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A year of Yum: Food writer rounds up the best foodie moments in Clark County in 2023

By Rachel Pinsky, Columbian freelance food writer
Published: December 29, 2023, 6:02am
8 Photos
Lemon meringue doughnut and chocolate covered doughnut from Nextdough Neighbor.
Lemon meringue doughnut and chocolate covered doughnut from Nextdough Neighbor. (Rachel Pinsky) Photo Gallery

When 2023 began, I never would have thought I’d end up interviewing Princess Diana’s personal chef in the Living Hope Church parking lot.

After decades of serving the royal family Chef Darren McGrady moved to Texas, reinvented himself as the Royal Chef, started a thriving fine dining catering business, and then opened a food truck with Vancouver-based Timothy Johnson. This whole situation made more sense when McGrady explained that he opened a food truck here to share one of his childhood favorites: fish and chips.

Another odd and unforgettable experience for me this year was dining in the dark at Wyld Pines in east Vancouver. I’m fascinated with how our bodies respond to food. Dining without sight helped me focus on my other senses and truly connect with the various courses and my dining companion.

In addition to these experiences, I also ate many memorable dishes. For the following list, I focused on things I tried for the first time in 2023.

Chef Darren McGrady (aka The Royal Chef) fondly remembers the fish-and-chip shop he visited on Fridays with his grandfather. McGrady’s lightly battered wild cod and chips served with mushy peas and curry sauce are a delicious ode to this decadent dish from his childhood.

  • Arancini at Nostra Tavola (8070 East Mill Plain Blvd., Vancouver; 360-433-9315)

Chef Jacob Malvini’s arancini offers a taste of his family’s food traditions. The tender risotto orbs filled with Italian sausage, ground beef, spinach, Grana Padano and mozzarella are rolled in crispy panko and served with a white wine, lemon and garlic sauce.

  • Miso barbecue shrimp with pork belly hush puppies at Feast at 316 (316 N.E. Dallas St., Camas; 360-210-7498)

I visited the revamped Feast at 316 in downtown Camas in May to check out the new decor and shareable menu. Chef Tim McCusker’s miso barbecue shrimp with pork belly hush puppies successfully combines big flavors. This dish arrives as a large iron skillet filled with plump shrimp swimming in miso broth. I couldn’t stop sipping the rich umami-enhanced broth. This would be enough elsewhere, but the shrimp also comes with a side of pork belly hush puppies and chive honey butter.

Simplicity in food can be exquisite. This trendy snack, often associated with millennials, is elevated by the flavorful, chewy whole-grain sourdough bread from Starter Bread. Trying this dish at Terrain led me to get a bread subscription from this Portland-based bakery so I could make avocado toast at home.

This seasonal bite at Willamette Valley Vineyards’ lush waterfront location is another example of simple elegance. It’s listed on the menu as roasted sunchokes but the root vegetable changes with the seasons. When I tried it in the fall, this wine-friendly starter arrived as crispy slices of fennel bulbs and celeriac root sprinkled with chili flakes served with a refreshing mint tahini dip.

Kristen “Krisey” Butler offers a taste of Southern cooking out of her bright blue food truck. An order of her crunchy cornmeal battered fried okra drizzled in Crystal hot sauce brings a taste of the Big Easy to Vancouver.

  • Smoked trout plate at Willful Wine Co at The Grant House (1101 Officers Row, Vancouver; 503-577-8982)

I can’t find a photo in my camera roll, but I know that the smoked trout I had at Willful Wine’s tasting room at The Grant House wasn’t a dream because I have witnesses. It was offered as an alternative to meat on their charcuterie plate. The fresh fish smoked on site provided a solid counterpoint to my glass of rosé.

  • Cheese tacos (memela) from Razo’s Tacos (various locations, including Vancouver Farmers Market, 605 Esther St.; 360- 518-2253)

Carbs and cheese are my go-to comfort food. Razo’s Tacos’ memela with a combination of fresh, earthy corn tortillas topped with crumbled queso fresco and handmade nut oil served with pickled red onions and salsa is a masterpiece.

  • MBT (mozzarella, basil, and tomato) pizza Bunny’s Pizza (205 N. Main Ave., Ridgefield; 360-887-7200)

Here’s another classic bread-and-dairy work of culinary art, this time from northern Italy. Bunny’s Pizza in Ridgefield offers its take on pizza tonda allá Romana at the downtown Ridgefield spot, which houses Bunny’s Pizza and Little Conejo Norte at various times. The thin, crackerlike crust provides that perfect foundation for this classic combination of mozzarella, basil and tomato.

  • Dutch baby from Cecilia (2520 Columbia House Blvd., Suite 108, Vancouver; 360-360-4884)

This custardy, massive pancake at Cecilia comes topped with a simple mix of butter, powdered sugar and half a grilled lemon — a nice mix of zing and decadence. It’s even better with a drizzle of Cecilia’s housemade syrup or slathered with the berry compote that is typically served with abuelita’s doughnuts.

  • Lemon Meringue Doughnut at Nextdough Neighbor (412 N.E. Fourth Ave., Camas; 360-873-6944)

I’m not a huge fan of doughnuts, but this light, three-dimensional, zesty confection won me over. This popular pop-up finally opened its permanent storefront in downtown Camas this year. The ownership has changed but the quality of the ingredients and the ingeniousness of the recipes remains.

Next year already looks sweet. Di Tazza’s new bakery and cafe at Padden Market Center just opened. Ice-cream shop Salt & Straw plans to open Jan. 5 on Vancouver’s waterfront. And an Eastern European bakery is coming to downtown Vancouver.

I look forward to eating my way through the next 365 days while continuing to share where to find the best food and drink in Clark County.

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Columbian freelance food writer