Secrets of the West's Chefs

What makes cuisine in the Western U.S. so delicious? We compiled eight of our online “Best Bites” to highlight iconic local dishes you can enjoy at restaurants or in your own home.

Chef Higgins at Higgins Restaurant and Bar, Portland, Ore., image

Chef Higgins gets set to welcome diners to his restaurant in Portland’s downtown cultural district.

For links to all these great recipes, go to our Recipe Archives.

A year-round organic garden flourishes at Greg Higgins’s home atop a southwest Portland hill. Every morning, the renowned chef steps outside to harvest provisions for an inspired special to serve at his Higgins Restaurant and Bar downtown. In summer, he picks a bounty of fresh berries, heirloom chiles, and Asian herbs. In winter, he chooses from exotic citrus fruits and unusual squashes such as the chilacayote.

Farm to table? Sustainability? The chef has taken fashionable slogans and put them to work in a tangible way. “I’ve been here almost 30 years, and in the beginning it was hard to find like-minded people,” says Higgins, who not only grows his own but now also buys the goods of 30 Oregon producers, including HangBelly Ranch in Maupin and Rogue Creamery in Central Point. “What really sets the West apart is this collective consciousness,” he says. “We have such extraordinary access to incredible ingredients.”

And that’s the secret behind most of the dishes featured here: They taste of the places they come from. Boise lamb shanks in a ragout of lentils and Yukon gold potatoes from Idaho. Macaroni and cheese made with cow’s-milk cheese from California’s Marin County. Chocolate chunk cookies baked with butter churned at a creamery an hour outside Portland.

All it takes is an outing to any of these eight great restaurants to savor some true regional flavors. Or do the next best thing and make the chefs’ signature dishes yourself, using ingredients from your area’s purveyors. Either way, you’re tasting the best of the West.

Citrus- and Almond-Crusted Halibut
A mild fish caught in Alaskan waters leaps with flavor at Higgins Restaurant in Portland.

During wild halibut season—from early spring through fall—the tender, flaky fish is the must-have menu item at Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland. Since founding the groundbreaking restaurant 18 years ago, chef Greg Higgins has championed regional ingredients. When it comes to halibut, he buys only fresh, whole, in-season fish caught using hook-and-line methods; a small co-op of fishermen in Alaska get the catch to him only a day or two out of the water. Every part of the fish is used: fillets for evening entrées, scrapings for smoked-fish plates, and bones for stock, which becomes the foundation of seafood soups and stews.

“Halibut is a people pleaser,” Higgins says. “It lends itself to everything from fish-and-chips to grilling. Especially if you like your seafood on the milder side, I can’t imagine not loving halibut.”

One of his favorite halibut preparations involves coating thick fillets with an egg-white wash, then a crunchy mixture of crushed almonds flavored with orange and lemon zest. After roasting, the fish is served with a buttery sauce fortified with Belgian white ale. Because his restaurant offers an extensive beer list, Higgins likes to incorporate brews into his dishes. The hints of coriander and citrus in this particular ale, he says, marry with the halibut’s sweetness particularly well, and he recommends enjoying the crusty dish with the same type of ale. 1239 SW Broadway, (503) 222-9070, higginsportland.com.

Triple Coconut Cream Pie
This thrilling concoction from Seattle’s Dahlia Lounge has sparked a citywide love affair.

When Seattle superchef Tom Douglas opened his upscale Dahlia Lounge in 1989, he put a decidedly down-home coconut cream pie on the menu as a lark. Little did he know that the pie would take on a sweet life of its own.

Not only is it the best-selling dessert at Dahlia Lounge, but it’s now available at all 12 of his Seattle establishments. Don’t see it on the menu? If you’re hankering for it enough to beg for a slice, your server will make sure you get one. The pie’s popularity was also part of the inspiration for Douglas’s Dahlia Bakery. The pies are so highly regarded that they have fetched hundreds of dollars at charity auctions.

All this fuss over a pie? You bet, when it’s this luscious—with coconut in the crust, shredded coconut in the filling, and big shards of toasted coconut atop ripples of whipped cream and curls of white chocolate. Even coconut haters love it. “That’s because it doesn’t taste like suntan lotion,” Douglas says. “Every other coconut pie out there has fake stuff in it. When you use real ingredients, you realize how good it can taste.”

The recipe, which appears in the new Dahlia Bakery Cookbook, is based on one by celebrity pastry chef Jim Dodge. Any confident home cook can make it, Douglas says. 2001 Fourth Ave., (206) 682-4142, tomdouglas.com.

Fried Chicken Sandwich
A jazzy lunch dish is a virtual rock star at Bakesale Betty in Oakland, California.

Around the San Francisco Bay Area, if you’re talking fried chicken sandwich, you probably mean the one at Bakesale Betty in Oakland. It’s downright voluptuous, the meat stacked high and spilling out from its soft roll. Diners pick it up with two hands and crunch down on the tender chicken breast made even tastier by its golden crust. A vinaigrette-dressed cabbage slaw with the kick of jalapeño and the bite of red onion adds tang and brightness.

Just don’t expect mayo; owner Alison Barakat can’t abide the stuff. Barakat, who as her alter ego, Betty, dons an electric-blue wig, had made this picnic favorite for years for friends and family. She perfected the buttermilk-drenched chicken while working at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse Café. So a few months after opening her Temescal neighborhood bakery in 2005, she started selling a few dozen chicken sandwiches a day. Now employees turn out as many as 800 daily. “People liked it from the start and started to write about it online,” Barakat says. “That’s how the word spread.”

There’s almost always a line out the door, but by the time you’re done paying and gawking at the cookies and strawberry shortcake in the glass cases, your freshly wrapped sandwich is handed to you. Barakat uses sweet torpedo rolls from the Acme Bread Company in Berkeley, humanely raised chicken from California’s Central Valley, and local extra-virgin olive oil for the coleslaw. “It’s a simple sandwich,” Barakat says. “But people really love fried chicken.” 5098 Telegraph Ave., (510) 985-1213, bakesalebetty.com.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies
Portland’s wildly popular Pearl Bakery may just have baked up the best cookies ever.

Impressively thick, delicately crisp on the edges, chewy inside, and loaded with semisweet chocolate and toasted pecans, the chocolate chunk cookies at Pearl Bakery in Portland are so alluring that customers actually show up as early as 9 a.m. to start the day with one.

Head pastry chef Teresa Ulrich understands that kind of devotion. After all, this particular cookie has been on the menu since the bakery opened 15 years ago. It’s among the shop’s most popular pastry items, with up to 700 sold each week. In 2011, when Portland Monthly named it one of the best chocolate chip cookies in the city, the adoration spread.

The family-run craft bakery, a little more than a block from Powell’s City of Books, makes these cookies with locally sourced butter. Ulrich adds Mexican vanilla rather than the usual kind because she likes its faint cinnamon and coconut notes. She also stirs the zest of a whole orange into the dough. The citrus flavor remains in the background, she says, but imparts an intriguing quality that contributes to the treats’ complex character.

Ulrich uses a light hand when mixing the dough so the cookies don’t end up flat or tough. The bakery favors Barry Callebaut 45 percent cacao semisweet chocolate, but any dark chocolate up to 60 percent cacao works well.

“This really is a great cookie,” Ulrich says. “It spoils me for any other chocolate chip cookie.” 102 NW Ninth Ave., (503) 827-0910, pearlbakery.com.

Chocolate Chunk Cookies

Makes about 18 cookies. Adapted with permission from the recipe by Pearl Bakery.

1 cup unsalted butter warmed to room temperature
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar
Zest of 1 orange, finely grated
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (Mexican, if available)
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecan halves, lightly toasted
2 cups semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chunks

1. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter, sugar, and orange zest on medium speed until light and fluffy, about two minutes. (You can also cream the butter, sugar, and zest by hand, but don’t cream too long or the cookies might bake flat.)

2. Beat in the egg and vanilla until thoroughly combined.

3. In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add this mixture to the creamed butter and sugar. Blend on low speed until thoroughly mixed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice.

4. In a separate bowl, toss the pecan halves and chocolate chunks together. Add them to the dough and mix until just combined.

5. Divide the dough into 1/4-cup balls. Space the balls about 2 inches apart on cookie sheets and flatten them slightly. Chill for 15 minutes. (The chilling helps prevent flat cookies.)

6. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the cookies until they just start to turn golden brown and are still a little soft in the center, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the cookies to racks and allow them to cool. Serve promptly or store in an airtight container.

Three-Cheese Mac & Cheese
A classic from the ranks of comfort foods shines at Mustards Grill in California’s Napa Valley.

Chef Cindy Pawlcyn grew up enduring Minnesota’s frigid winters and fondly remembers taking a pan of macaroni and cheese out of the oven, wrapping it tightly in foil, then trudging into the nearby woods to devour it with her dad. “It was 20 below and you could hardly move your arms,” she says. “But the dish retained its heat and was so good to eat.”

Is it any wonder that mac and cheese has a place of honor on her menu at Mustards Grill? Indeed, it became the best-selling side dish at this Yountville, Calif., eatery a few years ago. Diners go through as many as 45 orders a day, even during the balmy summer. “Everyone relates it to childhood memories,” says Dale Ray, executive chef, who recently announced plans to leave the restaurant to pursue a PhD. “You take a bite and you instantly go there.”

Mustards’ version gives Ray a chance to showcase West Coast cheeses. Throughout the year, he’ll switch up the cheeses and pasta. Most of the time the pasta is penne, but now and then it’ll be rigatoni or orecchiette. Gruyère is a staple, but goat cheese has proved a crowd pleaser. His newest interpretation includes Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s Toma, a cow’s-milk cheese with a buttery texture and a grassy tang. Sometimes, however, the dish is made with a mix of white cheddar, Gruyère, and Parmesan. It also incorporates a classic béchamel sauce for richness. The creamy, dreamy results speak for themselves. 7399 St. Helena Hwy., (707) 944-2424, mustardsgrill.com.

Lamb Shanks with Lentil Ragout
Boise’s Cottonwood Grille combines Idaho ingredients in a soul-satisfying medley.

Set amid gardens next to a riverside greenbelt, the convivial Cottonwood Grille in Boise ages its prime beef on-site and prominently features local lamb, elk, and buffalo on its menu.

This is meat-and-potatoes country, after all, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that one dish—slow-cooked lamb shank—never leaves the menu. The restaurant opened 12 years ago, coddling diners with clubby leather booths, striking alder paneling, and a massive quarried-sandstone fireplace. Its perennial entrée, which showcases fork-tender lamb laced with red wine and rosemary, remains popular, says executive chef Jesús Alcelay.

The Idaho mashed potatoes served with the lamb, which is also raised mostly on Idaho farms, are a relatively recent addition—a replacement for the rich lentil ragout initially offered. State pride being what it is, more diners chose to order their lamb shank atop buttery potatoes, and the menu changed. Still, Alcelay believes more people would request the ragout—he keeps it available—if they knew how good it was. He simmers the legumes with bacon, garlic, thyme, and bay leaf until they’re tender, adding a chopped Idaho potato for body.

The dish is an ideal make-at-home meal because once the shanks, vegetables, and aromatics go into a big pot in the oven, it cooks on its own—no need to hover. And the accompanying lentil ragout is a hearty, stress-free cinch. 913 W. River St., (208) 333-9800, cottonwoodgrille.com.

Northwest Clam Chowder
Warm yourself up with this sultry seafood stew from Oregon’s Crater Lake Lodge.

Velvety, creamy, chock-full of tender clams, and with the added kick of brandy—this is the epitome of chowder that soothes and satisfies.

Diners can’t get enough of the Northwest clam chowder, made with locally grown potatoes, smoky bacon, and fragrant thyme, at the historic Crater Lake Lodge Dining Room in Crater Lake, Ore. The warm, rich chowder is the perfect pick-me-up, especially in this breathtaking national park, where snow can linger after the lodge reopens in late May following a winter closure. Enjoy it at lunch or dinner here—perched right on the edge of the volcanic basin overlooking the deepest lake in the United States and one of the clearest in the world.

Michael Tighe, executive chef at the rustic 1915 lodge from 2011 into 2012, admits to being won over by the signature clam chowder. “I used to use sherry in mine, but I like the brandy in it better,” he says. “When it’s cold up here, the brandy really gives you that fire in the belly.”

The chowder gets its body from cream and milk. It’s thickened with cornstarch rather than flour, so it doesn’t end up pasty. Tighe uses chopped fresh clams but says the dish is delicious with canned clams if they’re added at the end so they don’t overcook. He accompanies the chowder bowl with wedges of crusty sourdough. Rim Village Drive, (541) 594-2255 ext. 3217, craterlakelodges.com.

Orange-Currant Scones
These crumbly treats—no longer on the menu—are legendary at San Francisco’s Zuni Café.

Scanning the Sunday lunch menu at the landmark Zuni Café in San Francisco, you’ll be tempted by everything from a grass–fed beef burger on rosemary focaccia to specialties such as eggs fried in breadcrumbs with long-cooked kale. But until recently you’d likely have found your eyes resting at a certain pastry on the list: orange-currant scones.

Who needs anything more with scones sweet and tender as these? That’s what patrons long told executive chef Judy Rodgers, the James Beard Award winner who is co-owner of this always busy spot. For 10 years after Rodgers took over in 1987, Zuni offered weekday breakfast to a small cadre of regulars. But no matter what the pastry chefs turned out—sticky buns, fruit turnovers, lemon coffee cake, pain au chocolat—the scones sold best. Rodgers ended the café’s weekday breakfasts long ago, but the scones remained on the menu until mid-2012.

The simple dough gets its richness from whole milk and plenty of butter; the classic flavors come from fresh orange zest and dried currants (specifically Zante currants, a variety of small California grapes available in dry form at most groceries).

“It’s really simple ingredients, combined without a lot of manipulation, so you end up with pure flavors,” Rodgers says. “Their relatively small format makes them morr fun to eat because you get some crunchy crust in every bite.” 1658 Market St., (415) 552-2522, zunicafe.com.

Photography by Robbie McClaran

This article was first published in November 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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