Ricky Bella, longtime Portland chef and social media star, now heads Palomar’s kitchen

It was a long line of mostly unfortunate events that brought Palomar and Chef Ricky Bella together, but now everything feels the way it should be.

COVID hit both Palomar, the bustling Cuban bar on Southeast Division Street, and Bella, who worked alongside Chef Doug Adams as Executive Chef at the Bullard, hard. Palomar temporarily closed during the pandemic’s harsh first winter while Bella struggled to keep Bullard open.

But Palomar reopened and Bella left Bullard and hopped between a few different posts, including one with Jojo. Then in September, Bella, a Portlander who grew up learning to cook his grandmother’s recipes, took over the burners in Palomar’s kitchen and reignited the space by blending the flavors of his Mexican-American heritage with the Cuban staples of the restaurants interwoven.

Oh, God help me, I’ll quote the Grateful Dead in a moment: Every silver lining has a touch of gray.

In 2018, a ww Reviewer called Palomar “almost as much a restaurant as it is a bar.” I can confidently say that it is now both equally.

It’s best to skip through all sections of the skimpy, one-page menu, but there are a few non-negotiable starters. First is the ceviche de camarones ($15) made with Peruvian leche de tigre, or tiger’s milk, the traditional citrus marinade that cures the sweet shrimp to succulent satisfaction. The dish gets its richness from avocado, texture from cucumber and more acidity from diced pineapple, and it’s served with mariquitas, plantain chips, as a side. It’s a signature dish from a chef who’s been waiting for the chance to create his own menu.

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The beef tartare ($16) also gets a Latin twist, with jalapeño, cilantro, and a pile of crispy strings of sweet potatoes joining the more traditional capers, smoked paprika, mustard, and egg. All of the produce-based dishes were outstanding as well, from a classic Mexican melon salad with tajín ($7) to the incredible remolachas ($9), beets on goat’s cheese topped with avocado and spiced peanuts.

Entrees are better for sharing, from the lechon con mojo ($16), a herb and citrus braised pork, to the solid frita cubana ($13), the California burrito with burgers, a beef and pork patty with cheese and onions , generously topped with potato threads.

The Camarones Con Tamal ($16) featured four absolutely ideal shrimp: we’re talking properly seasoned, fat, and tender. But the coconut tamal ($16) was a bit jarring — spoonfuls of soft grits contained chewy, thick slices of dry coconut, creating a contrast that wasn’t desirable. I would have preferred the coconut in the cooking broth rather than feeling like I accidentally ate a piece of paper that fell into the pot.

I’ll take a moment here to remind everyone to order a cocktail or three: The program is being put together by Palomar owner Ricky Gomez, known for his years of experience bartending at the on-site Ox and Teardrop Lounge as well as Commander’s Palace and Compère Lapin is his hometown of New Orleans.

The classics are always done just right: The mixed strawberry daiquiri ($13) is perfectly tart and sweet, and a Cuba Libre ($12) brings me back to my favorite college drink and reminds me that I was trash back then drank But spend time with the signature drinks, like the Matcha Flip ($15) with vodka, matcha, coconut, yellow chartreuse, and frothed egg whites, or the Martini ($14) with a pineapple-infused gin, like James Bond went to the Caribbean (and wasn’t weirdly racist or raped).

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Perhaps the most online chef in the business, Bella has a built-in following. He earned an entry in this year’s Best of Portland for his Twitter account @rickybellspdx, a mixture of Blazers fandom that cheered his line cooks and was overall hilarious. Specials like his Munchwrap, a version of Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme, are announced on Twitter and always draw hordes.

On a recent trip to Palomar I was confused by a line of about 10 guys on their phones waiting to get in. They were there to get a bottle. We scored the special of wings coated in Bella’s chipotle sauce, which was super smoky with a nice kick. I would argue that they are a mainstay.

I asked Bella (on social media, of course) how fusing his Mexican background with Cuban cuisine was going and he replied, “A funny man. Really funny. Only rule is fuck it? If so, serve it!”

In my humble opinion, that’s the only way to cook.

EAT: Palomar, 959 SE Division St., #100, 971-357-8020, barpalomar.com. 5pm-10pm Tuesday-Saturday.