Brent Braun

Half-Japanese sommelier Brent Braun is behind some of Portland’s coolest wine-driven projects. Having moved to Oregon from Southern California more than a decade ago, Braun has seen Portlanders’ collective creativity transform the city from meat-centric to green and the tastiest food carts to full-fledged restaurants. His black book of Portland addresses covers everything from where to find a good burger after a music gig to unexpected places where you'll find award-winning chefs cooking.
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What Makes Portland’s Food Scene Unique

Portland’s food scene is very DIY. One of the things that I think really differentiates it from larger US cities such as LA or New York is that it’s much easier for any chef to start something really quickly. Part of that is because our food cart culture is so vibrant. It doesn’t take a lot of capital to get a food cart open, and even the transition from food cart to brick and mortar is so much more affordable here. There are a lot more pathways and open doors for less well-funded chefs. It’s easy to make your name from essentially nothing to something. 

From Cart to Shop: Thai Khao Man Gai

Carts are a really great avenue for exploring regional dishes and cuisines that get kind of underappreciated. The cost of entry is so low and the experience for consumers is straightforward. It’s usually no-more than 10 bucks for something that ends up being fantastic. Your mind gets expanded and the people behind it get to share something they’re passionate about. James Beard finalist Nong Poonsukwattana was one of the original food cart superstars. Her Nong’s Khao Man Gai has been spoken about so much, but that’s because it’s just incredible. For over a decade it has focused on one Thai dish, khao man gai, a chicken and rice dish that’s executed perfectly. It started as a food cart and has transitioned to two small bricks and mortar around town. As it did when it was a downtown food cart, Nong’s makes that perfectly cooked dish accessible every day. There’s no decision fatigue, there’s no anxiety. You go for that one thing that you’re not going to make at home, and you know that it’s going to be great.

From Cart to Shop: Chinese Jianbing 

There’s a place called Bing Mi that does jianbing: these Chinese-style crepes that you don’t really see anywhere else. It’s street food so even if you find it at a Chinese restaurant, it wouldn’t be something you would order, but it is fantastic. Bing Mi also started off as a food cart, executes this one dish very well and has transitioned to a brick and mortar where it’s more reliable to get seating away from the sun or rain, and be able to get a drink with it. 

“A Really Important Part of the Portland Dining Culture Right Now”

Portland is extraordinarily white. It just is. But as far as Asian food culture goes, it’s surprisingly vibrant. There are Vietnamese restaurants on one side of the city and Korean barbecue restaurants on the other and everything in between. They’re an essential part of how we dine. A lot of it comes from the chefs of my generation (in their late twenties to early forties) and they cook the Asian food inspired by their families. They sometimes use French or Italian techniques that they’ve learned in culinary schools or in restaurants around America. These are some of the best and most interesting restaurants in this town and a really important part of the Portland dining culture right now. They have that “western dining sensibility” where they’ll offer a good wine (and sometimes cocktail) list. A lot of them lean towards being hip and modern, and play loud music, making them fun places to go to. Chef Peter Cho from Han Oak is at the forefront of this, and so are Nong Poonsukwattana from Nong’s Khao Man Gai and chef Diane Lam who has just opened Sunshine Noodles and it’s amazing. 

A Personal, Vietnamese Experience Like No Other

Chef Vince Nguyen put in time at Michelin-starred places around the world before opening Berlu, a tiny, 10-seat, sparkling-white place with a tasting menu. His food is hard to describe: it focuses a lot on broths and plays on texture. He’s a chef I know very well so I can kind of tell his story. He was open for about a year and was doing well, but then the pandemic hit and he could no longer do his tasting menu, so he started running the place as a bakery during the day. He’s Vietnamese but none of that influence showed in his tasting menu so he went back to Southern California which is where he grew up and tapped into his Vietnamese heritage. The bakery just took off. When it came time to relaunch the tasting menu, he shifted the entire concept to a modernist tasting menu with Vietnamese ingredients, techniques, flavours and textures. It took the place to a whole other level. To eat his tasting menu is to have a very unique experience filtered through this person’s inspirations. There’s no precedent to what he’s doing because it’s truly the creation of his mind and it is just stunning. You try textures that may seem familiar in Vietnamese food, but you’re experiencing them in a buttermilk caviar dip for example. You don’t really understand what’s happening, you’re just along for the ride. His concept is a tightrope to walk because it can easily get fusion-ish or unfocused but he just nails it. Reopening with this theme elevated Vince to one of the greatest chefs in Portland. His tasting menu is one of the most compelling I’ve ever had. The fact that it’s in this tiny, understated place really adds to the element of surprise. 

The Shift to Vegetables

Portland has always been a very locavore town, but when I moved here 12 years ago, it was very meat-centric. It was the era of whole animal butchery and since we have easy access to pig farming,  it was very pork-heavy. Portland has changed a lot as a city over the last seven years: in the last couple of years, specifically, we saw it switch to a veg and health-centric mentality, almost emulating parts of Southern California with grain bowls and lighter meal options. It’s really hard to pinpoint what the average Portlander eats but pretty, assembled vegetable bowls that photograph well are kind of the zeitgeist right now.

Leisurely, Wine-Fuelled Lunches Cooked by an Iconic Portland Chef

Ripe Cooperative is my current obsession. It is the new venture from Naomi Pomeroy who was the chef at Beast. She’s one of Portland’s most iconic, award-winning chefs and Beast was a fantastic restaurant that closed during the pandemic. Part of it was because Beast had said so much over the years and she was ready for a transition to something new. Ripe Cooperative has a European cafe feel and invites you to have extended lunches paired with a nice wine selection. I went there two Saturdays ago with some friends. It was a rare sunny winter day and most of the seating at Ripe is around a big patio since the space inside is very small. We got there around noon with the plan to have a leisurely, drink-some-Champagne style lunch. I think there was one other table at first. I knew that getting people to relax and have a glass of wine during the day can be tricky in Portland, and in a lot of American cities in general. But we started getting some food and by two o’clock the place was completely packed, which is actually what you want on those long, day-drinking afternoons. I was so happy for her. The food she serves is just incredible: very focused with very clean flavours and high quality ingredients. It’s well-executed pastas, oyster platters and beautiful chicory salads, plus Naomi bakes her own bread there. There’s almost nothing like it in Portland, and you’re getting to try food from a woman who’s won a James Beard award and was nominated for multiple others, but at four in the afternoon on a Saturday.

“The Best Pizza City in the World”

Portland’s pizza scene is incredible. New York pizza chefs and pizza writers say that, “pound for pound, Portland is the best pizza city in the world.” I concur. The best of our pizza stacks up with the best pizza I’ve had anywhere in the world. Lovely’s Fifty Fifty has always been my go-to for pizza in Portland. Co-owner chef Sarah Minnick might encapsulate the spirit of Portland in this place better than any restaurant in the city. She was early in pioneering long-fermented, sourdough pizza. You can clearly tell that they’re seasonally inspired pizzas, but she gets creative with them. I don’t usually like seasonal veg on pizza – I’m much more of a traditionalist – but Lovely’s breaks that mould for me. In summer it’s corn, peach and pancetta, and she just nails the proportions and choice of local cheeses. She offers a natural wine list that’s very concise and all the things you want to be drinking. She also makes her own ice cream and it’s incredible. 

A Tiki-Thai Barbecue Restaurant that Could Only Exist in Portland

I love a restaurant called Eem. It’s “very Portland” in the kind of collaborative sense it has. It  opened a few years ago and was a team-up between a well-known cocktail specialist; a pitmaster who was considered the only true Texas-style barbecue master in Portland at the time; and our most highly regarded Thai chef who’s done high-end tasting menus and runs casual spots around town. They came up with the idea of serving a really fun, Tiki-esque cocktail menu with Thai curries using the highest quality barbecued meats. Think barbecued brisket fried rice, white curry with pulled pork and yellow curry with grilled lamb. It is all just fantastic. I think Eem solves one of the fatal flaws in Asian dining of getting a curry that’s really good but the meat is oftentimes a weak point. On their own, these might be the best curries in town: here they come with these rich, smoky meats. Add to that a fun party vibe with great cocktails and you end up with a really special place that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world because it’s such a goofy, made-up concept. 

A Homage to One of the Greatest Wine People in Portland

Davenport is the clear-cut number one in this city for wine geeks. It’s a tiny, 20-seat restaurant with a very seasonal, European menu of very clean and focused dishes and is one of the few places in Portland with a vibrant, wine-drinking lunch culture. For most of its existence, it was run as a partnership between chef Kevin Gibson and a wine guy called Kurt Heilemann. The wine program is really special. Kurt was buying so much wine, marking it down so low and opening very rare bottles: Champagnes, rare chenins, rare Burgundys, all from integrity-driven producers. He wasn’t messing around in the natural wine world per se. A lot of the producers he collaborated with were working mostly naturally, just because a lot of the great producers of the world have followed biodynamic or organic farming for decades. The bottle list is chock-full of reasonably priced treasures that restaurants in big cities would have for double the price. The importance of not hoarding bottles is something I gleaned from him: the idea that if you wanted to drink something to just drink it even if it may be too young. Crazy things were opened by the glass, or he just poured you a half-glass of something and it turned out to be something rare. He got rid of that fourth-wall formality that you often have between a guest and a wine director. He was straightforward about what he has and what it costs. He’ll swing you a deal if you gave him one glass of a rare bottle which he was happy to open and lift that veil to make sure you drank some delicious stuff. 

He is legendary and built a culture in that restaurant where it was okay to bring in wine if you had wine that was worthy of bringing in. He wouldn’t charge a corkage fee as long as you bought a bottle or two. Local collectors and somms were always bringing wine. It was a place of decadence because everyone always had more wine than they could drink and wine was getting passed around. The older wine collectors loved it because they didn’t see the value in drinking their blue-chip bottles at home. They got to share it with the younger generation who got to taste things that were way out of their price range. In return, the younger generation exposed some hot new producers. Davenport fostered an amazing community that is hard to manufacture. Unfortunately Kurt passed away recently, which was a huge tragedy for the wine industry, but his second-in-command has taken over and managed to keep the same spirit alive. 

A Wine Bar by Winemakers

Les Caves is one of my go-to wine bars. Like most bars, it doesn’t have much to say as far as food goes – although they make really good grilled cheese sandwiches – so you really go there for the wine. I can speak more for the west coast than I can for the east coast, but there was this kind of lull from 2012 to 2016 where wine bars were places that your parents went to: places called “sip” and “drink” with a lazy cheese plate type of thing. Les Caves brought back the hip, modern wine bar, pouring rare, interesting, esoteric and natural-leaning stuff. As the name suggests, it’s in an underground, cave-like space. You go down a back alley, wander down some backstairs and find this really intimate place with 18 seats. Owners Ksenija and John House and Jeff Vehrs are winemakers and their wines are always available to try. They’re always looking for delicious, boundary-pushing things and it’s all so affordable. You end up drinking rare things there that you would pay a lot more for in other places.

A Wine Bar With Great Music

Bar Norman is my other go-to wine bar and is a really charming spot that you just want to stay in all night. It has the classic, big chalkboard with whatever they’re pouring that night and it’s all natural-focused. The owner Dana has been a wine buyer and sommelier for like forever, so she has access to rare treasures. She’ll sometimes be pouring something I only got offered three bottles of at my restaurant, and that would be my chance to try it by the glass. She’s always changing the pour so there’s a lot of excitement in drinking there. The open floor plan is set up to allow for mingling. It’s easy to sit at the bar and end up scooting on to a friend’s table. Her husband Scott is a well-known DJ and plays here on weekends. 

Fun Wines and Casual Food From a Chef with Michelin Pedigree 

Ok Omens initially opened as a kind of hybrid wine bar with a kitchen that serves small plates. It started as a passion project between myself, Monique Siu who owns Castagna and Justin Woodward, who was the chef there. All of us worked together at Castagna and opened Ok Omens quickly and with little money. The space that we inherited felt more like a restaurant than a wine bar so we had a little bit of an identity crisis but after some remodelling over the pandemic closure, we reopened in April [2022] and it looks like a totally new place. Justin is a five times James Beard winner and one of the most awarded chefs in town. He was serving a high-end, Michelin-star tasting menu. This was an opportunity for him to cook much more humble, playful and experimental food. It was still seasonal, but really eclectic and wine-friendly since we work a lot with wine. We pivoted to the idea of a restaurant where you’re coming to eat Justin Woodward’s somewhat casual but delicious dinner, along with an array of interesting wines that are on the natural side. The wine selection has a smattering of different things from natural to classical, all by integrity-driven producers. Our cellar is pretty deep, so we have a lot of high-end, aged bottles. There’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the entire dining experience. It’s immediately clear that we don’t take ourselves or wine too seriously, which I think is good for disarming people into having a good time and exploring new things without feeling any kind of intimidation. 

Experimental, Consumer-Friendly Wines 

I started Post Familiar during Covid-19 with Jordan Sowers, a designer who’s become a friend. We get together with producers who focus on natural and sustainable production and ask them about what they’re interested in exploring. Maybe that producer has only made pinot and chardonnay, but wants to experiment with syrah but that doesn’t really fit under their brand. Or maybe there’s one acre of pinot gris planted on a vineyard and the winegrower doesn’t really want to deal with it. This is where we can step in and take some of the burden off. In 2020, we had an experiment with a producer who made his first cider apple and grape co-ferment. From there he continued exploring this grape-apple hybrid by making a rosé wine and apple cider, then blending them together. We re-fermented the drink in the bottles and labelled it as pet-nat and it’s incredible. It got bottled under the Post Familiar label in collaboration with the winemaker so that it’s really clear who we’re working with. The natural wine world made wine more fun with artwork and cartoons, but the bottles still don’t tell you what the wine tastes like. Jordan wanted to find a way to make wine more consumer-friendly and got rid of the stuff that isn’t useful to 90 percent of drinkers. Instead, he prints descriptors and tasting notes so that new wine-drinkers don’t have to decipher through anything. 

Coffee in Portland

As far as coffee goes I will always be loyal to Heart. They were my first experience with great coffee: the high-acid kind that celebrates tomato-like qualities. I love them. There’s also a little sleeper place in town called Keeper Coffee. Publications and restaurant people never talk about them although their coffee is solid and their baked goods are incredible. The selection is so robust for such a small place but everything is fantastic, whether it’s a cup of coffee, a pastry or a cookie. The owners are two best friends who aren’t classically trained and just started doing their thing in a little space and expanded to a slightly bigger one. Sometimes when you don’t come up through traditional channels you don’t get press right away because nobody knows who you are but in some ways, this lack of classical training has unencumbered them to do whatever they want. It’s a cool testament that everyone who comes in falls in love with it and keeps on coming back. 

“It Should Be the Kind of Place That Everyone Talks About”

Oven and Shaker does not get nearly enough love in this city. It’s a partnership between legendary bartender Ryan Magarian and Cathy Whims – another one of our famous, heavily-awarded chefs and the owner of Nostrana which might be Portland’s busiest restaurant. Their idea was to open a place that serves Nostrana-style pizzas with cocktails. I love cocktails, but I don’t like cocktail bars: I don’t want to wait that long for a cocktail if there’s nothing to eat with it, so getting cocktail bar quality with perfect wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas is perfect for me. You can make a reservation or just pop in for a casual dinner. The space is big and dynamic enough that it feels like you can always squeeze in at the bar. It’s in the Pearl, which is maybe not the hippest part of town, but I take any chance I get to go to Oven and Shaker because I love the experience. It should be the kind of place that everyone talks about, but the food press in Portland doesn’t give the Pearl District a lot of love because it’s kind of the hoighty-toighty area. 

Music Venue With Great Burgers

I love Mississippi Studios. It’s a mid-sized music venue that’s usually not expensive to get into and has a well-curated program of touring and local acts. It has incredible sound for a venue its size and is very Portlandy. There’s a bar attached to it called Bar Bar where you can eat without having to go to the venue. It serves little burgers, cocktails and beers. The burgers and the fries are so good. It has a huge outdoor patio on Mississippi Avenue, which is one of the city’s most vibrant streets. The patio has a big projection screen: if a [NBA team] Blazers game is on, that would be playing, otherwise it’ll be old movies. It’s such a great hangout, plus going to a show and having a casual burger beforehand on this gorgeous outdoor patio is a real perk. I was down there with my girlfriend a couple of weeks ago and the show we wanted to go to was sold out but it didn’t matter. We were already there, so we just sat on the patio and had burgers and drinks. 

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