THE FOOD It can be a bit daunting to order food at Toro Bravo, Portland’s best tapas restaurant: After all, there are more than 50 plates to choose from. Luckily, it’s incredibly difficult to go wrong with just about anything on the menu. Nonetheless, the trick to ordering tapas is achieving balance—not too much meat, not too many vegetables. Here’s how we like to do it up: Start with a strong cocktail to prime your stomach for a long, pleasurable feast. Order the bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with almonds and drizzled with warm honey. Then move on to a spritzy glass of Spanish white wine like txakoli, paired with a salad: perhaps a simple baby-cucumber salad spiked with mint, almonds, and slivered red onions, or perhaps a bowl of fresh, spicy greens from Singing Pig Farm that’ve been tossed with heirloom tomatoes, mint, red onion, and creamy blue cheese. Then it’s time to get serious with a pitcher of sangria and a plate of deep-fried oxtail-and-potato croquettes or a pyramid of salt-cod fritters. Next up, succulent and buttery griddled shrimp brushed with chile sauce will offset the last heavy plates just enough so you’re ready for a sizzling platter of squid-ink fideo (paella made with thin noodles) mixed with house-made rabbit sausage, corn, and heirloom tomatoes. If you’re a pro, you’ll leave room for lamb braised with apricots and coriander or a house-smoked coppa steak. Otherwise, simply move on to dessert: Spanish coffee and a bowl of chocolate-covered almonds. Come back in a day or two for an entirely different, but equally satisfying, feast.
THE CHEF Having co-founded Nob Hill’s Viande Meats & Sausage with longtime friend Benjamin Dyer in 2002, John Gorham knows steaks and burgers and lamb shoulders well, which makes Toro Bravo a fantasyland for carnivores. But it’s not just Gorham’s knack for expertly throwing together a batch of North African sausages or pork rillettes that has Portland diners practically begging for more—it’s his ability to juggle so many different ingredients and menu items, a skill that can be attributed to the five years he spent as co-owner and chef of Simpatica Catering. Plus, there’s something about his solid presence behind the kitchen counter at the back of the dining room that gives us full confidence in his abilities. Or maybe it’s the occasional flash of the flame tattooed on his right forearm that serves to confirm there’s no other man we’d rather have cooking our smoked pork shoulder or braised lamb shanks.
THE ATMOSPHERE Loud, bustling, and occasionally rowdy, like any superb tapas joint should be, Toro Bravo has gained a fierce following, so the wait for a seat often lasts an hour or more. Fortunately, there are a few standing-room-only counters toward the front, a small bar, and, nearby, a charming upstairs drinking establishment called the Secret Society, where hungry customers can wait. Once seated at a communal table, the chef’s counter, or a two- or four-seater, you may have to strain to hear your dining companions, but most people are so engrossed in their food, mere grunts and yelps of satisfaction seem a fine substitute for civilized conversation.
THE SERVICE With so many plates being fired in the kitchen and going out to guests, the waitstaff is impressively quick, and at times brisk, but never in an offensive way. In fact, our pick for 2008 Waiter of the Year (see p. 128) lords over the dining room at Toro Bravo. Why did we pick her? Because we’ve never seen anyone undertake so many tasks at once without seeming frazzled. You might not be able to engage your waiter in a friendly conversation about the merits of locally grown cucumbers, but she’ll at least manage to get your order correct, even amid the din. And with five plates in each hand, she’ll still deliver your fried anchovies without breaking a sweat.