So you’ve decided to come to Portland for the 2023 SCA Expo. Let me be the first to welcome you! Chances are it’s been a few years since you visited, and that’s okay. Lots has changed here, but also not *that* much—Portland isn’t one of those cities, like LA or New York or London or Tokyo, that feel completely restocked with brand new stuff every six months. The pace of life here is a little slower, and I think that’s part of the charm. It also means you can see and do a lot with your short time in the city.
I’ve lived in Portland for more than a decade now, and have written about our fair city’s restaurant, bar, and cafe extensively, which means it’s been my pleasure over the last couple of months leading up to Expo to receive texts like: Where should I go for a four-top on Friday night? or What’s a chill bar far away from the convention where I can have a good conversation? There’s good answers for all these and more, so let’s structure this guide thusly, a cheeky Q&A on what to do while you’re in town, starting with but first, coffee.
I’m not going to jerk you around—like I would a friend, I’ll share basically one hopefully perfect suggestion for each answer, especially when it comes to food and drinks (with the exception of food carts, for which it would be impossible to choose just one). For getting around town we recommend Lyft, cars for which are plentiful around town.
Where should I get coffee in Portland?
Goodness there’s a lot. Portland’s had a thriving coffee scene for decades now, and it continues to grow in interesting ways. Our Portland tag is home to quite a bit coverage, and is always a good place to start. Also check out the recently published “indie cafe” guide from Portland Monthly Magazine (it was my pleasure to help contribute to this), which contains dozens of recommendations of differing styles and geographic locations across the city, including Abba Coffee Roasters, Carnelian Coffee, Ca Phe, Deadstock Coffee, Electrica, Prince Coffee, and many more. In addition to these, we always recommend visiting the original Stumptown cafe on (4525 SE Division), which has become something like a municipal landmark and is in a lovely, walkable neighborhood, as well as the still-beautiful original Coava cafe (1300 SE Grand). Going to new cafes is so much fun, and so is visiting some of the truly influential classics, but if you make it to just one cafe in Portland this trip—because you were otherwise incredibly busy—it should be Less and More Coffee (1003 SW Fifth Ave), a repurposed bus station cafe with a serious coffee program and inventive, high quality signature drinks.
Where should I get takeout lunch from in Portland?
- Nong’s Khao Man Gai — Perhaps the most perfect lunch in the world, Nong’s essentially makes one dish—poached chicken and rice with soup—but words don’t really do it justice, though many have tried. Something magic happens here, the combination of taste and texture but also process and repetition; this restaurant started as a single food cart and has grown into sit-down locations that double as takeout hubs. The Ankeny location (609 SE Ankeny Street) is closest to the convention center, and the downtown location (417 SW 13th Ave.) is great if you’re staying near there, or visiting the famous Powell’s Books. It’s something eat to reset after long trips, or to help power through tired days, and nearly every Portlander I know is obsessed with Nong’s; we raise our families on it, etc, so just go.
What’s an easy but still really good four-top I can go to that doesn’t require a dinner reservation?
- Hat Yai — wonderfully crispy Thai style fried chicken is the star here, but Hat Yai is a broadly killer Thai restaurant from local restaurateur Akkapong Earl Ninsom. Like Nong’s, it has two locations, one in Southeast Portland (605 SE Belmont St.) not far from the convention center, and a chill north Portland location on Killingsworth (1605 NE Killingsworth St.). The spicy Thai pork is truly spicy, the curries are fragrant and complex and delicious, there’s always three specials or more that look really good, the sticky rice has perfect texture and the dessert roti with condensed milk makes a dreamy sweet treat at the end. Everyone loves Hat Yai. Go here!
I am / someone in my group is vegan / vegetarian. Where should we go?
- Fermenter — Most restaurants in Portland have a vegan option or two, some quite good, but the city’s best dedicated vegan restaurant—honestly one of its best restaurants flat out—is Fermenter (1403 SE Belmont) and its new next door bar and kitchen Workshop Food and Drink. Get the gluten free hippie cookie, get the beet reuben, and make sure to try as much of the pickles and kojis and krauts as you can. Weekend brunch is especially good here.
I prefer to dine outside. What about all these famous food carts?
- Food cart culture continues to thrive across Portland, clustered together in “pods” along every quadrant of the city. Some favorites include twinned carts like Bing Mi and Farmer and the Beast (both in the Nob Hill Food Carts at 1845 NW 23rd), Matta and Baon Kainan (both at 807 NE Couch St), and Bottle Rocket and Potato Champion (both in the Cartopia pod). Further afield I love visiting Golden Triangle for creative Laotian and Thai cuisine, Erica’s Soul Food for the city’s best wings, Kee’s Loaded Kitchen for, well, everything Chef Kiauna Nelson makes but especially her desserts, and Mama Chow’s for cart made char sip pork and garlic noodles. One could go on and on about this topic…Ruthie’s is one of the best restaurants in the city (neo-stoner Utah cuisine) and it happens to be a cart, Matt’s BBQ makes some of the best bbq on the American West Coast and it’s a cart, Sorbu Paninoteca makes utterly beautiful Sicilian food, including multiple daily breads, all from a tiny little cart…
Is there an ok bar like right near the convention center I should go to?
- Spirit of 77 — this is the best of the bars immediately adjacent to the Convention Center (500 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd). It is a large, open sports bar with better than average beer and spirits. A far broader world of bars and pubs and such await you just a brief Lyft away.
How about just a really great bar I should check out? I don’t mind a 10 minute drive.
- Tulip Shop Tavern — I really like the Tulip Shop Tavern (825 N Killingsworth), which makes killer smart bar food with plus’d up touches and then has just a roaring beer and cocktail program, truly one of the city’s best. I like going here and I really like sending folks from out of town here. It opens each day at noon and stays open until 1am on Friday and Saturday.
What’s the coolest new spot in town right now, then?
- Sousol — The sleek, clubby subterranean basement bar of all-world much-buzzed Haitian restaurant Kaan is what you’re seeking, and home to innovative fresh cocktails and pan-Caribbean cuisine. The bar features particularly outstanding zero proof cocktails and the food rules—the creole shrimp cocktail, beef patties, Trini-Chinese chicken wings being particularly good upon repeat visits. This is a stylish option for Portland nightlife.
I like beer, and understand Portland has many great breweries. Where should I go?
I’ll recommend one brewery to visit, and one bottle shop to acquire beers from all other breweries.
- Grand Fir Brewing — Whitney Burnside’s brewery (1403 SE Stark St) is one of the best in the state, and it’s also an extremely fun bar to go to with a modern pub vibe and excellent food (get the beer nuts and the wedge salad). You will have fun here. Drink the Lichen IPA and the Texas-style Czech Pilsner.
- Belmont Station — For 26 years this has been Portland’s premiere bottle shop (4500 SE Stark St), with a charming bar attached and a great neighborhood feel. The folks who work here really care and are super knowledgable, and I’ve learned so much about beer just by asking them for recommendations. Maybe get a beer next door, then peruse the bottles and cans. What a good place.
I like to drink wine, where should I go?
- Nil Wine Bar/Ardor Natural Wine — I think Nil and Ardor (4243 SE Belmont St unit# 300) do a great job with what they serve and in cultivating a program that’s both accessible and well-curated. I like going to the bar a lot, which has moody lighting and a great sound system, but is also quite small, like this tiny little European thing or something—if we get nice weather it’s gorgeous to sit outside.
- OK Omens — This “wine-focused restaurant” (1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd) is always pouring four or five things I want to try. You can make a booking, or rock up for walk-in seating. The wine list is very good.
Where should I take 12 of my new best friends I met at Expo to hang out/close the deal/etc?
- Pacific Standard — I’m not sure about all 12 of you, but this bar sprawls (100 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd) across the entirety of the KEX Hotel lobby, and offers plenty of room to spread out. They also happen to make the city’s best espresso martini.
Enough with all the culinary everything, me want food—where should I go when I’m really hungry and can’t be bothered to make a huge deal out of it?
- Burgerville — The Portland area’s beloved local fast food chain, with a focus on organic products and farm-direct sourcing (this being Portland). Everyone has their favorite thing at Burgerville (multiple locations) and the menu is surprisingly broad, with everything from salad and protein combos to loaded Oregon blue cheese burgers and waffle fries. The shake special is always worth eyeballing, and at least one authoritative local palate (my six year old) claims they make the best chicken strips in town. There is a Burgerville exceedingly close to the convention center.
How about a little something sweet for later. Where should I get dessert?
- How about a one-two punch. The exceptionally quirky Pix Patisserie (2225 E Burnside St) 24-hour vending machine is located in the heart of East Burnside (right near Heart Coffee), and offers 24-hour little mini cakes, chocolates, macrons, and so forth in a whimsical setting. It is a block away from the Burnside and 28th Avenue location of Fifty Licks (2742 E Burnside St), a local favorite ice cream shop that stays open until 10pm.
If I come to Oregon and all I do is sit in the convention center all day I’m going to scream. Is there a closely hike where I can get a quick nature fix?
- Lower Macleay Trail (2960 NW Upshur St) is what you seek. Portland has a ton of hiking trails within city limits, but this local spot is close (10 minutes from the Convention Center), safe, requires no special gear, and will get you the forest bathing wavelengths in your brain you so desperately need. The full loop takes like forty-five minutes and features old growth forest, rushing creeks and waterfalls, and lots of friendly Oregonians getting a little fresh air in their best Patagucci.
I need to bring back some Oregon-y gift thing for my family. Where’s a good gift shop?
- Tender Loving Empire — A wonderland of all things Oregon-y, with a folks on small craft makers and tiny little local culinary companies (it’s also a record label). Their NW Portland store is great (525 NW 23rd Ave), and they have a fully stocked location in the PDX Airport in case you run out of time.
More questions for Expo Weekend? Ask away!