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Best of 2020: Restaurants tackled major challenges

Restaurants have been on a roller coaster, and the ride isn’t likely to end anytime soon.

The metaphor for 2020 implies nail-biting, heart-stopping twists and turns, of course, rather than freewheeling fun, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to play havoc with restaurant operations across the country. Most eateries have been compelled to reinvent themselves, and many are feeling the strain. But the innovations emerging locally, the commitment to quality and the determination to carry on — albeit with carry-out — is commendable.

Tempo endeavored to expand its dining coverage early last year, about a month before the governor ordered statewide restaurant closures, excepting takeout. Months of hurdles and setbacks followed, but establishments rose to the challenge and served worthwhile, memorable meals. Here’s a look at the best of 2020:

Best patio

To its well-appointed patio in downtown Medford, Porters added fire-pit tables, enticing customers to brave the cold long past the typical season for outdoor dining. Counterparts with enough real estate around the region have erected canopies and awnings to keep winter weather at bay, in deference to the state’s latest pandemic-related precautions. Sheltered behind its brick edifice, Porters’ back patio is spacious yet discreet, overhung with Edison-style string lights, shaded by arbors and screened by lush foliage for an ambiance that makes a striking first impression. Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, Porters prepares a menu that matches its setting for old-fashioned yet timeless elegance. See porterstrainstation.com

Reinvigorating my relationship with sushi, Kobe’s outdoor perch above Ashland Creek is a soothing complement to the restaurant’s Zen-garden decor. Its patio an oasis above downtown Ashland, Hearsay Restaurant, Lounge & Garden evokes a secluded corner of The Great Gatsby’s estate in a lush, walled hideaway where happy hour specials served all day Sunday seem like a well-kept secret.

Best for families

There are outdoor dining options, and then there are BK Crossing’s 7 acres designated for “dining safely at a distance.” Open-air spaces on the Jacksonville campus owned by Brooke and Mel Ashland augment restaurant and event venues inside the circa-1908 former school building. Ordering from the School House Grill, guests can stay and play bocce ball and nine-hole miniature golf, kids can clamber around the playground and everyone can soak in the serenity of the property’s water features, lawns and well-maintained landscape. An obvious dining destination for little appetites, the grill prepares an attractively priced kids’ menu of grilled cheese, corndogs, fish ’n’ chips and burgers with fries, which earned an enthusiastic two thumbs up from my 5- and 7-year-old sons. Refocusing last summer on casual fare, the Grill restored with fall’s approach some of its German specialties and cold-weather favorites, including schnitzel, stroganoff, sauerbraten, pork shanks and beet casserole. The restaurant in November announced a temporary closure during the two-week, statewide “freeze” and remained closed through the holidays. See bkcrossing.com

Best grab-and-go

Building on the success of Ashland’s Falafel Republic, Burrito Republic’s walk-up window in downtown Ashland effortlessly circumnavigates the pandemic’s restaurant-related roadblocks. Owner Sam Jackson adapted Burrito Republic’s format from the one he developed for Mediterranean cuisine. Customers choose proteins as either toppings or fillings for three types of meals: a “bowl,” salad or namesake burrito. The spot also serves quesadillas, fresh-fried chips and churros and hand-smashed guacamole. The chile relleno plate, served with rice and beans, for $7.50 represents one of the menu’s best values. Using the eatery’s online ordering system is not only a customer convenience but safeguards the sidewalk at 46 E. Main St. against too many patrons squeezing alongside passersby. Or order using Burrito Republic’s self-serve computer touch screen and then take a stroll through Ashland’s Plaza or browse nearby shops. See burritorepublic.co

A similar setup with more authentic cuisine can be found at Lupita’s Taqueria in Grants Pass. This walk-up window boasts a much larger menu than Burrito Republic’s or even the typical taco truck’s and also provides plenty of seating in a pleasantly appointed porch. Owing to an adjacent public parking lot, it’s a cinch to access Lupita’s at 147 N.E. E St., in the block between Northeast Sixth and Seventh streets. With no shortage of competition in Grants Pass, Lupita’s menu board proudly proclaims its authentic Mexican food. Among four establishments’ chiles rellenos sampled last year, Lupita’s version was the best.

Best customer care

Sesame Asian Kitchen has gone the extra mile since early spring to reassure customers in trying times. This Ashland fixture offers not only takeout, online ordering and its own free delivery service within Ashland but even provides picnic mats for dining on the Lithia Park lawn directly across from its front doors on Winburn Way. Long boasting more streetside accommodations than other eateries in the vicinity, Sesame situates umbrella-topped seating at its main entrance, along with several prime spots on Calle Guanajuato, overlooking Ashland Creek. For diners who favor canine companions, Sesame welcomes dogs tucked underneath creekside or streetside tables. The restaurant also will supply water and paper bowls for pets’ portions of the feast. And humans of any dietary persuasion will find Sesame’s menu fastidiously defines its Southeast Asian dishes as vegetarian, vegan, gluten free and even “spicy.” Sesame’s Rogue to Go program also appeals to environmentally conscious customers. See sesameasiankitchen.com

Best value

Plenty of special restaurant deals and promotions attempt to assuage impacts of the coronavirus. But Freddie Lee’s Seafood Smorgasbord serves up everyday value in its to-die-for fried chicken. Under its crispy coating encrusted with salt and spices, the bird is tender, juicy and faultlessly flavored. Even the Texas Pete hot sauce that Freddie Lee serves on the side can’t compromise this chicken’s commendable crunch. Just five bucks affords two pieces — one white, one dark — of hand-battered poultry heaven. For another $1.50, customers get three pieces of dark and white meat, plus coleslaw. That’s just two-thirds the price of KFC’s three-piece meal. Granted, Freddie Lee doesn’t provide a biscuit and beverage for $6.50, but when the goal is bringing chicken home to the family, his high-quality version is the most affordable I’ve seen locally, whether at a mobile or bricks-and-mortar establishment. Find Freddie Lee’s fire engine red truck in front of Chevron on East Pine Street in Central Point. Order on DoorDash or call 458-220-9588.

New in 2020

Among the restaurants Southern Oregon welcomed last year, this column vetted Tap & Vine at 559 in Medford, Ruby’s on Genessee in Medford, Mam’s Happy Thai Express in Ashland, Clyde’s Corner in Phoenix and The Chicken Shanty in Medford, in addition to BK Crossing, Burrito Republic and Freddie Lee’s.

Closed in 2020

With nostalgic sighs, diners bid farewell to Morning Glory in Ashland, which closed after the owner’s seven-year effort to sell the beloved blue cottage that served hearty but gourmet breakfasts for more than 20 years. The community also mourned the loss of New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro of Talent and La Tapatia of Phoenix, both destroyed in September’s Almeda fire after more than 30 years in business.

More online

Sarah Lemon has relished the Rogue Valley’s dining scene for nearly two decades as one of the original contributors to Tempo’s dining column. Her palate has helped to judge some of the region’s culinary competitions and festivals. The former editor of A la Carte, the Mail Tribune’s weekly food section, she writes a biweekly column, The Whole Dish, and blogs and podcasts under the same name. Listen at mailtribune.com/podcasts and read more at mailtribune.com/lifestyle/the-whole-dish. Follow @the.whole. dish on Instagram, @thewholedish on Twitter or see facebook.com/thewholedish.

Bao buns are stuffed with shredded pork at Ashland's Sesame Asian Kitchen.{ }
The "Doner" kebab at Bigham Knoll Crossing in Jacksonville.{ }Photos by Sarah Lemon