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A bite of Spain in Portland, Oregon

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Words: Lucy Burningham
Images: Toro Bravo

Chef John Gorham (above) opened Toro Bravo after a string of professional cooking gigs in Northern California and Oregon. In the early 2000s, he was a part owner and cook at Simpatica Dining Hall in Portland, a catering business and restaurant that became famous for themed family-style dinners. Gorham slung a few tapas dinners into the mix, which included a wood-fired paella that got people talking.

He decided to open Toro Bravo based on the success of those dinners. As Gorham tells it in “Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull,” a cookbook he co-wrote with Portland food writer Liz Crain, the idea wasn’t to deliver an authentic Spanish dining experience, but to offer the essence of the country’s small-plate tradition in a convivial environment. By using high-quality local ingredients, and a bevy of imported Spanish ones, the food would sing. These days Gorham, who has visited Spain five times since he opened Toro Bravo (including the time he cycled the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route across northern Spain), says the menu is more Spanish than ever before.

“A couple of years ago, we decided that anything that wasn’t 100-percent Spanish would leave the menu,” he says. “I’ll stand up and tell anybody where in Spain each dish on our menu came from.”

When you go to Toro Bravo, be prepared to wait no matter what time you arrive. If the weather’s nice, fritter away the time at one of a handful of sidewalk tables, where you can share a small pitcher of sangria. Or go next door to the Secret Society, a dark, romantically lit second-story bar that’s famous for absinthe and Moscow Mules.

Once you’ve been seated in the restaurant, at a table, the bar or the chef’s table—a bar attached to the open kitchen—you can order small plates in waves from a menu that begins with the smaller pinchos, tapas and charcuteria boards and ends with heartier entrées, the raciones.

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ASPARAGUS WITH FRIED JAMON


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SEARED SCALLOPS WITH ROMESCO


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MOORISH MEATBALLS


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MOROCCAN TUNA


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COPPA STEAK


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GRIDDLED SHRIMP WITH CHILIS


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PAELLA


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SMOKED PORK SANDWICH


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DRUNKEN PORK WITH AVOCADO SALAD


Don’t miss the house-made cured meats, especially one of Gorham’s favorites, the soft and peppery soppressata salami, or the grilled, bright-green padron peppers dressed only in olive oil and salt, which burst with juicy heat. A bowl of chopped radicchio coated with finely grated manchego is served with toasts piled with diced green olives, while handmade egg noodles often accompany braised meats, such as lamb with apricots and coriander. The squid-ink pasta comes topped with crushed hazelnuts and a runny egg yolk ready to be burst by a fork’s tine.

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The burger is famous and rightfully so, with an indulgent, Spanish-inspired layering of bacon, manchego, romesco and pickled vegetables. But to order the sandwich means fewer small plates and less sharing—which can feel like a sacrifice.

Finish the meal with caramel panna cotta, a flight of sherry, or a plate of Steve’s Cheese from Portland’s most famous cheese purveyor. If you can’t bear to leave the restaurant within its walls, grab a copy of the “Toro Bravo” cookbook, in which Gorham tells his own raw story before handing you the reins for menu classics including bacon-wrapped dates and coppa steak.

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TORO BRAVO 120 NE RUSSELL STREET PORTLAND, OR 97212 503.281.4464 TOROBRAVO.COM


No matter how you choose to leave Toro Bravo, you will have relaxed among the pulsing energy of a busy kitchen. You will have heard the sizzle of the paella pans and the rumble of the cocktail shaker. Toro Bravo always feels like the right place to be, not because of its reputation but because of every small bite. Spain feels neither here nor there, near or far.


More: lucyburningham.com

From issue 33. Buy it here. Or buy the Spanish 4-pack here.