Chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka reveals her top restaurant picks in PDX – Eats Abroad

Chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka in Portland, Ore. Photo credit: Olga Mazurenko.

Hometown: Buffalo Grove, Illinois
Occupation: Chef and Owner, Kachka
Years worked as a cook and/or chef: 10
Years lived in Portland: 5
Awards: Semifinalist, Best New Restaurant, James Beard Foundation (2015)
25 Most Outstanding Restaurants, GQ (2015)
Restaurant of the Year, Eater Portland (2014)

Go to Chef Morales’s shortlist

What is your earliest memory about food?

Playing in the vegetable garden at home. The smell of tomato vines is my favorite to this day.

Russian cuisine is one that has yet to go mainstream in the States. What were some of the initial reactions you received from diners after opening Kachka? And how did you know that Portland’s dining scene was the right one for your restaurant?

The most common reactions we got were just total surprise. And then there were a lot of people who would tweet things like, “Something I never thought I’d say – I’m craving Russian food right now!” after having eaten at Kachka. There was also a large group of people that came in to eat because they are homesick or because they used to eat this kind of food when their grandmother was still alive and hadn’t tasted these flavors since. So we would get people in tears, literally! It was so touching. I think that’s what most cooks want to do – connect with people through their stomachs – and it means the world that we are doing that.

Portland is the best city for Kachka. There is an openness and willingness to give everything a chance here. So while in other cities Soviet food might seem totally insane, it just fits in here in Portland.

If you had to name one personal favorite dish from your restaurants, which would it be and why? 

Oreshki cookies! Those make me feel like a kid again. These are one of my favorite things growing up and so I don’t think we’ll ever take them off the dessert menu.

Oreshki cookies from Kachka. Photo credit: Leela Cyd.

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

Yuzu: It’s a drive out to this suburban strip mall restaurant, but the izakaya food at this spot is the best around.

Dove Vivi Pizza: It’s deep dish. I’m from Chicago so I’ve had a slice or two, and this stuff is so much better than 99% of the deep dish out there.

Parish: Oyster happy hour! If you are not from the West Coast, you must have West Coast oysters. Parish is a wholesaler so their oysters are always amazingly fresh and they have a great selection.

Ha VL: A Vietnamese soup place.  They offer two different soups every day (closed on Tuesdays) and they are all delicious. I’m partial to the Monday crab flake and the Sunday Vietnamese turmeric. It’s open until 4 p.m. and they often close early because they have run out of soup. It’s on SE 82nd Ave which is chock full of other Southeast Asian restaurants and markets for exploring.

Describe your perfect “dining out day” in Portland.

Morning beverage: A small mocha and a canele at Courier Coffee.

Breakfast: A biscuit benedict at Lauretta Jean’s.

Lunch: Vada pav and a salty yogurt lassi at Bollywood Theater.

Snack: Something precious at Måurice.

Beer tasting: Breakside Brewery tasting room in Milwaukie.

Dinner: Anything at Little Bird.

Drinks: Hale Pele for a real tiki bar experience.

To sop up that alcohol: Fried chicken and jojos at Reel M Inn.

What’s your favorite neighborhood to dine out at?

I don’t think I have a favorite. I am always willing to travel for food, so the location doesn’t matter too much.

Any great watering holes you like to visit often?

I love sherry. Bar Vivant has a really good selection. There is a new ham bar called Hamlet that focuses on sherry-based cocktails that is also very good.

We have to ask: what’s your favorite food truck and what do you like ordering there?

A Yolko Ono at Fried Egg I’m in Love. A really satisfying breakfast sandwich.

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

The Elephants Deli at the airport is a good option for grab and go stuff.  Most airports have the same generic, preservative loaded items, but Elephants Deli is locally owned and seems to have cleaner/healthier options.  I do know the airport is in the middle of putting in a bunch of new restaurants and I am excited to see some better choices.

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

A good mocha is my guilty pleasure — one with real bitter chocolate that isn’t sweet as much as it is earthy and creamy.  It has to be an 8 oz – and don’t even think about anything but whole milk.  Anything bigger and the proportions are all off. Courier Coffee, Barista and the Coava on Hawthorne all make a proper one.

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

Pok Pok’s chicken wings.  They are one of those rare things actually live up to the hype and are totally worth waiting in line for.

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

Hood strawberries! They are in season in late May to late June most years. There is absolutely nothing better than going out to pick berries and eating them in the field. I like going to Sauvie Island because of the scenery.

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

Take a scenic hike in the Gorge (not technically in Portland, but pretty close).

Chef Morales’ Shortlist:

Kachka, 720 SE Grand Avenue (Buckman); Russian, dinner only daily.

Yuzu, 4130 SW 117th Avenue, Beaverton, OR; Japanese, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, closed Sunday.

Dove Vivi, 2727 NE Glisan Street (Kerns); pizza, dinner only daily.

The Parish, 231 NW 11th Avenue (Pearl District); Creole/seafood, lunch and dinner daily.

Ha VL Sandwich, 2738 SE 82nd Avenue (South Tabor); Vietnamese, breakfast and lunch daily.

Courier Coffee Roasters, 923 SW Oak Street (Downtown); coffee bar, open daily.

Lauretta Jean’s, SW 6th Avenue and SW Pine Street (Downtown); bakery, open Monday-Friday.
Second location: 3402 SE Division Street (Richmond); open daily.

Bollywood Theater, 2039 NE Alberta Street (Alberta); Indian, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 3010 SE Division Street (Richmond); lunch and dinner daily.

Måurice, 921 SW Oak Street (Downtown); Nordic-French, lunch only Monday-Saturday.

Breakside Brewery, 5821 SE International Avenue, Milwaukie, OR; brewery and taproom, open daily.

Little Bird Bistro, 215 SW 6th Avenue (Downtown); French, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily.

Hale Pele, 2733 NE Broadway (Grant Park); bar, open daily.

Reel M Inn, 2430 SE Division Street (Hosford-Abernethy); American, lunch, dinner and late night daily.

Bar Vivant, 2225 E Burnside Street (Kerns); bar, open Wednesday-Sunday, closed Monday-Tuesday.

Hamlet, 232 NW 12th Avenue (Pearl District); bar, open daily.

Fried Egg I’m in Love, 3207 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (Sunnyside); sandwiches, breakfast and lunch Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.

Elephants Delicatessen, Portland International Airport; deli, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Barista, 539 NW 13th Avenue (Pearl District); coffee shop, open daily.
Several locations available throughout Portland.

Coava Coffee Roasters, 2631 SE Hawthorne Boulevard (Buckman); espresso bar, open daily.

Pok Pok, 3226 SE Division Street (Richmond); Thai, lunch and dinner daily.

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Hood River, OR.

About the Chef: When Chef Bonnie Morales decided to open a Russian restaurant, her Belarusian parents were “very skeptical.” “[My husband and I] always emphasized that we were not marketing it to the Russian community, and they were most dubious of that. I think most Eastern Europeans are very surprised when anybody outside of that culture likes the food.”

The way Morales arrived at the concept for Kachka was through her own acceptance of the food she had grown up with. She had previously felt a sense of embarrassment because the ingredients and flavors in the dishes she was used to eating were so different from those prevalent in American food. But she credits her husband with her eventual full-on embrace of Russian cuisine.

“When we were dating, I would bring him to my parents’ house for dinner and he genuinely LOVED the food. I thought he was just kissing up to my mom, but he swears that it was genuine. My husband and I are both food-obsessed. It’s all we talk about. And I really trust his palate. So, it made me stop and look at the food through a different lens.”

In early 2014, Morales opened Kachka, which offers various hot and cold zakuski, or appetizers; comfort food dishes such as golubtsi (cabbage rolls); and a wide selection of vodkas from Russia, Europe, and the U.S. In its first year, Kachka was met with local and national acclaim, becoming one of Portland’s most buzzed-about restaurants.