Blue Star Donuts’ Micah Camden on the best restaurants in PDX

Micah Camden, owner of Portland, Ore.'s Blue Star Donuts, Little Big Burger, and Boxer Ramen
Micah Camden, owner of Portland, Ore.'s Blue Star Donuts, Little Big Burger, and Boxer Ramen

Hometowns: Gary, Indiana and Salt Lake City, Utah
Occupation: Chef and Co-owner, Little Big Burger, Boxer Ramen, Blue Star Donuts, Son of a Biscuit
Years worked as a chef/restaurateur: 10
Years lived in Portland: 11
Awards/Accolades: Empire Builder of the Year, Eater (2013)
“My mom really liked my cooking.”

Go to Micah Camden’s shortlist

Name the top restaurants that you think every visitor in Portland should try. 

One of my favorite dishes in Portland is the flatbread at Lincoln Restaurant. The master recipe (which I’ve tried to steal on many occasions) stays the same. Chef/owner Jenn Louis griddles her dough so that the flatbread comes out crispy and seasoned perfectly on the outside, while still being light and chewy in the middle. The accoutrements change as the seasons do; my personal favorite is when she serves it with her chicken liver mousse and fig compote!

Another one of my favorite dishes is the seared steak and blue cheese salad at Park Kitchen. That salad is Portland famous, but only to the foodie set. It’s probably the most famous thing on the menu for as long as the restaurant has been around. Chef Scott Dolich sears his steak and cooks it a perfectly medium rare, then slices it, tosses in pickled red onions, blue cheese, an often-changing assortment of greens, and his house vinaigrette. Other restaurants in town have turned this salad into versions of sandwiches and all have paid homage to him by naming it the PK.

The next dish is not very well known in Portland, as it’s in the Ghetto of 82nd Street. It’s a Vietnamese baked catfish dish at Pho Van. The dish easily feeds two people and is a meal unto itself and also quite the eating experience. The fish – which takes 40 minutes to prepare and is about 18 inches long, is baked till crispy, covered in peanuts, scallions, ginger and fried shallots, and served with a veritable quantity of fresh herbs, fruits, vegetables, vermicelli noodles, rice paper and a few dipping sauces – is one of the best dishes I’ve ever had, period.

Portland has quite a few good-to-great pizza places in town, but Ken’s Artisan, in my opinion, is the best. The pizza that I get every time is the spicy Arrabbiata with a side of fresh arugula and flaked salt. This pizza is so simple: tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and Calabrian chiles. Grab a handful of arugula, fold your pizza over it, and you’ll most likely order another one before you leave.

My favorite thing to eat, my guilty pleasure is the croissant. And I’m proud to name Portland as having the best croissant this side of Paris. It’s made by Marius Pop at Nuvrei. His croissants, which are made every hour on the hour, are always warm, always flaky and always amazing!

Describe your perfect “dining out day” in Portland.

My day would start out driving to Nuvrei to grab one of the aforementioned croissants. I’d then go get a spicy Chai latte at Tea Bar in NE Portland. From there, I’d probably do lunch at either Harlow and get the Arcadian bowl with poached eggs, quinoa, sautéed veggies and avocado, or I’d head down the street and get the only thing on the menu at The Whole Bowl, which is essentially brown rice, black beans, black olives, cilantro, cheddar cheese and sour cream, and then covered in some kind of hippie-esque secret sauce. For dinner, I would go to any of the restaurants I mentioned up top and then for dessert, I’d drive to Tarad Thai and get the sticky coconut rice with mango!

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out at?

Portland proper is so small that you’re never more than five minutes away from an adjacent neighborhood, so I’m going to be generic and say Portland is my favorite.

What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking, and where do you go for these foods?

I love eating, period. All foods. So I’m going to recommend a few places that I absolutely trust the chefs when going to their establishments:

Le Pigeon: You better make a reservation, as this is one of the best restaurants on the West Coast and I’ve never had a meal there that I haven’t absolutely loved.

Luce: Very simple Italian fare, always rotating his menus, always dealing exclusively with small farms, very respected owner.

Ox: This place has the best oysters in town and also the best grill in town.

Smallwares: This chef is a NYC transplant and has done wonders for the Asian fusion sect of the Portland dining scene. She has an amazing palate and can do both brunch and dinner very well.

Any great watering holes you like to visit often?

I don’t drink, but I do socialize. The Multnomah Whiskey Library is probably the sexiest bar ever built and has the most extensively trained staff I’ve ever encountered. The drinks, I’ve heard, are both equally amazing at Expatriate and Angel Face, both located in NE Portland.

Since it’s Portland, we have to ask: what’s your favorite food truck and what do you like getting there?

Nong’s, hands down, and the only thing you can get at the cart that I go to is the chicken and rice. I get mine with extra chicken liver!

Since Eats Abroad is geared toward travelers, are there any restaurants or bars at Portland’s airport or hotels you would recommend?

No, sorry, I don’t do airport food.

What’s your guilty pleasure and where in Portland do you go to get it? 

The spaghetti with Mizithra cheese at The Old Spaghetti Factory. I’m not saying anything but that 🙂

What’s one dish that blew you away and left you wishing you came up with the recipe yourself?

The first time that I ate at John Gorham’s restaurant Toro Bravo, I ordered his salt cod (bacalao). I was so blown away that I went back to my restaurant and ripped it off my menu and have never tried to make it again since.

Samples at Tillamook Cheese Factory
Samples at Tillamook Cheese Factory

Are there any foods native to Portland or Oregon that you particularly like and that visitors should try to find?

Little known fact, Portland grows the best wasabi in the world. The only problem is that they export most of it to Japan. Other than that, I’d say it’s the cheese curds from Tillamook Cheese Factory at the coast. 

What do you love best about Portland’s food scene?

The vibe mainly. It’s a very casual town that serves up some very quality fare. There are many places that you can go in Portland that will serve you up amazing food without the typical attitude that you would come across in bigger cities offering similar food, Plus, it’s a very affordable city to eat out in and to eat out often in!

What is your earliest memory about food?

I was six years old. I had just got done watching an episode of The Frugal Gourmet on television. He was making broiled onions with butter. I ran to the kitchen afterwards to try my hand at cooking. Oven on broil, check. Cut onions in half, check. Place pat of butter on each half, check. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and place under broiler for 20 minutes, check!

Everything was great. The onions were buttery and perfectly salted. I took some up to my parents’ room and they loved them. The one thing I forgot to do – but in my defense, The Frugal Gourmet said nothing about was – to turn the oven off?! I practically burnt the kitchen down having left it on all night. Needless to say, my parents weren’t too happy about that.

Finally, what would you say is the one thing any visitor must see or do before leaving Portland? 

Other than eat at my restaurants, take my advice and eat at all the other ones that I have listed, then drive to the coast!

Micah Camden’s Shortlist:

Little Big Burger, 122 NW 10th Avenue (Pearl District); American, lunch and dinner daily.
Multiple locations around Portland.

Boxer Ramen, 1025 SW Stark Street (Downtown); Japanese, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 2038A NE Alberta Street (Alberta); lunch and dinner daily.

Blue Star Donuts, 1237 SW Washington Street (Downtown); doughnuts, open daily.
Multiple locations around Portland.

Son of a Biscuit, 2045 SE Division Street (Hosford-Abernethy); American, lunch and dinner daily.

Lincoln Restaurant, 3808 N. Williams Avenue (Boise); Italian/Pacific Northwest, dinner only Tuesday-Saturday, closed Sunday-Monday.

Park Kitchen, 422 NW 8th Avenue (Pearl District); new American, dinner only daily.

Pho Van, 1919 SE 82nd Avenue (Montavilla); Vietnamese, lunch and dinner daily.

Ken’s Artisan Pizza, 304 SE 28th Avenue (Kerns); pizza, dinner only daily.

Nuvrei, 404 NW 10th Avenue (Pearl District); pastries, breakfast and lunch daily.

Tea Bar, 1615 NE Killingsworth Street (Vernon); tea room, open daily.

Harlow, 3632 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (Hawthorne); vegetarian, breakfast and lunch daily, dinner Monday-Saturday.

The Whole Bowl, 4411 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (Hawthorne); vegetarian, lunch and dinner daily.
Multiple locations around Portland.

Tarad Thai, 601 SE Morrison Street (Buckman); Thai, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Le Pigeon, 738 E Burnside Street (Buckman); French, dinner only daily.

Luce, 2140 E Burnside Street (Buckman); Italian, lunch and dinner daily.

Ox, 2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (Eliot); Argentine/Pacific Northwest, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.

Smallwares, 4605 NE Fremont Street (Beaumont); Asian fusion, dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday.

Multnomah Whiskey Library, 1124 SW Alder Street (Downtown); bar, open Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Expatriate, 5424 NE 30th Avenue (Concordia); bar, open daily.

Angel Face, 14 NE 28th Avenue (Kerns); bar, open daily.

Nong’s Khao Man Gai, 609 SE Ankeny Street, Suite C (Buckman); Thai, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: SW 10th Avenue and SW Alder Street (Downtown), lunch only Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.
Third location: 411 SW College Street (Downtown), lunch only Monday-Friday, closed Saturday-Sunday.

The Old Spaghetti Factory, 715 SW Bancroft Street (South Waterfront); Italian, lunch and dinner daily.

Toro Bravo, 120 NE Russell Street (Eliot); Spanish, dinner only daily.

Tillamook Cheese Factory, 4175 Highway 101 North, Tillamook, OR; open daily.


About the Chef: For Micah Camden, the restaurant business didn’t come about in the most traditional way. After dropping out of high school, he embarked on a career as a makeup artist, working glamorous runway shows in Los Angeles, New York and Paris. He ultimately gave up that career to do what many only dream of doing: live on the beaches of Maui. But after a year, he decided to trade in his board shorts and sarong for an apron and knives. He had read a New York Times article saying that Portland was the next up-and-coming food town and that chefs there didn’t need to be classically trained to start a culinary career.

“MARK TWAIN ONCE SAID THAT YOU NEED TWO THINGS TO BECOME SUCCESSFUL: IGNORANCE AND CONFIDENCE. THAT IS LITERALLY ALL I HAD BEFORE MOVING TO PORTLAND. I’M CONSTANTLY SHOCKED AND HUMBLED THAT I AM WHERE I AM TODAY. … I HAVE HAD A LOT OF SUCCESS IN PORTLAND, HAVING OPENED 18 RESTAURANTS IN 10 YEARS, AND WHEN PEOPLE ASK WHO MY GREATEST INSPIRATION WAS OR WHO TAUGHT ME HOW TO COOK, I SIMPLY TELL THEM THAT IT WAS PORTLAND THAT TAUGHT ME HOW TO COOK.”

He worked at the kitchens of Yakuza and DOC before pursuing his own business ideas. Camden opened all of his concepts after seeing a lack of certain kinds of food in specific neighborhoods. Now, as the owner of a burger chain, ramen restaurants, doughnut shops and a fried chicken eatery, he’s become the unofficial king of comfort foods in Portland. His dining empire of fast casual restaurants will expand in May to include a hot dog joint called Hop Dog, featuring both classic dogs and those inspired by Vietnamese and Greek flavors.

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