Crown the King: Best Value Eating in Portland
When it comes to restaurant reviews, value is undervalued.
When eating out, value may be considered a combination of price, tastiness, and portion size. In other words, a hearty but somewhat “meh” meal for $5 would rate much higher than a slightly better, but paltry, “eh” meal for $50. This helps level the bar and allows for comparisons between fine-dining and fast food and everything in between. (In fact, fine-dining probably suffers in any value-adjusted rating system.) Due to a somewhat penurious nature; personal preference for bold, strong flavors; and a prickly relationship to pretension; refined dining makes me feel like I am eating off the calorie-restricted menu at a high-end nursing home. So I tend toward restaurants owned and staffed by the foreign-born.
A few of my favorite value-adjusted restaurants in Portland:
Crown Fried Chicken (Forest Ave)
Crown Fried (and its cousin Kennedy Fried) is all over ghetto neighborhoods in the New York City area. Perhaps gentrification pushed this Crown Fried franchise up to Portland, where it sits like a meteor on the border of the USM ghetto and little Baghdad; with a clientele to match. The owners and staff are Middle Eastern by way of the Bronx and the food is halal. A typical off-the-pig-out for two might consist of:
- 8-piece chicken, dark meat. Plump, juicy, crunchy enough, and salty. Skip the sides.
- A steak and cheese sub. Crisp bread, silken interior. If there is a better place in town for hot subs I have have not found it.
- Side of saffron-scented rice. Although strictly Middle-Eastern, soul-food purists can pretend they are eating dirty rice.
- Hi-C from the fountain. I’m not sure if I prefer ⅔ fruit punch to ⅓ lemonade or ⅔ lemonade to ⅓ fruit punch. In any event the drinks are self-serve which means they are refillable.
- Tres Leches cake. Not too sweet and milky, milky, milky.
- Flourless chocolate cake. Often flourless chocolate cake is crumbly and somewhat thirsty. Not this one, which has the elastic consistency of an impossibly thick chocolate pudding.
Saigon (Forest Ave)
There is real Pho and there is faux Pho, aka “Phaux” (and yes I know it is pronounced to rhyme with “yeh”). The simple test is whether the broth is sweet. That means that they are not taking the time (24hrs) to boil down neck bones and using sweetener to add depth of flavor (incidentally, Pho flavored bouillon cubes give a more authentic taste).
Aside from the Pho, the menu is universally strong (I like the pork chop and the breakfast-only bahn-mi) but what sets Saigon above are the things that make restaurants good: the service is friendly and efficient without being intrusive; the food is consistent and comes out fast; the atmosphere is cute and comfortable; and the price is totally reasonable.
Ahram Halal Market (Forest Ave)
One of a cluster of Iraqi markets in Woodford’s Corner, Ahram is serving falafel, shwarma, on home made bread. The falafel is better than decent and generous for $6.
Kim’ Sandwich (Saint John Street)
The bahn mi at Kim’s has entered into synecdoche as in “let’s get a Kim’s” because Venn Diagram of the Bahn Mi at Kim’s ($3) is a perfect circle of price, portion, and taste. What is better is that two sandwiches constitutes a major feed and is still only six bucks. Recommended are the Special Combination, Roast Pork, and Vegetarian but try the steam buns, sticky rice, and tapioca cake dessert as well.
Portland is unexpectedly strong in sushi restaurants, and we owe it all to Ben-Kay which was the first real sushi restaurant and begat several others that are now getting more recognition. But Yosaku (on Danforth Street) and King of the Role (on Congress Street) are the best value options.
Tandem (Congress Street)
Tandem has a mystique, but the operation is surprisingly down to earth. The menu of sandwiches and baked goods is of cosmopolitan-heartland fare, by way of Brooklyn.
Because they are willing to take a risks; present unusual flavor combinations; and take the time to insure that all the elements are being done right (the hard-boiled eggs on the sandwiches, for example, are always perfectly cooked) the $6 biscuit sandwiches and $8 focaccia sandwiches are much tastier than similarly-priced sandwich options elsewhere–and surprisingly filling.
Of the desserts, the pies are pretty awesome and stand out above the loaf cakes and cookies.
Flores Restaurant aka La Bodega Latina (Congress Street)
Salvadorean-style empanadas and fried chicken that tastes like bacon(!); $1.25 each.
Tuna Italians (Amato’s, Depietros, and other purveyors)
I love the regional variation on the sub/hero/hoagie sandwich known locally as the Italian (distinct for having fresh green peppers, raw onions, olives, and oil). While the cold-cut versions are the best tasting, the tuna slays when it comes to portion. For some reason the sandwich assemblers just pile it on. One the downside, I find myself burping tuna salad for the rest of the afternoon.
Aurora Provisions (Pine Street)
They have at least two great confections: The white chocolate berry cookie and the Chocolate Streusel Fudge Square. Each for about $2.25, which is almost too cheap.
Dyers Variety Store (Portland Street)
Dyer’s is where Public Service meets social services. The owner takes pride in his soups which are pretty good. Dyer’s makes the list on the basis of exceeding expectations.
Ten Ten Pie (Cumberland Ave)
Not unlike Tandem (see above) but with Japonisme-French refinement; so you might find Asian tropes like matcha in traditional French pastry, as well as steam buns. Value-wise the sweets out rank the savories.
Babylon (Forest Ave)
The most successful Middle-Eastern restaurant to be opened by a new Mainer. Babylon is a large somewhat attractive space out in Morrill’s Corner. The food is good and the menu is priced from low to moderate, so you can have an leisurely sit-down dinner for $10-$15 with tip.