Flurry of activity in Portland’s food scene includes new places for noodles, oysters and local meat

Though the forecast for the first week of July is bright and sunny, it’s raining restaurants in downtown Portland. A slew of new places, from a Vietnamese noodle house on Washington Avenue, to a steak-forward reinvention of Caiola’s in the West End, await eager diners. But first, what happened to Benkay on Commercial Street?

After two decades slicing sashimi in the Old Port, the casual sushi house on the corner of Commercial and India streets shuttered last month. But it’s not going far. Chef Rickie Akizaki said Benkay is moving to 16 Middle Street, the new, five-story commercial building under construction directly behind Micucci Grocery.

“We will open when the space is finished,” said Akizaki, at Kushiya Benkay on Congress Street, which remains open.

16 Middle Street, the new building that will house Benkay 2.0.

The new Benkay, facing The Residence Inn by Marriott, extends Middle Street’s manga miracle paved by Eventide Oyster Co. and Duckfat in this rapidly gentrified India Street hood. Condo dwellers rejoice!

What will happen to the key spot Benkay vacated? Akizaki said the building will be knocked down.

Meanwhile, at the nexus of East Bayside and Munjoy Hill, Washington Avenue is awash with food news. Cong Tu Bot, the pastel Vietnamese noodle house by way of California is days from opening.

Vietmase iced coffee (far right) is made slow or fast at Cong Tu Bot. A refreshing iced Jasmine tea is enhanced with ginger and pandan.

Owner Vein Dobui and wife Jessica Sheahan have assembled a tip-top team and a drinks menu that is as solid as their pho. Located at 57 Washington Ave, near Hardshore Distillery and adjacent to now-shuttered Roustabout, the 27-seater with garage door windows feels like a laid back winner.  

“The way you eat noodles in foreign countries is a 20 minute experience,” said Dobui, who is going for a dinner feel in the clean, pink and natural wood space. The menu says it’s OK to order by numbers. So go right ahead.

Dobui’s family has a noodle shop in Vietnam, where he learned to make yellow noodles from his uncle. Growing up in Southern California, noshing at noodle houses in suburban malls, his first restaurant incorporates both vibes. Look for a soft opening by the end of the week. Hours are 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every day but Tuesday and Wednesday.

Nearby, a new patio between Oxbow Beer and the rear of Coffee By Design has sprung up and it can only mean one thing. Rumors that Duckfat will serve food here has been confirmed by owner Rob Evans. But that’s about all the James Beard winner will share. Still cool space, right?

Duckfat and Oxbow have a collab in the works.

A few blocks away, Boston’s Island Creek Oysters space is shaping up on Washington Avenue. Staff has been hired, the space nearing the end of construction, but few details have been spilled. Again, the garage door theme means this anchor tenant is keeping with the thoroughfare’s relaxed, fast causal feel.

Over on the West End, the owners of Piccolo have taken the paper from the windows at Chaval on Pine Street. Co-owner Ilma Lopez said “tons of love” went into the space, formerly Caiola’s.

Pulling from the early 1900s to modern day, Lopez and chef/husband Damian Sansonetti are ready to reveal a new space and menu featuring local meat, butchered whole on the premises, and other hearty delights. What is on the menu? “We will not reveal it until we open,” said Lopez, sometime next week.

Kathleen Pierce

About Kathleen Pierce

A lifelong journalist with a deep curiosity for what's next. Interested in food, culture, trends and the thrill of a good scoop. BDN features reporter based in Portland since 2013.