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Posts from the ‘Portland’ Category

Chains of Love: Yard House

yard house facade

Despite possessing a master’s degree, I wouldn’t say that I’ve had an academically rigorous education. In art school in the early ‘90s we met credential-granting liberal arts requirements with classes where we read biographies of our choosing and essentially wrote middle-school level book reports. (A Korean exchange student brought in a copy of Stuart Smalley’s “I’m Good Enough, I’m Smart Enough, and Doggone It, People Like Me!” believing it was non-fiction.) There was one freshman class, though, Art and Ideas, where we were expected to take a more critical approach, or maybe it just seemed more serious since the instructor was British.

pioneer place food court 2

An early assignment was analyzing a regional landmark. I chose the newly opened Pioneer Place mall, as it was pure transitional 1990s–lots of muted pink and mint hues, curves and waves, glass block walls–and was trying very hard to convey an upscale atmosphere. It wasn’t clear who it was for since–at least in my mind–downtown was playground to panhandlers and street kids at the time. (They haven’t been pushed out in the New Portland of 2017, don’t worry–now, there are entire homeless camps under bridges, along medians, and behind bushes.) The only memories of that essay was that I got called out for the use of “sea foam green” which the instructor didn’t get.

pioneer place food court

 

More than 25 years later, and now Pioneer Place is dated (there is not a single photo of the mall on its website) and going through an aesthetic overhaul, which I discovered while passing through the drained fountains, shuttered food court to get to Yard House in an attempt to be a Darden completist. (Breaking news now means I’ll have to add inexplicably named Cheddar’s to my list. And I couldn’t justify a trip to Eddie V’s on my one weekend in Austin, the only city I’ve visited where the chain exists, so that’s a knowledge gap.) Also, I had a $40 gift card from my birthday that I had been saving for just the right occasion. 

vault

Based on the above hint, I’m guessing the new food court will be flush with reclaimed wood, hand-drawn chalkboard menus, and filament bulbs. Maybe an 18-year-old with middling writing ability can deconstruct it.

yard house duo

The Yard House is at its heart a sports bar, touting classic rock, vast and on multiple floors connected by a staircase (apparently it replaced a Saks in 2012) and to my surprise it was very full at lunch with office workers and an enormous table occupied by what seemed like a tour group. (I thought everyone ate at food carts downtown.)  It’s eerily dark because the bulk of the restaurant is in a windowless basement, booths, walls, and ceilings black semi-matte, lit primarily from the multiple TV screens.

yard house chicken sandwich

The menu is a mishmash of what-millennials-eat fare, despite the boomer-leaning rock angle: “street tacos” with a Korean short rib option, deviled eggs with candied bacon, poke nachos, and my choice, a Nashville hot chicken sandwich enlivened by “fried sage, sweet potato pancakes, pickles, ranch dressing, honey hot sauce.” Wow, that’s a lot of trends for one sandwich. I don’t have any recollection of sweet potatoes and the chicken, itself, wasn’t particularly spicy. The bun, not unusually large, muffled a lot of the expected distinct flavors. It was exactly what you would expect of a regional specialty filtered down to KFC and elevated by a gastropub-ish chain.

The previous night’s stay at the nearby Hotel Monaco, festivities kicked-off at 4pm with poutine and happy hour martinis at Red Star Tavern (Portland does have some of the best, most loosey-goosey-houred drink and dining deals), squeezing  in one $5 Vieux Carré at Imperial before the 11pm happy hour cut-off, continuing at Little Bird with the late night happy hour $7 (once $5 but now service-included) double brie burger, then prolonged until the wee hours in my room, meant that by noon check-out my insides were trying to escape my body. My first meal of the day was irrelevant, but I could’ve done worse than a free hot chicken sandwich eaten in a faded glory of a mall basement.

Yard House * 888 SW Fifth Ave., Portland, OR

 

International Intrigue: Afuri Portland

It recently dawned on me that I’ve become a townie.

This development is surprising since I didn’t grow up in a college town or go to school in a college town, which were one and the same, so that label has never had any resonance. But I’ve come to recognize the provincial symptoms: nostalgia for the bad old days, suspicion of the new, disdain for outsiders with seemingly more money than sense.

I wasn’t shocked that a bowl of ramen at the new(ish) Afuri in Portland cost twice as much as in Tokyo because like most modern humans I look at online menus before I dine at restaurants. And I’m not outraged. Objectively, it’s a really good bowl of ramen. I’m not saying it’s not worth $16 (even though Manhattan-priced Ippudo is $15). But food doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and this is as good as any example what’s weird with the New Portland.

Afuri is located in an area that now some like to call the Central Eastside Industrial District, three blocks from dive, My Father’s Place, that I used to call lovingly, “Cum on the Grill,” and just up the street from a friend’s $2,000/month design studio, which will triple in rent in a few short years.

franz

People in Portland are living in tents like it’s no big thing. Maybe everyone is too stoned to care? (Though the city, because it was traditionally do-goody, has always had a disproportionate amount of homeless.) I vaped nice and legal anxiety-quashing high CBC/low THC weed 75% of the days I was there (I was never a stoner in my youth, which is a feat in the NW) and still think there are way too many dispensaries and billboards advertising cannabis. Even local white bread Franz Bakery (that employed a delivery driver who rear-ended and totaled my parked Chevette in the late ‘90s—I will never forgive them) has cutely illustrated vans now saying “Get Portland Baked.”

Post-college, I lived on $425 a month, which my step-dude leaked to my Oregonian boyfriend a few weeks ago coupled with the advice,”Don’t ever apologize for being working class,” and the year I moved, 1998, I made roughly $14,000, the result of an $11 an hour, full-benefits, part-time (by choice) government job. (Library pages at NYPL in 2017 make $11 an hour.) Twenty years later, and practically no one I know, friends and family, makes over $40,000 a year in Oregon. (Though I haven’t a clue how much clothing design brings in, and I’m aware of an NYC transplant frenemy who earns $70,000, likely a step down salary-wise, and pays $1,800 for a studio apartment.)

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Why should I care? I have a well-paying job, low overhead, no dependents, and most importantly, I don’t even live in Portland. It offends me that studio apartments in my hometown cost more than my mortgage and maintenance in Queens. And yes, Queens is still NYC. It offends me that job searches using “content” as a keyword turn up grocery store clerk positions.

Ok, back to the food. Nomad.PDX just morphed from pop-up to permanency with a $160 tasting menu, which Eater defended thusly “But remember, 20 courses for $160 is still peanuts when compared with most prices in other cities.” Not really. Sure, I wouldn’t even give it a thought in NYC. I still think that’s aggressive pricing in Portland. I once let my guard down and tried the $125 Nodoguro “Hardcore Omakase” and I can’t remember anything about it. Everyone I’ve encountered in the restaurant industry is nice, the staff are always very earnest, but there’s a lot of pretense. I almost laughed at a recent dinner when a server asked if I wanted the short or long explanation of the Venica “Talis” Pinot Bianco he was pairing with the mushroom larb. Short, please. And for what it’s worth, the $80 tasting at Langbaan is a great value.

afuri-trio

Tokyo style

 

Ok, now back to Afuri. The Portland branch shares the ramen in common with the Tokyo original but that’s where all resemblances end. Afuri, at least in Harajuku, isn’t a hole in the wall. There’s an upscale feel but there are only counter seats, you place your order by feeding change to a vending machine and handing the ticket to the host/cook, and there’s very little to contemplate beyond ramen or tsukemen.

afuri dining

The Portland restaurant is vast, with a separate bar, counter seating, and at least twenty tables, freestanding and along the wall of windows. There was more than one party that consisted of grown children accompanied by confused parents, very similar to Williamsburg. There is a wine list, cocktails, the menu has a callout box featuring five ramen on the upper right side, and the rest is devoted to hot and cold appetizers, robata offerings (St. Helens Farm beef tongue, Jacobsen salt, black pepper, scallion, sesame oil, lemon, anyone?) and sushi and sashimi. It would almost make sense for the US restaurant to use that strange SE Asian naming affectation and call it something like Yuzu by Afuri indicating its lineage but broadcasting a different concept.

afuri ramen portland

Same bowl, same ladle spoon, extra metal plate.

 

I wasn’t asked if I wanted the standard chu-yu (chicken oil) in my yuzu ratanmen or the extra oil. It came with a marked sheen on the surface and was definitely heavier than the Japanese version. The magic of Afuri’s ramen is that it is extremely rich and concentrated but still manages to be light. I hate to use the word “clean” to describe food, though I almost felt energized the first time I ate it. This bowl still had the nice citrus tones that complemented the spice, but there was no way I could eat a pancake soufflé afterwards like I did in Tokyo. Nonetheless, I greatly enjoyed my quick Sunday afternoon meal.

But maybe I wouldn’t have if I lived there. That’s the rub. I’ve been toying with moving back to Portland, I guess for love, but I just can’t justify it when there are scant professional jobs there and my cost of living is less in NYC. I never thought I’d have much in common with rent-stabilized natives of Bushwick, yet now I’ve been gentrified out of my hometown and it’s still kind of a shithole. Keep Portland weird, you guys!

P.S. If rumors are to believed, Afuri is going gangbusters in Portland. A second downtown branch is supposedly already in the works.

Afuri * 923 S.E. 7th Ave., Portland, OR

Shovel Time: Han Oak

threeshovelEach time I visited Portland in 2016–more times than I’ve visited in 18.5 years combined–I reluctantly enjoyed a different New Portland restaurant. Langbaan in January, Mae in September, and Han Oak last month. All take foreign or regional cuisine and elevate it but not so much that a person accustomed to eating Thai or Southern or Korean food wouldn’t recognize it.

hanoak spread

Han Oak is the biggest bargain of the bunch. Just $35 (though Mae with a suggested donation of $65 and byob is close) for a shitload of food. It didn’t help that I had came straight from my family’s Christmas celebration (on the 23rd because they are monsters) where I ate ham and bacon-laced baked goods, and like 3 slices of assorted cakes.

hanoak cocktail

But I have to start with the cocktail, a Korean Goodbye (whiskey, Campari, vermouth, kimchi, smoked agave foam). I do not think this was a good cocktail. It was an interesting cocktail. Basically,  alcoholic kimchi juice topped with sweetened foam, and I think furikake. It tasted like when you start to throw up in your mouth but swallow it down. I might stick to beer.

hanoak banchan

All the banchan. This night we were served a mix of kimchi cabbage hearts and daikon, roasted brussels sprouts with miso,  squash with togarashi and fried garlic, and in the front an amazing sweet and sour potato, all caramelized, crisped edges and sesame. 

hanoak soup

Kalgooksu. This soup! It was so good. Little squiggly hand-cut noodles (they were being made in front of our eyes) and a very deep chicken stock. You could eat this broth all day.

hanoak ddukboki

I had to order ddukboki because I love the texture of rice cakes and I felt guilty for not seeking any out in my short time in Seoul. This was not the expected red, gochujang, fishy version. This version was a little swampy, green from padron peppers, and laced with bulgogi. 

hanoak meat

The ssam course comes with pork belly, pickled daikon, and rice noodles sheets as well as very rare smoked hanger steak, a slaw and ssam-jang dipping sauce. Oh, and chewy purple rice. It wasn’t until I took a bite of the beef that I realized the campfire smell that permeated the entire dining room (essentially, a garage) was the meat being smoked, an unexpected touch.

hanoak counter

I hate fruit as dessert! Not nature’s candy. I almost lost my shit on Korean Air when I was served half and orange and a giant wedge of cantaloupe and watermelon as dessert. On my return flight I was asked “If I wanted my fruits.” and I was all fuck, no, and the flight attendant looked at me with disbelief, “Are you sure?” Oh yes.

hanoak fruit

So, Han Oak serves fruit as dessert. I mean, the nicest apple and pear are just lost on me (kiyokawa family orchards, if you care to know) and they had run out of pear as we were the last diners (reservations at 9pm on Friday–Portland is not a late dining town). But I appreciated the server’s honesty. “You don’t have to eat all of them,” acknowledging the hefty amount of food we were just served, more than fruit being a sorry excuse for a dessert. The rosy-fleshed slices of apple were very pretty though.

Han Oak * 511 NE 24th, Portland, OR

 

Shovel Time: The Rheinlander

twoshovelI know no one gives a shit about Rheinlander other than me. Portland is strangely void of history and nostalgia, and well, I’m not sure the food is even good anymore (or if it even ever was). Oh, I guess one person does. It would never even occur to me to pitch a missive from the closing of the Rheinlander to The Awl, but there it is. I’m pretty sure I was there the same night as the author too. That’s why I’m a blogger.

rheinlander-dining-roomI went Christmas week, desperate to see the German restaurant that served as special occasion marker in my family into my early 20s one last time. It was brighter than I remembered, though that may have something to do with the Alpine room (I think it was called) right off the lobby, less labyrinthine and hidden. The food was brought out in quick succession, no waiting for appetizers to be eaten before mains. You could have a three-course meal and be out in an hour (my family who have no patience would probably love that).

rheinlander-fondue

There were two accordionists, no Victor Meindl, not in lederhosen. (I recently looked him up as he permanently seemed middle-aged when I was young and could’ve been anywhere from 50-65, so it’s possible he’s still alive. There is an gentleman with his name in West Linn, so I’m holding out hope that he’s still around.)  The fondue is served in a microwavable bowl rather than a cast iron crock.

rheinlander-sauerbraten

But…I don’t know…the food was pretty solid. Maybe not so pretty, but delicious. I never order sauerbraten since the last time years ago at Schnitzel Haus it was dry and stringy. Here, it was not, and I could eat the lightly browned, buttered spaetzle for ever. I love red cabbage sauerkraut too.

rheinlander-schnitzel

The local boyfriend who I’d dragged along (I made a reservation for 4 but couldn’t find two other takers!) seemed mystified by the menu and ordered a chicken schnitzel with mushroom sauce, which took me back at least 20 years ago when I attended Christmas dinner with my dad’s new family, and Jody, the methy step-sister who I always imagine in over-sized Loony Toons shirts ordered that very dish. She liked it so much she asked, “Could I get more mushrooms?” and I suffered humiliation by proxy. You ask for seconds at restaurants? She got an extra helping, served in a little side dish, by the way.

rheinlander-streudel

Apple streudel, which I’m so-so on, but it was the only German dessert on the menu. I don’t even remember the other three, though I totally wouldn’t be surprised if there was a chocolate lava cake.

rheinlander-sign

We both grew up in the Portland area, so I reminisced how Horst Mager was the original celebrity chef (ok, James Beard, whatever) and appeared on AM Northwest all the time and he had no idea who I was talking about. Times change. Mager was quoted in a press release, “This decision didn’t happen overnight; we’ve been discussing it for a long time. I have bittersweet feelings about it, of course. But I feel it’s the right thing to do, especially considering today’s Portland food scene. It has been evolving, and so must we.” Self-aware, yet I’m not sure what evolution even means for Portland’s food scene. Food trucks and pop-ups can’t be the be all to end all.

rheinlander-me

I look ok here, maybe a little sweaty, but I had to find and go straight to after-hours urgent care after this meal because I couldn’t swallow or hear and couldn’t stop coughing. I only point this out because Portland makes me crazy but it’s so goddamn easy. (I would consider moving back if the average rents now were less than my NYC mortgage and maintenance.) It was like a 12-minute drive to a different quadrant of the city (NE to NW), we were able to park right in front of the clinic, I was seen right away and in and out in 20 minutes, including the filling of two prescriptions, and it was $65. (I had an ear infection.) I haven’t been so impressed since I had to go to the hospital in Singapore and it was posh and $35.

Previously, on The Rheinlander. 

The Rheinlander * 5035 NE Sandy Blvd., Portland, OR 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Oregon, Better Late Than Never

 

mae-grid

Mae. I was reluctant to eat at a Southern food pop-up in Portland. Who needs it? (I would be more interested in a Pacific Northwest pop-up on the South except that there isn’t a distinct cuisine to speak of.) But it was one of the highlights of my trip; very vegetable-focused, light when it needed to be (chilled zucchini & buttermilk soup with sweet pepper relish, cherry tomato, and sumac-toasted pecans and lingerie beans, flame nectarine, pickled chantrelles, purslane with brown butter vinaigrette) hefty when it was required (chicken fried in three fats–no idea which). And I will never again underestimate the power of biscuits slathered with Duke’s mayonnaise and topped with nothing more than heirloom tomatoes and bourbon barrel-smoked salt. At $65 (suggested donation) for ten courses (was too busy eating to take photos of them all) and BYOB I would consider it a great bargain, though in Portland that means you’ll be sharing a table with some wealthy middle-aged Bergen County transplants and siblings from Eastern Oregon of mysterious means (and a dubious relationship) one whose child with a septum piercing will be going to Harvard in the fall. I was the only teenager-free diner at the table (even my boyfriend has a daughter going to the cool downtown public high school, which everyone approved of) and when the sister from Pendleton made everyone state their favorite movie, and wouldn’t let up after I demurred, I was like maybe I’m a poor conversationalist? No matter, when there’s pickled ramp pimento cheese to be eaten.

nodoguro-grid

Nodoguru. $125 ticketed omakase that sells out in minutes. It was all right. Something about it felt off for Portland, not that I’m critiquing quality or creativity.  I just couldn’t get excited because I’m a jaded monster.

pizza-vendor-grid

Pizza Vendor. Totally the break-out hit of this trip. With its straighforward name and no reason to go unless you happen to already be in Scappoose identity, it suited my needs just fine. It’s the childhood pizza of your dreams, half-and-half if you please, lots of cheese, thin, chewy, and puffy cornmeal-dusted crust, except that now you can get pitchers of beer instead of root beer and I still can’t figure out how what seemed like six-pints worth of some local IPA was only $6.99. Bon Appetit had recently declared Pizza Jerk, a take on East Coast pizzerias, one of America’s Best New Restaurants despite it being closed due to a fire. Magically, it reopened two days before I was to head back to NYC. I had planned to hit it on the way to the airport but went back to Pizza Vendor instead.

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Hat Yai. It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Portland Thai food. There are all sorts of interesting niches being filled despite the Thai population being practically nonexistent. The shtick is Southern Thai in a fast-casual format with cute branding. Fried chicken, lightly battered in seasoned rice flour encrusted with fried shallots and sweet chile sauce is featured and I tried a combo with a big buttery roti and chicken curry, not exactly a light lunch. I kind of love that there are six straight liquors for $6, soda an extra $1.50 (though I’m sure that’s considered overpriced since a majority of cocktails in Portland are still sub-$10) as I’ve been on a tequila and soda kick (so I can pretend I’m not a lame as a vodka soda-drinker). Sometimes I think I will move back to Portland and then I see middle-aged foodie dudes with goatees setting up elaborate photo shoots (was under the impression this was a blogger of some consequence) who pronounce prix fixe, pree fixay, and I’m all nope, I would just be too mean for this town.

urdaneta-duo

Urdaneta. Stopped in for a snack because I was wandering around the area and recognized the name as something newish and ended up ruining my appetite for the $5 Little Bird happy hour double brie burger I had planned on later. Complimentary pimenton-spiked chickpeas and a sweetbread-topped pintxo would’ve suited my needs fine. The tortilla was substantial, gilded with Idiazabal and sherry aioli, and I couldn’t stop eating it.

pine-state-biscuits

Pine State Biscuits. I’ve been before. It was close to my Airbnb.

giant-grid

Giant Drive-In. There’s a shingled A-frame practically in the backyard of the apartment complex my mom and stepdude are now managing. No, it’s not a destination but I would recommend the big, fun (Hawaiian!) burgers and homemade shakes even if you lived a little more than walking distance.

chinook-winds-trio

 

 

Cedar Plank Buffet. We gathered 10 family members for a Sunday brunch buffet at Spirit Mountain Casino because nothing is too good for my mom’s 66th birthday. Fried oysters, smoked salmon, biscuits and gravy, lemon meringue pie, french toast, and bacon is just all a part of the deal.
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Mountain View Sports Bar. Oh, and a late night sports reuben that I carted around from my mom’s to Scappoose because I’m gross and can’t toss food. I can’t remember if this was before or after the mushrooms and Keno (my sister is a hippie) but it was ok because we stayed overnight, no driving.

coyote-joes-trio

Coyote Joe’s. Weird that I would encounter biscuits three times in two days because biscuits aren’t particularly Northwesty.

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San Dune Pub. An oyster po’ boy with local Willapa Bay oysters. See? New Orleans appropriation.

little-big-burger

Little Big Burger. I completely forgot I ate this.

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An Xuyen. Banh mi, only $1.49 more than the ’90s. Best sandwich under $3. The owner/cashier was so damn chatty I thought the line of customers behind me were about to kill us, yet when I looked up no one gave a shit.

pho-van

Pho Van. Part of a mini Vietnamese empire. Solid pho. No, I did not make it to Rose VL Deli.

shut-up-and-eat

Shut Up and Eat. My grandma is into this food truck-turned-brick-and-mortar restaurant and I’m half-convinced it’s simply because of the name. The Italian sandwich contained a little more roughage than I’m accustomed to.

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Ixtapa. The waiter was all, “I put habaneros in your food,” I guess to get a reaction, but I was all “ok…” That’s humor in Scappoose. The combos are crazy cheap and you won’t feel weird for ordering a chimichanga. That’s all you need to know.

sharis-duo

Shari’s. The last two times I’ve been (2x in one year is more than I’d been in two decades) they did not have my first choice or second choice pie. YMMV. They always have tots, however.

 

Eaten, Barely Blogged: Portland Barrage, Old-School Mostly

burgerville colassal cheeseburger

I started Portland with Burgerville, partially because I wanted a Colossal Cheeseburger (they aren’t really colossal) for the road, but mostly because I needed to use a bathroom and the Beaverton location is sort of on the way between downtown, where the Bolt Bus dropped me off from Seattle and my mom picked me up, and her place at the coast. I was chided for not getting the seasonal chocolate hazelnut shake and I still regret it. Burgerville spread rules so hard they’ve jarred it.

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Shovel Time: Langbaan

fourshovelI wouldn’t have expected one of my favorite, ok, maybe my total favorite, meal in Portland to be tough-reservation Thai, served just a few nights a week, across the street from the bar I used to frequent two decades ago with the boyfriend who was the age I will be in five months. Why not four shovels? That gif could use some airtime. 

langbaan grid

Langbaan is a pop-up of sorts, a side piece of PaaDee, with a theme that changes monthly. January, my month, was Central Thailand, which could’ve been boring potentially since that’s region most Thai restaurants in the US draw from. I’ve only been to Central Thailand, yet knowing myself I’m still going to say it’s my favorite, leaning sweet and rich with great balanced heat. It’s not like Langbaan was going to put out chopsticks and bowls of overly coconutty green curry with the option to substitute tofu. (If it were my show, I’d be a dick and make pad thai, a really awesome pad thai, but that would be more of an NYC move not Portland. Pad Thai is notably absent from PaaDee’s menu, as well.)

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Top 8 Pre-Portlandia Restauarants

Before there were vegan strip clubs and chickens named Colin, cinnamon-and-sugar crusted elephant ears were the only thing you order from a trailer in Portland (while shopping for rainbow kites and jewelry forged from bent spoons at Saturday Market, of course) and shunning animal products meant ordering drive-thru 7-layer burritos without the sour cream and cheddar cheese. Yet despite the last millennium lack of barrel-aged cocktails, foraged lichen or whole animal butchery, residents managed to dine out every now and then.

In fact, some of these old guard establishments are still in business and presumably maintain a loyal following. Presumably, because I’ve only been back to Portland three times in nearly 16 years so it’s not as if I’m keeping tabs on the current state of near stalwarts. And this is not exactly about the food anyway; longevity and memories count for something too.

Don’t worry, FWx kids. Someday everything you once loved will also disappear. First small plates, then communal seating…and then we’ll all die. Ok, bye!

P.S. RIP Quality Pie, Circus Burger, Pizza Oasis, Yankee Pot Roast, Macheezmo Mouse, and Taste of Bali.

P.P.S. No one ever uttered or wrote “Keep Portland weird” in my multi-decade Portland lifetime.

Photo: 10best

Photo: 10best

Old Wives’ Tales is totally where the feminist bookstore womyn would eat, yet also could function as a meeting place for your meat-and-potatoes mom. In retrospect, it seems a little crunchy though at the time it just felt like a regular restaurant. The brightly muraled kids playroom and muted mint green and dusty rose color palette is still in effect and would somehow be more at home in a second-tier city in the state or the Oregon Coast.  Frankly, the food is kind of boring—I only ever ate the Hungarian mushroom soup and salad bar and rosemary chicken sandwich. They appear to have added a Mt. Hood painting to the facade and attempted to cool-up the name with the acronym OWT. That is too much.

La Sirenita’s arrival on N.E. Alberta when it was still a dead zone, taking the bus out there seemed sketchy and prostitutes would approach my car at night, marked the dawn of New Portland. I rarely eat burritos now that I’m civilized, but no one ate tacos at this taqueria, which was actually Mexican and not gross spinach, brown rice and non-dairy cream cheese hippie-mex. In fact, there was no rice at all in these burritos (though the menu now indicates otherwise) or even cheese. They were also not Mission-style, nor any style I’ve since encountered. Maybe five inches long, and nearly as wide, these flour tortilla parcels were crazy dense and filled with lardy refried beans and meat (carnitas always) so greasy it would ooze orange through the bag and onto every surface. I don’t think these burritos cost more than $3 either; even  now they are only $4.

Photo: GoTime.com

Photo: GoTime.com

Rheinlander A million years ago I wrote about Rheinlander and how the long-time accordionist Victor Meindel made me cry (not food-induced tears of joy) when I was in my 20s. Instead of demurring when solicited for a request like I normally would, I asked for “Consider Yourself” from Oliver, a movie that has always skeeved me out, but that I knew he always played in the ‘80s. This was the next decade. The earnest serenading coupled with his goofy grin sent me into nervous hysterics and then tears began seeping out. I have no idea of Victor is still there; he was probably in his 50s at the time of this incident. (This is the only other photo I can find of him.)

victorRheinlander is where we would occasionally have family celebrations and where I went for my high school graduation dinner. My oversized Tasmanian Devil t-shirt-wearing former step-sister that I’ve had no contact with for over a decade once asked for more sautéed mushrooms with her jagerschnitzel like a methy Oliver Twist and they actually complied. This was only slightly less humiliating than her uncle who insisted on a beer-whisky drink that he’d had in the service even though the non-German waitress had no idea what he was growling on about. Rheinlander’s selling point was a sharp cheese fondue served in a cast iron pot, which I now know is Swiss not German, but whatever. The even more TL, DR version here.

Hung Far Low gets attention from its unintentionally ribald name. It’s not even in Old Town/pseudo-Chinatown anymore (which isn’t called Old Town anymore—Pearl District what?) and lost the classic chop suey sign, which means it’s kind of dead to me, but I will always think of the dark vinyl booth lounge (no one ate in the restaurant) fondly. It was my specter of a boyfriend’s (I’m not even dating 44-year-olds now) haunt where we’d drink whiskey sours (me) and greyhounds (him) and eat late-night General Tso’s chicken. You would always run into someone you knew here. When I fell and broke my tailbone and was off work for over two weeks, I recuperated enough to go out but didn’t tell anyone and was spotted at Hung Far Low by a coworker like in those hidden camera workers’ comp sting operations.

Photo: Google+

Photo: Google+

Chu’s Eatery Frankly, I’m beyond shocked that this column A, column B Chinese-American restaurant still exists. In middle school, I briefly lived in the divorced families apartment complex across the street, but was too young to dine on my own. By driving age, and back in a two-parent house, my sister and I would occasionally visit for a cashew chicken combo that contained more chopped celery and carrots than meat or nuts. The adjoining lounge always seemed a bit tawdry and not in a kitschy way. This wasn’t a tiki-era relic, but firmly a product of that ‘80s Northwestern bark dust moat, wooden slat style, in this case fueled by Bud Light and video poker. Because Gresham is/was a small town, I heard from a non-friend high school classmate that her mom had been at Chu’s and was upset by a group of rowdy kids with skateboards including me. She was wrong, though; the weirdo we were with was a 25-year-old man. During this period I also started my first job bussing tables at a restaurant very much like Chu’s called Hunan Garden. Crab rangoon is in my veins.

My Father’s Place This would be as if Chu’s lounge was just one big restaurant that served reuben sandwiches and was patronized by proto-hipsters. I imagine it’s exactly the same now minus the proto part.

Taco Time Burgerville is the local chain that gets the most attention, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t rebrand as fresh, seasonal and sustainable until the 2000s. It used to be a burger joint plain and simple. Taco Time describes itself as an “upscale quick service restaurant chain that specializes in freshly prepared, home-style Mexican fare” on its website, which is completely untrue. You go there for tightly rolled fried burritos, half flauta, half chimichanga, now called Original Crisp Burritos, and lightly spiced tater tots a.k.a. Mexi-Fries.

Montage Technically Le Bistro Montage, the restaurant, which I never thought of as Cajun, but kind of is,  is currently located in what’s now called the Central Eastside Industrial district. It used to be on Belmont and was kind of a big deal to be open until 3am on weekends, considering bars and most everything close at least an hour before that. With white tablecloths and non-paper napkins, Montage seemed like a fancy restaurant—and certainly a step up from burritos and egg rolls—but wasn’t expensive. It was also the first place where I encountered foil animals for leftovers.

There is also an argument that could be made for Higgins, Wildwood and Paley’s Place, but those were far too grown-up and expensive for me to have any first-hand knowledge.

Castagna

I’m moderately embarrassed to admit that I have always glossed over any mentions of Castagna because I incorrectly assumed it was an Italian restaurant (it once was). Only after Castagna started affecting me directly, i.e. appearing in my heavily NYC-loaded rss feeds because the young chef, Matthew Lightner, was leaving to work at Tribeca’s retooled Compose, now to be known as Atera. My week in Portland was the chef’s final week in Castagna’s kitchen. Now I was motivated.

And he’s a total forage-crazed adherent to the new Nordic ethos (with a good measure of Spanish avant-garde tossed in, as I soon discovered). Ok, as long as he wasn’t going nuts with pine needles, wet moss, slugs and mushrooms, my Northwest bugaboos, I was up for this. I imagined Castagna as a counterpoint to Paley’s. Warm and homey versus cool and rustically cerebral.

Castagna facade
Castagna is designed in style that’s similar to one that's taken Portland by storm during my long absence. There is a regional penchant for turning existing structures into modern glassy boxes done in neutral tones, metal signage and light wood, very Scandinavian with a touch of the Northwest by which I mean ramshackle despite no ragged edges; it’s just a haphazard feeling I get and not visible to the eye. Castagna is less stark from the outside because it's housed in a deco building.

I first noticed this on my last visit two years ago when I realized Laurelhurst Market was a kitted out former Plaid Pantry. This trip, I tracked down a bottle of La Passion de Juchepie wine mentioned in The Art of Eating just because it was described as “so rare as to be almost unobtainable in the United States” yet there was one bottle left at Garrison’s Fine Wines in Portland.

This wine shop was in a shiny, newish strip mall, aesthetically acceptable with its clean lines, wood panels and earth tones that would presumably keep tanning salons and 99-cent stores at bay. This collection of shops was on the former site of a dumpy grocery store that I want to say was called Thrifty Mart, but probably wasn’t. It was my first supermarket after moving out of the house (eight blocks away). Feeling flush with newly granted food stamps ($112 per month seemed like a lot of money) on my inaugural visit I picked up hot cross buns because I’d never eaten the sweet rolls topped with candied fruit and icing and smoked salmon because it seemed fancy. And now you can spend $48 for a half-bottle of obscure imported French dessert wine on its grounds.

No one was wearing fleece or polos in Castagna. Women wore makeup. Two men were dining solo doing full tasting menus. This is where I’d want to say, “you could be anywhere,” but not really. It felt American still, West Coat most likely. The space was far too airy, relaxed and non-bustling to be New York or even Brooklyn despite a tempered hipness.  The background music was so quiet that Shazzam couldn’t even pick up the noise and help me jog my memory to identify a song (it came to me later: The xx’s "Islands"). It felt like a cosmopolitan restaurant in Portland, frankly. The city could use more of these.

We did not do the tasting. One parade of decadence was plenty for one week, and Benu already took that spot. We still received a fair number of dishes before we got into the four-course prixe fixe (a great NYC value at $65, though perhaps high for Portland—I don’t know any locals who’ve eaten at Castagna). If I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, I certainly did after the initial trio of snacks: thoughtful, precise flavor combinations; a little Nordic, a little unexpected, very woodsy.

Castagna snacks

A puff of meringue filled with a bright green herbal mousse. What looked like a Girl Scout Thin Mint was a savory cracker coated in slightly bitter black sesame paste, perfect with a dab of tart rose hip jam. Rye crackers with chicken liver mousse and poppyseeds.

Castagna bread and butter

The butter topped with brown butter solids was nice, and more attractive perched on that rock, but the lardo studded with herbs and I want to say bacon was insane. So insane that we ate the whole thing and were brought a second little dish. The rye rolls were very sturdy, a good match for the smoky, spreadable fat. This would be so good paired with a scotch-based cocktail (maybe I shouldn’t be giving that other Portland expat chef any ideas).

Castagna black cod with pickled potatoes, sour cream, dill, borage

black cod with pickled potatoes, sour cream, dill, borage. Potato chips! The cod, chopped into small pieces and bound with sour cream reminded me of a more compelling tuna tartare; you know, the kind served with fried wonton strips and possibly served in a martini glass. Maybe this will be an ubiquitous starter in 15 years.

Castagna summer squash with beef marrow, tongue, onion blossom

summer squash with beef marrow, tongue, onion blossom. It was the marrow that grabbed my attention on the menu—and presented in rounds like scallops, no less—but it was the beef tongue that got me thinking. I just ate sous-vided, tweezered-painstakingly-by-hand-into-shreds tongue garnished with flowers at Mugaritz in May. Matthew Lighter worked at Mugaritz. Would this be called an homage? Is it taking too much from the original? The duo next to us asked and was given a detailed description of how the tongue was prepared, and they were delighted with the chef’s whimsy. Is it fair to not disclose the inspiration? Certainly, the tangle of meat floss was only one component of a more complex dish. It did make me wonder what I might recognize on the plates if I had had the good fortune of eating at Noma.

Castagna lamb collar, wheat berries, wheat grass, buttermilk

lamb collar, wheat berries, wheat grass, buttermilk. I was eating sticks–woody, lemony twigs–and that was not the only distinct texture; the wheat berries had a lot of pleasant chew. The fall-apart tender cut of lamb, glazed with a vaguely bbq-ish sauce, needed these stiffer accents to bolster it.

Castagna wild ginger with long pepper, ginger shortbread, herbs

wild ginger with long pepper, ginger shortbread, herbs. This was barely a dessert, spiced to the hilt with only the slightest hint of sweetness. Totally un-American, and mildly cruel, crafting this dish would definitely keep an herb chef busy. The pepper and ginger so intense that you almost get that Sichuan peppercorn overload where your mouth’s sensors give up and it almost tastes like you’ve been eating curried dirt. It’s the one item from this meal I ate over a month ago that is still tangible, I can taste the sharp, musty flavors even now. Am I selling this dessert or what?

I never felt compelled to try the short-lived Compose, but now I’m genuinely curious about Atera. Will there be beef tongue?

Full set of Castagna photos.

Castagna
* 1752 Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR

Paley’s Place

I’m not sure if this is a Portland vs New York City thing or a Way We Live Now thing, but when I lived in Portland—up until the age of 25—I ate things like burritos, monte cristo sandwiches and pizza (well, laska too) if I ate out at all. Late night Montage with their leftovers wrapped into foil swans was as fancy as it got. I drank Rainer Beer and whisky sours. Based on daily Twitter skimming, it would appear that it is not uncommon for young adults in NYC to imbibe $14 cocktails, bottles of 20-year-old Oregon Pinot Noir and eat foraged purslane salads and aged, grass-fed beef on a regular basis.

Maybe we just have more choice…maybe it’s just the money flowing in NYC. There’s a reason why food cart culture has flourished in Portland, after all. I didn’t see anyone obviously under 30 eating at any of the city’s high end restaurants during my visit.

Then again, we didn’t have a lot of “nice” restaurants in Portland when I was growing up. The city gets plenty of attention for its food now, but it’s not like there is a Per Se or Le Bernadin (Portlanders still don’t really eat fish) equivalent. In my era, Northwest Portland was the most expensive neighborhoods (I only paid $225 per month because the building could be demolished at any moment, a threat that had been present for years and came to pass not long after I moved in) and that’s where restaurants emerged that were acclaimed at the time: Wildwood, which is still going, and long-gone Zefiro, which stuck out on a stretch of taverns and delis with its soft glow emanating from a wall of windows polished and full of successful adults, it was the ultimate yuppie restaurant. I had no idea what kind of food they even served and would never bother getting close enough to check.

Paley’s Place, opened in 1995, was one of these novel-at-the-time local and seasonal restaurants that it never occurred to me to try. And did I want to now? It seemed kind of passé compared to on-trend Castagna or any number of young cheffy places in neighborhoods that no one would’ve traveled to to eat 15 years ago. But it’s an important restaurant and epitomizes old Portland, by which I mean late last century—things changed post-millennium as an influx of transplants and loftier ambitions began creating the Portlandia of today.

Paley's place exterior

Classic Portland translates to homey, literally, a wood frame house with a wide porch for al fresco dining. The interior is simple, warm; I’m remember drapes and carpeting even though I can see hardwood floors in photos. Despite the reputation as being a special occasion restaurant—it wins votes for Most Romantic and If I Won the Lottery, This is the First Place I’d Eat—suited for anniversaries or where your parents might take you out of they did that sort of thing (mine don’t) or where you might take them if you’re the flush one (maybe I’m doing better than I realize because I didn’t consider the prices lottery-winner steep) the diners were classic Portland, as well. Men wear neither jackets nor ties, but rather shorts and sandals. The servers themselves wear khakis and polos. Babies are breastfed at the table. Formality is an abstract concept.

The food, the whole point really, was completely solid. I chose not to stick with an appetizer/entrée approach, and you don’t have to; many items are available in half portions or aren’t course-specific.

Paley's place seafood sausage

Seafood sausage amuse.

Paley's place oysters

There were three different oysters on offer, all from Washington State: Blue Pool, Diamond Point and Kusshi.

Paley's place wagyu pastrami

Wagyu pastrami might not look pretty on the plate, but it was a delicious, smoky, fatty mess. Extravagant without being dainty, there were hints of brown sugar complemented by both stone ground mustard and thousand island dressing. I wondered if Paley’s other charcuterie—there were at least ten types listed—excelled, as well.

Paley's place pork belly & sweetbreads

More shared richness in the form of a pork belly cube and pan-fried sweetbreads.

Paley's place salmon with aioli

The 3-ounce half-portion of salmon turned out to be just enough when combined with the above dishes. Normally, I stay away from salmon because it seems dull, but it would be silly to avoid a Northwest fish so close to home. The charred cauliflower and saffron aioli gave a nice Spanish luster to the dish.

I was glad that I didn’t skip Paley’s in a quest for the latest thing. I had a reservation for Castagna the following night (so did a woman at the table of men in sandals) and was eager to compare old Portland to the new.

Paley’s Place * 1204 NW 21st Ave., Portland, OR