International Dining on Portland’s Alberta Street

by Teresa Bergen | Photo © Bollywood Theater

In the last 20 years, Portland’s Northeast Alberta Street transformed from a high-crime, boarded-up neighborhood to an artsy and popular district with boutiques and international dining options. Today, Portlanders head to Alberta Street for cheap but delicious tamales, vegetarian fine dining, and everything in between. Here are a few of Alberta Street’s best restaurants.

Bollywood Theater

Just like India, Bollywood Theater is awash in colorful details. Bollywood posters, photos and trinkets cover the walls. Diners eat samosas off steel plates and sip mango lassis from metal cups.

Chef Troy MacLarty, formerly of Chez Panisse, got interested in Indian street snacks while working in Berkeley. After traveling to India and much cooking experimentation, he nailed it. Not only do neighborhood people fill his restaurant, but Indians come from Portland’s suburbs to sample the foods they ate back home. MacLarty’s second location on SE Division Street includes a small Indian foods market. He added 30 seats to the Alberta location in early 2015.

The best way to enjoy Bollywood Theater’s food is to share small plates with a gang of friends. Choose from filling snacks like pav bhaji—potatoes, vegetables and spices served with buttered rolls, allegedly a favorite among the mill workers of Mumbai—and vegetable sides like julienned okra with chile and lime, or beets roasted with coconut milk and curry leaves. You’ll wonder how beets could possibly taste this good. Bollywood Theater’s menu appeals to omnivores, vegans and the gluten-free. Try an Indian drink, whether Kingfisher beer (available on tap) or lime and ginger

Bamboo Sushi

After a short-lived attempt to operate an izakaya—or grill-focused restaurant—on Alberta, Portland favorite Bamboo Sushi caved to public demand and switched to a standard sushi format. That makes three Bamboo Sushi restaurants in this local sushi empire. In eco-conscious Portland, the distinction of being the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant scores Bamboo big points. Fish are ethically sourced from plentiful and healthy populations by fishermen using sustainable practices. The restaurant’s power comes from renewable energy sources, the teak chopsticks are sustainably harvested and all paper products are recycled and biodegradable.

Most important, of course, is the sushi. Bamboo specializes in “fish flights,” which vary with the season. They offer three to five varieties of a single species, such as salmon in summer or sea urchin in winter. The extensive menu features traditional rolls, tempura, salads, and a special tasting menu for 2 people ($100) that includes many house specialties and finishes with sea urchin crème brulee.

Dar Salam

Dar Salam serves up an underrepresented corner of global cuisine – Iraqi. The two owners, Maath Hamed and Ghaith Sahib, boyhood friends in Baghdad, reunited in Portland after enduring years of war, hardship and moving between countries. Now they have created a beautiful space celebrating the best parts of a war-ravaged land.

Like many aspiring Portland restaurateurs, the friends started with a food cart. But soon they were able to move into a little green carriage house on Alberta Street. Now its golden walls are covered with framed family photographs, pictures of Iraq’s surprisingly varied landscapes and ancient cultures. Customers sit in regular chairs or lounge against red cushions on benches.

The food is similar to other Middle Eastern cuisine, but with a few specialty items. Marga, pureed chickpeas tinged with cardamom, is served with rice and salad. While Iraqis like their lamb and beef, Dar Salam bows to Portland demands by offering many vegan and gluten-free menu items. Desserts revolve around dates. Try gaemar, thick yogurt topped with date honey and served with flatbread, or dates rolled up with walnuts and coconut.