radish, lime wedges, charred onion and peppers.