7 Great Things to Eat in Portland, Oregon

Helgerson Tusk ExteriorTusk restaurant exterior
Aaron Leitz

The budget-minded diner will find no shortage of culinary talent in the City of Roses.

From five-star dining to hole-in-the-wall dives, Portland’s food scene has something for everyone. There’s so much tempting stuff on offer that during any given visit, there are far more places I want to try than meals I have time to eat. And the best part? The odd splurge notwithstanding, you don’t have to break the bank to have a good experience. Here are seven delicious, budget-friendly bites from my last trip—each one $15 or less.

1. Rose VL Deli

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In a small strip of storefronts in the Foster-Powell neighborhood, this spin-off of the well-regarded Ha VL restaurant serves some highly rated bowls of Vietnamese soup. Different types are on offer each day, and I was lucky enough to stop by on a Tuesday, when the VL special noodle soup, called Hu Tieu VL, is up for grabs. For $11, you more than get your money’s worth: a huge helping of clear, piquant broth swimming with shrimp, fish balls, ground pork, pork liver, sliced BBQ pork, and quail eggs, topped with crispy garlic and crunchy scallions and cilantro stems and anchored with a hefty portion of rice noodles. With a dish of the usual accoutrements (bean sprouts, scallions, herbs, and a wedge of lime) on the side, it's a satisfyingly substantial yet not-too-heavy meal.

Rose VL Deli, 6424 SE Powell Boulevard, 503.206.4344; rosevl.com.

2. Jacqueline

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For a high-meets-low experience, sustainable seafood restaurant Jacqueline offers dollar oysters and Rainier tallboys during happy hour, Monday through Saturday from 5:00-7:00 p.m. It’s shuckers’ choice, so you won’t get to pick what you want, but rest assured you’ll be satisfied with the selection. The day I visited, the Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou-inspired neighborhood spot was only serving west coast varieties (alongside its usual array of house-made sauces—think everything from a classic mignonette to tarragon to tabasco), and each one was icy cold and perfectly pristine. Not content to leave well enough alone, I followed the platter of bivalves with an elegant yellowtail crudo ($15), which paired the fatty fish with creamy avocado, tart grapefruit and ponzu, and a handful of bright-green sprouted coriander, to delicious effect.

Jacqueline, 2039 SE Clinton Street, 503.327.8637; jacquelinepdx.com. 

3. Taqueria Santa Cruz

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On my last day in Portland, the weather was unseasonably sunny and warm, so I hopped on a bus (well, two buses) and took the hour-long ride out to Cathedral Park, on the banks of the Willamette River in the shadow of St. Johns bridge. After a pitstop for a pint at Occidental Brewing Co. (occidentalbrewing.com), I took a lap around the park, watched some happy pups playing in the water, paused for a selfie under the Instagram-bait bridge, and then wandered back up to the main drag in search of a snack. My friend had recommended a taqueria in the back of a Mexican grocery store, and that’s how I found myself in a bigger-than-expected neon-lit room, watching Dirty Dancing on the corner TV as I waited for my order: a trio of meat-filled tacos. The carne asada was fine, nothing special, but the crispy-edged, well-spiced pastor was great, and the tender chunks of lengua, draped with a generous helping of pickled onions from the complimentary salsa bar, were even better. And the fact that each one rang in at less than $2 a pop didn't hurt either. 

Taqueria Santa Cruz, 8630 N. Lombard St., 503.286.7302; tiendasantacruz.com.

4. Cheese & Crack

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A small, 20-seat spot with a low wood counter facing floor-to-ceiling windows, Cheese & Crack offers an array of well-composed cheese plates featuring homemade butter crackers and savory oatmeal cookies, baguette slices, olives, and cornichons, plus spoons full of mustard, honey, and chocolate ganache for good measure. My friend and I split the combo with Mycella bleu and Cypress Grove fromage blanc ($12) as well as a sandwich (pork-shoulder capicola with apple butter and greens; $8) and a salad (mixed greens with pickled cranberries, lentils, and shallots; $4); with a glass of frosé on the side, it made for an excellent sunny-afternoon spread.

Cheese & Crack, 22 SE 28th Avenue, 503.206.7315; cheeseandcrack.com.


5. Little Bird 

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Portland’s happy hour scene is unparalleled, especially for a taste of high-priced dining at a discount. On weekdays from 2:30-5:00 p.m. at Little Bird, part of two-time James Beard award-winner Gabriel Rucker’s local mini-empire, choose from half-priced oysters, roasted marrow bones, foie gras torchon, and a double-patty burger with brie ($7), a rich, messy, thoroughly satisfying affair that’s well worth the extra napkins. We'd come specifically for the burger and ordered marinated olives, brussels sprouts, and fries with bearnaise aioli to go with it, splitting the whole lot three ways, which felt almost virtuous and turned out to be just the right amount of food. (I'll admit, though: I could've done with a bit more of that burger.)

Little Bird, 215 SW 6th Avenue, 503.688.5952; littlebirdbistro.com.

6. Tusk

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Since its opening in August 2016, Middle Eastern hotspot Tusk has earned rave reviews from local and national media outlets alike, and now, nearly two years on, its brunch still commands lengthy waits. But we managed to snag bar seats on a Sunday morning without too much trouble, and it’s a good thing we braved the crowds. The main plates were stellar, from a Cypriot spin on the classic egg-and-meat breakfast combination (think: halloumi cheese and merguez sausage) to baked eggs, greens, and more halloumi in a spicy tomato sauce, and I especially loved the “Bread & Things” side of the menu. We got the kobocha cinnamon roll, a slice of pistachio gooey butter cake (above; $5), and a za’atar biscuit served with hibiscus honey butter, but next time, I’m ordering everything in that category, and another bloody Mary with preserved lemon too.

Tusk, 2448 E Burnside Street, 503.894.8082; tuskpdx.com.

7. Bang Bang

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For Southeast Asian-inspired fare at a reasonable price, look no further than Bang Bang, a small, mod spot on NE Fremont slinging high-wattage cocktails and the drinking snacks that go along with them. We opted for the glass-noodle bowl ($14), a tangle of the namesake translucent strands topped with piles of spicy ground pork, tangy pickled greens, mixed herbs, and garlic chips, plus a soft, runny-yolked egg and a healthy dash of chili. My advice? Poke the egg and let the yolk mingle with the other elements, then toss everything together and dig in; wash it all down with a white negroni or an old-fashioned, and thank me later.

Bang Bang, 4727 NE Fremont, (503) 287-3846; bangbangpdx.com.

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