Two streets in southeast Portland have become the site of a culinary renaissance.
For years, Portland’s SE Division Street was an uninviting string of warehouses, and neighboring SE Clinton Street was an aging residential thoroughfare. In the 1970s, city planners argued that the best use for the land between the two parallel roads would be to clear it and build a highway. Happily, the Mount Hood Freeway never came to be, thanks to a community movement that has since inspired waves of beautification. The Division-Clinton corridor, which crosses the Richmond and Hosford-Abernethy neighborhoods, now resembles a pair of small-town main streets busy with pedestrians and lined with craftsman houses, corner stores, shade trees, and an exploding population of small restaurants run by top-level chefs.
Division-Clinton has made a name for itself citywide as a place to eat, and one man is most often cited as the forefather of the area’s culinary renaissance: David Machado, who opened the casually elegant Lauro Kitchen on Division in 2003. “Restaurants are the greatest social catalysts,” he says. “A decade ago, there was no destination dining on the east side. Now, people drive over the bridge from the west side as the hip thing to do.” In 2005 he opened Vindalho, a modern, airy Indian restaurant on Clinton, where dishes such as beef short ribs dressed with ginger, tamarind, and red wine provide welcome heat on chilly days. Other restaurateurs followed, bringing equally inventive flavors. In the cheerful Broder on Clinton, Peter Bro serves Scandinavian dishes inspired by his childhood. Smoked trout hash comes punctuated with peppers and pickled beets, and sweet pancake puffs called aebleskiver come with tart lemon curd.
Nearby, Little T American Baker offers a blissful poached-pear Danish with almond cream and views to the street through floor-to-ceiling windows. A few blocks away on Division near SE 33rd Avenue, corrugated metal roofs strung with twinkling lights top Pok Pok, where James Beard Award winner Andy Ricker serves bowls of khao soi kai, a rich and spicy coconut curry noodle soup from a menu of Southeast Asian dishes.
More standouts cluster near SE 21st Avenue. St. Jack could be the poster child for the area’s food scene: Despite its casual character, the rustic French eatery won rave reviews for chef Aaron Barnett when it opened last year. The citrusy, warm madeleines are like rays of sunshine—perfect after a hearty dish of chicken braised in dark ale. Nearby, at the upscale yet informal Nuestra Cocina, owners Benjamin Gonzales and Shannon Dooley-Gonzales present culinary delicacies from across Mexico. They rub lamb with chiles, cinnamon, and cloves and steam it in banana leaves until it’s so tender it melts in your mouth, just right for scooping up with corn tortillas. Across the street is Bar Avignon, an intimate, smart space that sommelier Randy Goodman opened in 2008 with his wife, Nancy Hunt, as a place to get good wine and, in his words, “honest, creative, ingredient-driven food without fuss.” Ask for one of the 20-some wines by the glass to pair with mussels steamed in a white wine–tarragon broth.
Clinton Street is a bicycle boulevard, and this year the city will add more bike lanes, trees, and pedestrian space on Division, a welcome touch of urban renewal that highlights the area’s revitalization. Even at 11th Avenue, where freight trains still trundle by and warehouses are the norm, more than 85 companies have moved into the 1914 Ford Building, once a factory for Model T’s. MoonBrine Pickles sells dill and hot pickles; Foxfire Teas displays over 70 loose leaf options such as Mt. Hood Sunrise, flavored with passion fruit and yellow and purple edible flowers; and live tunes fill Ford Food + Drink, where coconut–lime–pumpkin seed cookies are a highlight. “People thought no one would ever come to this area,” says Michael Tevis, who bought the pigeon-infested building in 2005. “It was edgier, less proven, generally unwanted. Today, more than 80 percent of the building’s tenants live in the area, and more people are coming in. The neighborhood has come into its own, and it’s going to keep getting better.”
Photography by Robbie McClaran
This article was first published in January 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.