Thursday, July 21, 2005

More on Portland Barbecue

I'm sitting here listening to From Spirituals to Gospel on the superb Blues Forever label. Sam Cooke. Mahalia Jackson. Gertrude and Clara Ward. Ebony Three. Rosetta Tharpe. Louis Armstrong and a whole bunch of "Unknown female vocalist" attributions. More about them in a couple days. God and barbecue, or at least church and barbecue, go together somehow. The other sources of inspiration for this entry are closed for the night and have too many calories.

Restaurants come and go. The only worse investment is a martial arts school or a racehorse. A lot of our favorite barbecue joints disappeared after a few months. Some of them never had signs or any name that we ever learned, just smokers outside and a delicious smell.

There are plenty of places like Denny's, Sanford's, Damon's or Hooters that serve ribs - usually labelled baby back - or chicken. It's just not the same if it's a sideline. The real thing needs the attention due any other sort of slow food. If the meat is warmed in a regular oven like the offerings at *shudder* Tony Roma's (which Tiel calls "A place for really really White people to eat ribs") it doesn't count. There has to be a smoker. Plates are optional. Good sides are essential. AHA Heart Healthy can't even be mentioned in the same breath. Keith Knight has a cartoon that captures the essentials. Purists argue about Memphis vs. Texas, sauce vs. rubs and a lot of other things. We'll leave those arguments for religious fanatics who make pilgrimmages to find the perfect rib. Good 'Q' is good 'Q'.

This list isn't exhaustive. It's just a handful of places that we go back to and a few we were disappointed with. Much as we love the ducks hanging in the windows of Chinese groceries or the savory products of the tandoor I'm not including anything but American barbecue. Anything I say about pork is from memory since I don't eat it anymore.

Places We Go Back To

Big Daddy's SE 30th and Hawthorne//soon to be opening on North Lombard
This almost got put in the "disappointing" section. The portions are a little small. Sometimes the meat is excellent. Sometimes it's dry. And I think the Hawthorne Boulevard merchant's association must have passed some sort of rule against barbecueing chickens because there's no other possible explanation as to why none of the restaurants on that street will do half a bird. But the brisket and smoked turkey are good. The pulled pork isn't watery. And the peanut coleslaw is in a class by itself. The meat comes unadorned. You add the sauce from a selection at the table.

Big Kahuna 8221 N Lombard
Mostly it's a little coffee shop trying to survive within shouting distance of Hawthorne. But the owner has a couple of smokers and makes top-notch beef (dry or wet), pork, and chicken. You can get hot, mild or teriyaki, and it's the only barbecue place which gives you "Mac salad an' two scoop rice". The owner's an Island boy. Whaddya want?

Blazing Barbecue NE MLK near Skidmore
Just opened a little while ago. We had chicken and enjoyed it. The ribs smelled good. Portions were big, and the people were really trying hard. I don't hold out too much hope for its survival, but as long as they are there I'll support them.

Campbell's 8701 SE Powell
An old standby. Authentic and reliable. When they say "hot" they really mean it. Excellent brisket and chicken. Really good sides. Options for huge portions. They are part of d-dish, so you can get barbecue delivered to your house for five bucks.

Cannon's Rib Express 5410 NE 33rd
Cannon's started out on MLK near Fremont and never seemed to have its act together back then. Since they moved to 33rd in the parking lot of New Seasons grocery it's taken off. It's a busy intersection, and the grocery and the Walgreen's bring in a lot of business. Cannon's really isn't a restaurant. It's a cramped kitchen, a bunch of smokers and some patio seating. You don't go there for the ambiance. You go there for awesome meat and creditable sides. The chopped chicken or chopped pork sandwich is a great deal. Tiel swears by the Mac and Cheese.

Delta Cafe 4607 SE Woodstock
The Delta isn't really a barbecue joint. It's a self-consciously kitschy, bohemian restaurant and bar that fits in perfectly with its right next to Reed college location. But the Southern food is great (and cheap). The barbecued ribs and chicken are spectacular, so spectacular that they've had to lock the smoker. People were stealing whole racks. For those of us who shun pork the vegetarian collard greens really are as good as the ones with bacon.

Doris' Cafe 3606 N Williams
I have a running argument with my African drumming teacher Caton. He can't stand Doris'. I love it. To my mind the ribs are the best in town. You can get a metric buttload of rib tips for just a few bucks. The chicken is outstandingly moist. The yams are at least 70% butter and brown sugar by weight (heavenly). The pound cake and sweet potato pie are great when you get there early enough to find any. The only disappointment is the beef. There's no brisket, and the beef ribs have practically no meat. Doris' is also part of the d-dish network.

Ed and Company NE 15th and Killingsworth
For years it was called "Louisiana Ed's". This singlewide trailer on an empty lot offered "Molly burgers", "Bar-B-Q" and "Scotch prices". Ed retired and moved back to Louisiana some years back. The current owner hated her 9-5 job and always wanted to run a barbecue restaurant. Ed's son wanted a real job. They more or less traded. The trailer has gotten a new coat of paint. They still serve some of the best beef ribs and chopped beef sandwiches around along with things like boudin, fifty cent tamales and chili Fritos that you can't find elsewhere in town. The gumbo is authentic and very tasty.

Lagniappe 3445 NE Broadway
This is another Southern place that dishes up very good barbecue without being a bbq restaurant. The pulled pork is spoken highly of. I've only had the brisket which could hold its head up with the best. The sides were good and larger than I expected. Lagniappe is tiny at about half a dozen tables. There is a rotating array of specials. <Note: Lagniappe has moved to a larger space on NE Alberta in the lower 20s>

Russel Street Bar-B-Que 325 NE Russell
When Doris' went out of business a few years ago only to rise Phoenix-like from the ashes its old space was taken over by Russell Street Bar-B-Que. We don't go there as often as some of the other places. The flavor is excellent, but the portions are a little on the small side and, once again, they don't do chicken. This makes it a little difficult when you're off pork. The sides were good, and their particular dinner innovation, the fried chocolate pie is suitably decadent.

Yam Yam's 7339 NE MLK
Some years back Yam Yam's bought their building from My Brother's Barbecue. It's a converted fast-food place with uncomfortable booth seating and glass everywhere. But it's not the atmosphere that's important. It's the food. All the usual standards are there. They're all very good. The Sunday afternoon lunch/dinner is probably the best deal in town. For thirteen bucks you get all the food you can stand. There's usually fish, chicken wings, about half a dozen sides, fried or baked chicken or game hen, a couple things barbecued and soft drinks.

Good Places Whose Names We Don't Know

In the Sportsman's Warehouse Parking Lot on 9401 SE 82nd
This unpreposessing trailer serves very good meat and a limited but creditable array of sides. It's fast. It's good. It's cheap. What more could you want from a roadside stand?

Right Outside the Harley Shop in Donald, Oregon
Rich's Gun Shop has some of the best gunsmithing around. When I go there I make it a point to stop at the Harley Davidson accessory/customization shop near the exit off I-5. I don't ride a Harley, but off in a corner of their parking lot there's a trailer that serves really good barbecue sandwiches. The tri-tip is delicious and filling.

On the North Side of Killingsworth below MLK
I've been here a couple times but never caught the name. It's a medium-small restaurant run by an East African family. They serve African specialties and American barbecue and do a bang-up job at both. Lately we've gotten the ugali with cabbage and chicken or red beans instead of the barbecue, but it's very good.


Buster's - various
I still don't understand why people make such a fuss about Buster's. Maybe it's because it's conveniently located in the suburbs. Maybe it's the Texas atmosphere. It certainly can't be the food. Every time I've gone it's been heat-lamped to death and served with some pretty unexceptional sauces.

A Pizza Scholl's - Low Barbecue
We were excited about this one. Everyone talked about the wonderful meat that goes "Mondays from 5 until we run out". We had particularly high hopes when we saw lamb ribs on the menu. Beef ribs tend to be all rib, no meat. Lamb is a rare treat. The reality was underwhelming. Three strips of brisket and a small portion of very fatty lamb ribs. No sauce served with the meat or on the side. Sides consisted of absolutely standard coleslaw or potato salad and very watery pinto beans. Cornbread didn't come with the meal. You had to sacrifice one of your side dish choices to get a piece. I went from unsatisfied to irritated an hour or so later. Both of us experienced the symptoms of Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Maybe it was something else, not MSG in the food. It still left a bad impression.

Tennesse Red's
There's nothing wrong with Red's. There just isn't as much right with it as there used to be. Years back, before the original owner sold the business and the name , it was one of the better barbecue joints in town. Now it's not bad but lacks the flair and variety that used to be its trademark.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Ethnography of Barbecue and Burritos in Northeast Portland

For a town this size Portland has an amazing variety of really good restaurants. They aren't all House of Casa de la Maison. In fact, we don't go to that kind of place much. I'm talking about little family places serving everything from Ethiopian food (half a dozen within walking distance of our house) to Thai, Tibetan, Russian and old fashioned diners.

The really big change in the last few years has been Mexican. Banks used to only lend money for bars, pawnshops and liquor stores in this part of town. With the end of redlining in Northeast there has been flowering of businesses. Ten years ago the area around Northeast 15th and Alberta was a no-go zone. Most homes were rented. Drug houses abounded. I wouldn't walk here unarmed. Then the city came down hard on redlining, and more money was freed up for investment and home buying.

A generation ago the new shop owners and restaurateurs would have been Vietnamese. Before that came there was a couple waves of Chinese immigrants. These days the signs around Southeast Foster and parts of Powell are in Russian. And my neighborhood and parts of St. John's have a lot of Latino stores and tacquerias, mostly Mexican. It's not quite the usual immigrant pattern. Many of the Russians started off with some capital. Some of the Mexicans are recent arrivals. Others have been here for a couple generations but only recently made the transition to small businesses.

There are plenty of immigrants from the Horn of Africa in the neighborhood - Ethiopians and Somalis. The Somali taxi drivers who hang out at the local Starbucks and Coffee People have an inhuman capacity for espresso. Our neighborhood also boasts Somali and Oromo cultural centers. The worshippers at the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church a little way away are as likely to be Oromo or Amharic as Greek and Romanian these days. Most of their businesses seem to be restaurants and grocery specialty stores or taxicabs. In ten or twenty years we'll probably see more realtors, insurance salespeople clothing stores and the rest in the way that the Hollywood District around Sandy turned Vietnamese.

This is a sort of roundabout way of getting back to the original topic - the food. Those half dozen Ethiopian and Somali restaurants are holes in the wall. The tacquerias are greasy spoons. Greasy tortillas? But the food is cheap, plentiful and really really good. Authentic, too. A good friend of ours is a recent Mexican immigrant. She says the local offerings are exactly like she is used to back home.

By some demographic measures Portland is the most integrated major city for Asians. But it is one of the most segregated for Africans and African-Americans. The neighborhood we live in was part of Dark Town until a few years ago. Now it's more mixed. So you still find really good barbecue joints around nearby. Most of them don't have names or signs, and you're as likely to get a basket with waxed paper as a plate. But the meat is smoked just right, and you need a wheelbarrow to get to your car after dinner.

We just had a disappointing barbecue experience in a trendy part of town that was highly spoken of in the local papers. On our way there we walked past what I used to think of as a Mexican restaurant. In the next couple columns I'll tell you more about the contrast.