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A look back at the most memorable meals of 2021

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Fried rice with pork belly is one of the “amazingly delicious” dishes at Sid’s Gourmet Smoke-N-Grill food truck in Medford. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
A bagel with lox and a side of fresh fruit for $9 is a notable value at Medford’s Sharp Delicatessen. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Skout Taphouse and Provisions serves pub fare and craft beverages alongside Ashland Creek. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Stone’s Jamaican Roots & Juice opened as a mobile eatery in 2021 after the restaurant burned in 2020’s Almeda Fire. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Club sandwiches are a kid-tested favorite at The Wild Goose Cafe & Bar in Ashland. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Culichi Seafood and Grill serves authentic Mexican cuisine in west Medford. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Desserts at Medford’s Decant evoke European tradition. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Dunbar Farms tasting room is a rural respite in east Medford. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Sunday brunch is Honeysuckle Cafe’s Jacksonville pop-up after the east Medford restaurant closed in 2020. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Headlining oysters and raw seafood, Ashland’s NAMA raised the caliber of local cuisine with its September debut. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
Housemade quiche costs $6 at Medford’s Sharp Delicatessen. Photos by Sarah Lemon.
House-brewed hibiscus tea and OMGinger beverages pack a punch at Sid’s Gourmet Smoke-N-Grill food truck in Medford. Photos by Sarah Lemon.

Restaurants’ roller-coaster ride, I foreshadowed in 2020, wasn’t likely to end anytime soon.

A year later, local food service players haven’t just held on amid the coronavirus pandemic and devastating wildfires but summoned near superhuman reserves of strength — even enthusiasm for their industry. Observing trials and tribulations, this column instead focused on stories of resilience, innovation and energy, which define this look at 2021’s most memorable restaurant meals.

Best Comeback

Literally raising his business from the ashes, Strickland Stone opened a mobile eatery less than a year after Stone’s Jamaican Roots & Juice burned to the ground in September 2020’s Almeda Fire. Not even the total loss of his restaurant — less than two months after its relocation from San Rafael, Calif. — could move Stone from the community with which he “fell in love” after catering an event at Jackson WellSprings.

Stone’s food truck sees so much love at special events around the region that it can be hard to pin down during the regular lunch and dinner hour. But the payoff is plates of iconic jerk, fresh squeezed juices and island specialties harder to come by on the West Coast.

It pays to track down Stone earlier in the day, before he sells out of such favorites as jerk salmon and oxtail stew. Jamaica’s national fruit, ackee with vegetables is a delight, and Stone’s humble peas and rice alone are worth the visit to his regular parking spot at 115 W. Valley View Road, adjacent to Talent’s roundabout and behind Talent Market and Liquor Store and Green Valley Wellness. The truck typically operates from noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Also rising above adversity, Colin Cox and Monique Cordova tapped industry friends and resources to bring the best of Honeysuckle Cafe to Gogi’s kitchen and dining room every Sunday in Jacksonville. Honeysuckle Brunch has enjoyed a steady following since its summer debut on the heels of Cox’s and Cordova’s 2020 closure of their east Medford restaurant. See thehoneysucklecafe.com.

A beloved breakfast menu returned to Ashland this year under new owners. Morning Glory closed for three months while founder Patty Groth finalized its sale to longtime Ashland residents Dave and Marge Bernard. See morninggloryashland.com.

Outdoor Dining

Seating customers outdoors steered many restaurant efforts this year. And the trend isn’t likely to subside, judging from establishments that didn’t just move tables onto sidewalks but designed operations for open-air service.

Boasting roll-up doors and perches on Calle Guanajuato alongside Ashland Creek, Skout Taphouse and Provisions replaced Tom and Lisa Beam’s Sesame Asian Kitchen. This coveted location facing Lithia Park — outfitted as a casual eatery with 60 beverage taps — encourages customers “to have fun again.”

In colder weather, the establishment the Beams envision as part mountain lodge, part campground, has chairs around fire pits. Skout also touts itself as “dog-friendly.” See skoutashland.com.

Next door, Osteria La Briccola’s expansive second-story dining room spills onto decks overhanging Ashland Creek. Serving handmade pastas and other traditional Italian fare, the restaurant is operated by industry veterans Davide and Sherri Ghizzoni, who relocated from Southern California after finally finding a home for their cuisine in Ashland. See osterialabriccola.com.

The family estate of Emily, David and Ali Mostue has grown from pear orchards to diversified farm with a fully fledged food and wine experience. Dunbar Farms is a rural respite smack dab in the middle of east Medford, where views from its tasting room terrace toward the Table Rocks offer almost as much sustenance as dishes prepared in the farm’s kitchen from ingredients grown on site. See dunbarfarms.com

DANCIN’s winery estate affords lavish outdoor accommodations, including two expansive seating areas spanned by permanent covers. Live music frequently accompanies the Medford vineyard’s conscientious wine service paired with a casual, Italian-inspired menu. See dancin.com.

Lush gardens at Ashland’s Alchemy Restaurant & Bar echo seasonally inspired menus of chef Michael Bryant, also helming the new Chateaubriand 36 across South Second Street. See alchemyashland.com and chateaubriand36.com.

Grab and Go

Nimbly navigating industry roadblocks — namely staffing shortages and price increases — food trucks accelerated over the past year and show no sign of slowing down.

This proliferation can be seen on local street corners and in parking lot “pods.” The best operations, however, maintain fixed locations outside warehouses or related storefronts.

In Medford’s fruit-packing district, Sid’s Gourmet Smoke-N-Grill lives up to its superlative slogan “Amazingly Delicious,” serving the best meal I had all year from a local food truck. It comes by way of New York City, where Sid grew up after emigrating from Cote d’Ivoire. His dream of opening a restaurant or food truck led him and his wife to Medford, and the couple have plans for expansion while building a strong food community around them.

Simple dishes — sandwiches, fried rice, beans and macaroni and cheese — and house-brewed beverages attain commendably complex flavors under Sid’s purview. Now I just need to try the recipe that inspired it all: Sid’s ice pops, freshly made with peak-season fruits. See sidsgourmet.com.

Also specializing in smoked meats, Goebel’s Country Store serves barbecue so authentic that the word isn’t necessary in its name. The aroma of this Shady Cove shack’s wood smoke is enough to summon travelers off Highway 62, and the Texas-style fare is worth locals’ trek from Medford and surrounding cities. “Family packs” are enticing takeout options. See goebelscountrystore.com.

Value

A one-stop shop for take-and-bake entrees, prepared side dishes and gourmet pantry staples, Sharp Delicatessen & Marketplace also traffics in lottery tickets. Fortunately, Sharp’s menu leaves plenty of money left over for gaming.

The south Medford eatery served the best bagel and lox I’d had locally in several years — for the ultra low price of $9. Breakfast sandwiches and quiches with impeccably fresh fruit cups also come at prices that can’t be beat. Lunchtime kids’ and seniors menus complement hot and cold sandwiches, soups and salads. See sharpdeli.com.

Family-Friendly

More than meals leave favorable restaurant impressions on kids. Burger Spot in downtown Medford entertains with retro pinball machines, video games and memorabilia. Wild River’s Medford pizzeria won over families nearly a year ago with drive-in movies and free giant cookies.

My 6- and 8-year-old sons crowed, however, over the upscale diner menu at The Wild Goose Cafe & Bar. And I swooned over the Ashland establishment’s perfectly fried oysters piled on a classic po’boy.

Club sandwiches and French dips at The Goose were my boys’ top picks among our family’s 2021 dining forays. The Ashland establishment long known among locals for live music and open mic nights also makes young families right at home. Along with a kids’ menu, The Goose offers online ordering, curbside pickup and delivery within Ashland. See wildgoosecafe.com.

New in 2021

A destination for oyster aficionados, Ashland’s NAMA elevated the caliber of local cuisine with its September debut.

Bringing the prestige of Napa Valley wine country to Southern Oregon, Decant opened in the former location of Medford’s Cafe Dejeuner.

HRL Brewery & Pubbery installed itself in a former Medford cabinet shop while Ghostlight Grille and Tartine Brunch Club toast midday meals in downtown Medford.

Blue Royal Indian Cuisine has a new lunch buffet eight months after opening in east Medford. Across town, Culichi Seafood and Grill serves authentic Mexican specialities.

Hawaiian fusion is the bill of fare at The Millennial in Rogue River, and traditional Brazilian baked goods inspire the gluten-free menu at Ashland’s Vida Baking Co. The teatime ritual is steeped in kitsch and charm at Lovejoy’s Tea Room in Ashland.

Closed in 2021

Mazatlan Grill made local headlines for its summer closure in Central Point, where Comal is in the works.

Tartine owners operated Xilakil Latin Fusion in south Medford for almost three years before its September closure.

After reinstating German cuisine in 2021, Jacksonville’s Schoolhaus Brewhaus announced it would be on “break” until better conditions return in the spring.

Grants Pass’ VINFARM quietly closed its doors in the spring after operating for less than three years as the sister establishment and tasting room of Wooldridge Creek Winery in the Applegate.

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.