10. Racion, Lardo, and Grassa
A downtown food block captures the zeitgeist in three easy bites.
Last year, ChefStable, Portland’s indie restaurant company, unveiled a 5,000-square-foot, high-concept Mexican restaurant called Corazon in downtown’s burgeoning West End. After just three months of anemic reviews and disappointed customers, it went down like Godzilla in Tokyo Bay.
But in the turnaround of the year, ChefStable honcho Kurt Huffman carved this cavernous mausoleum into three restaurants—Lardo, Grassa, and Ración—connected by a shared kitchen. Each is a work in progress. But the trio stands as a snapshot of Portland’s food scene: adventurous sandwich shops, the return to comfort food, a crush on modernist cooking, clustered microprojects sharing resources, and not least, downtown’s rebirth.
Lardo, founded three years ago as another over-the-top food cart, has become a mini-empire of sandwich shops with national ambitions. Downtown’s annex contains Lardo’s big-boy portions, friendly ethnic spins (hello, pork meatball bahn mi), and touches of danger (pork scraps roaming in “dirty fries”). The double burger seems built for Andre the Giant, with twin thin patties, divine “porkstrami,” piping-hot cheese, and dripping sauce on a bulging brioche bun.
Meanwhile, next door, Grassa, also from Lardo chef-owner Rick Gencarelli, cranks out fresh artisan pasta for the masses in a “workshop” environment: pasta machines, dangling extension cords, and heavy metal music. A hanging menu holds nine rotating fresh pastas, salads, antipasti, and lowbrow cocktails. The simplest ideas yield the biggest rewards: ricotta gnudi snuggling up to rich lamb bolognese, grooved rigatoni swimming in homey pork ragù.
The most interesting of these three sisters is Ración, a Spanish-leaning house of tweezer food and good cheer. Here 32-year-old Anthony Cafiero imagines modernist cuisine for the Everyman. Molecular gastronomy usually intimidates; Ración takes the opposite approach. The laid-back vibe hits home as Cafiero explains his sous vide egg with corn silk: “We cooked the eggs in the shell at 63.4 degrees Celsius, which gives me, like, an egg custard inside. The corn silk on top is like a crispy corn cotton candy. Cool!” The food doesn’t achieve Michelin shine, but Ración may be the most fun room in town.