Next Generation Boba Tea, July Openings and More from FEAST
My mentor Chef Robert Reynolds used to memorably say that “a tomato is an agreement between god and the month of August.” This is both an apt description of the magnitude we feel with the arrival of tomatoes, as well as a reminder of how precious and fleeting seasonality truly is.
During normal years (“normal” in this case defined as the years when Feast happens in September), the Feast team is often so busy producing a massive festival that it can be easy to overlook tomato season, summer peaches, and the warm, waning days of summer. But not this year. If there’s one upside of not having Feast in 2022, it’s that right now we’re taking full advantage of our summer, tomatoes, peaches and all.
And while we have the time and space to be grateful for summer, it’s especially exciting to see our region’s food community making a comeback. Cases in point—in the last three weeks, we’ve welcomed two of the biggest restaurant openings of the last decade: Gregory Gourdet’s Kann in Portland and Matt Lightner’s Okta in McMinnville. Full disclosure, Matt Lightner is among my very best friends, and it is true to say that no one in my life (except perhaps the aforementioned Robert Reynolds) has influenced the way I think about food, ingredients and place more than he has. While Matt was the chef at Castagna more than a decade ago, and before he left for New York to earn a pair of Michelin stars and a national reputation, Matt would often share that his dream would be to open a restaurant in Oregon wine country, a destination that would be a short drive from Portland, not to mention the forests of the Willamette Valley and Pacific Ocean. Now, eleven years later, that restaurant is a reality. I was able to visit Okta for one of the Friends and Family dinners, and even on the second night of service, it was outstanding.
As for Kann, I haven’t been able to visit just yet, but early reports are excellent, and this is no surprise. Chef Gregory also has a Michelin star background and a New York pedigree, and based on the many collaborations we’ve done at Feast over the years, there is probably not a harder working chef who has ever lived—at least not that I’ve seen. Jordan was quick and nimble enough to snag a reservation and will be sharing a full report in the next edition of this newsletter. In terms of the notoriety of a restaurant opening, there hasn’t been this much buzz in Portland about a new restaurant since Naomi Pomeroy opened Clarklewis. And that feels good. September reservations drop on August 15th and will go faster than Baird peaches at the PSU Farmers Market. Don’t snooze.
Happy tomato eating.
Co-Founder, Feast Portland
NEXT GENERATION BUBBLE TEA
by guest contributor Seiji Nanbu
In high school, my friends and I, a bunch of Asian kids from Portland, spent most of our free time at bubble tea shops. Back then, the options were limited to places like Mojo Crepes, one of the few OG bubble tea places still left in Portland (and makers of the best Japanese-style crêpe in the city), as well as Sozo Tea, which was next to Wong’s King Dim Sum (both closed now).
Bubble tea was a social thing for us. At Mojo’s, they had a pool table (50 cents a game), and at Sozo’s, they had computer terminals you could rent out. The drinks were all made using artificial powders and flavorings. This is most people’s first exposure to bubble tea: a rainbow of powdered, artificially flavored products in a cup of milk with little plops of boba inside. The style was standard across all the boba tea shops in Portland and most boba tea shops in America.
Then something changed. In the last five years, bubble tea has become culinary, delicious, and focused on real fruit and inventive flavors and textures. Stepping into a bubble tea shop now is more like going to a really nice smoothie bar or high-end dessert place. Bubble tea shops like Ocha and Share Tea in Portland were important to this shift. A franchise from Taiwan, Share Tea opened the doors for other international franchises to come into the region with high quality drinks and a focus on flavor. Ocha was one of the first locally-owned boba tea shops to do inventive, adventurous drinks, with a big Vietnamese influence. The Portland metro area is home to more than 50 bubble tea shops, each offering their own unique and distinct version of the drink style.
The new wave of craft bubble tea has more in common with coffee and cocktails. Today, boba shops in Portland put a lot of thought into their menus, with emphasis on seasonality and provenance. There’s also a focus on tea quality, with some of the best boba tea shops selling their own loose leaf teas. I know places that shake up their boba right in front of their customers using cocktail shakers.
In some ways, boba tea has grown up with my generation of consumers. Along the way, it has become more specialized and also more expensive: good boba tea in Portland is now between $6 or $7, where it was closer to $3 when I was in high school. But these days, considering how good the drinks are, I feel like it’s always worth it.
Here are three of my favorite places across the city for some of the best new wave bubble tea:
Yoonique Tea (5348 SE Foster Rd) — I think this is *the* place right now in Portland for unique bubble tea of the highest quality. They’ve got it all here, from well-executed favorites like brown sugar milk tea and Hong Kong milk tea (black tea mixed with coffee), as well as surprising and sophisticated flavors like Biscoff milk tea, blue honey milk tea, and fresh coconut pandan, made with a mix of homemade pandan jelly, coconut juice, and kumquat. They have a bunch of toppings here that other shops don’t, including a homemade milk mochi (it’s divine), and a range of cheese foams (worth a try). You know that a bubble tea place is really good when they’re not just listing every ingredient and fruit used in each drink, but going as far as to tell you how they source the fruit. Their durian drinks, which have a cult following, are made with Malaysian Musang King durian. This is the same idea as a great restaurant listing where their produce and protein come from.
Yoonique is also home to some fun snacks (think garlic bacon bread), and a really interesting selection of packaged treats from Japan and Taiwan you very rarely see anywhere else. They also operate a small stationary and toy shop out of the space called How Cute.
My favorite order here is the king fruit tea, made with a refreshing blend of real fruit. I also really like their strawberry and peach milk teas, and I add the milk mochi every time. Be sure to check out the specials board for rotating drink flavors, like a recent ube boba drink that was excellent.
Bubble tea at Yi-Fang (left) and Tea Bar (right). Photos by author.
Tea Bar (1055 NW Northrup, 4330 SE Division) — Tea Bar’s approach is different from most bubble tea shops, but their boba is excellent, especially the current summer menu of fruit-based teas and drinks. I recently had an outstanding peach black tea, made with peach fruit purée and perfectly brewed black tea. Tea Bar is unsurprisingly tea-forward, which can be something of a double edged sword with boba: many boba tea drinkers are used to tea drinks made with artificial flavorings and cheap teas, so the real ingredients and subtleties at Tea Bar can take you by surprise. But the drinks here are very rewarding. It’s no accident that Tea Bar also sells their loose leaf teas, and that all of the syrups and flavorings are made in-house.
The secret weapon here is the boba itself. Tea Bar uses very high quality tapioca pearls, which they coat with honey and then cook in-house. The pearls have a strong following, to the point where recent collaborations with Concourse Coffee and Deadstock Coffee have offered Tea Bar’s wonderful boba as an add-on to any drink.
My go-to order at Tea Bar is usually the vanilla rose milk tea, but lately I’ve been branching out to their fruit drinks, including a very good guava purée that’s great with jasmine tea.
Yi-Fang (8136 SE Foster Road) — Yi-Fang is part of a Taiwanese chain with locations around the country, owned by individual franchisees. Yi-Fang was one of the first places in Oregon to offer sago (made from the pith of palm trees) as an alternative to the classic tapioca pearls (made from the starch of cassava). Yi-Fang is my guilty pleasure: their menu is huge and is one of the rare boba tea menus where you can order anything and be quite happy about it. I recommend the Yi-Fang location on Foster, but there are also locations in Seattle and Bridgeport Village. I visit about once a week since they’re always adding new drinks to the menu. On my last visit, they had a series of peach drinks for summer, each featuring small chunks of peach in the finished drink. So much about what makes bubble tea great is the texture, and they are really elevating textures here.
The mango pomelo sago is my favorite order here. It’s consistently delicious and refreshing, wonderful in the summer, but honestly, I’ll drink it in the winter, too.
More drink options include grapefruit pith, purple rice and red bean. Yi-Fang’s red bean smoothie is excellent. This is a classic, traditional flavor in bubble tea, but here, you can try a red bean bubble tea made with real adzuki beans, as opposed to powdered flavoring. It’s a world of difference in terms of taste and texture, and I think it is a great example of how far craft bubble tea has come.
Seiji Nanbu (@seijisama) is a journalist and social media marketing professional based in Portland, Oregon. Visit his official website.
HERE’S WHERE WE’RE FEASTING THIS WEEK
by Jordan Michelman
By god it’s hot out! A thousand hours of sympathy and respect to the too-hot kitchens, and especially to the cart owners. Check hours and availability on Instagram to see who is open. This is a vital time to support the local restaurant community by ordering take-out or dining in.
Fresh-spun marionberry ice cream at Nico’s. Courtesy Nico’s Ice Cream.
I recently enjoyed smart, creative late-night Filipino at the Sunrice PDX service inside Deadshot, which is every bit as good as you’ve heard. We’re in peak Farmers Market season (more on that in the next issue), and I’ve recently been loving the Sunday market in Montavilla, with stand-out vendors including Tutuilla True Fish (fresh Native caught salmon), The Urban Acre (glowing city-grown produce and herbs), The Hummus Stop (fresh tabbouleh and lemon hummus), and Squirrel & Crow (flavorful tempeh, hopefully they don’t mind if I fry it in a little bacon fat), among other stand-out purveyors and kitchens at this market (don’t forget the fresh flowers). Speaking of tempeh, I enjoyed a busy Friday lunch at Fermenter, which is known as a home for krauts, kefirs, and pickles, but whose lunch service has really hit a notable stride in the last few months. Get the burger, get a salad, order one of the drinks, and try the sunflower raisin cookie. Speaking of lunch, the weekend lunch thalis at DesiBites in Beaverton should be on your radar—like a multi-movement concerto of flavors and textures, hot and cold, creamy and spicy, all utterly fresh and of a very high quality (don’t ever let someone tell you we don’t have great Indian food here in Oregon). The perfect hot weather summer snack might be the steamed, chilled artichoke with aioli at the new Pacific Standard inside Kex Hotel. Our heat wave strategy also includes a stop at Nico’s (pictured above), a fresh-spun fruit ice cream spot in Cully. Try the fresh marionberry with sprinkles and stay cool out there. All dispatches formatted for the curious and hungry, please send tips to email@example.com.
Jordan Michelman (@suitcasewine) is a Portland-based editor and writer.
WHAT WE’RE READING THIS WEEK (WITH HUNGRY EYES)
Katherine Chew Hamilton of Portland Monthly interviews Matthew Lightner, of the newly opened Okta in McMinnville. Michael Russell at the Oregonian visits Paradise Mariscos, the summer outdoor seafood pop-up at Güero. Janey Wong at Eater PDX talks to food truck operators partnering with brick & mortar operations to weather the heatwave. Andrea Damewood at the Portland Mercury runs down essential BLT specials in time for summer tomato season. At PUNCH, John McCarroll recontextualizes the complicated legacy of boomer wine critic Robert Parker. For The New Yorker, Hannah Goldfield goes Brazilian in Midtown at Ipanema. Goldfield is my personal favorite food critic working in America today, and her weekly column for The New Yorker is alone worth the price of a subscription. For Los Angeles Times, Bill Addison captures the moment at Pearl River Delta, an outstanding Cantonese restaurant in Los Angeles’ Chinatown.