Where: 2035 SE Cesar E. Chavez Blvd., Portland Oregon
“Hey, want a seat?”
The door popped open so suddenly I almost gave myself whiplash after studying the menu taped to the inner window. It was a rainy day and I’d been walking nowhere in particular. I told Emily I was “taking a walk-“ which she knows is code for “I’m going out for a walk and also maybe to get beer or snacks, but I don’t want to admit it.” Today, I had my typing machines with me and figured I’d find a quiet outdoor bar to get some work done.
Coming down Cesar Chavez, I saw a new sign seemed to replace “Trinket” overnight next to the Joe Bike Bicycle Shop. A bold chef’s knife design with the simple words “My Vice” was tacked up on the wall of an improvised patio hanging out into the parking lot- now a normal feature of restaurants in the Age of COVID.
The inside of the cafe proper was painted a dark blue and it looked closed against the grey sky, so I leaned in just to read the menu- then Tarl, the bartender and co-owner, got my attention.
“Oh! Uh.. hey, I was just looking at the menu and, um… you know what? Sure.”
”Right on, man- go around the side to the patio and take a seat, I’ll be right with you.”
The philosophy of “If it feels good, go hard for it” could be the story of My Vice itself- the result of COVID-19 being both blessing and burden. Having started business together as caterers, the owners Tarl and Eric saw the pandemic end any gatherings big enough to necessitate their services. The possibility for a storefront had always been on the horizon, and with the pandemic raging, Eric said “Well, if we survive opening at the worst possible time, things can only get easier.” When the cafe spot next to Joe Bike opened up, Tarl and Eric made their move.
The My Vice experience can be summed up with the words “Aggressively Pleasant.” The decor, service, and especially the food are offered with a feeling and flavors that say “We know how happy this will make you, and we’re putting it right in your face.” The dining room’s deep blue walls and somber wooden furniture are counteracted by the brightly-lit bar, off-beat local artwork, and chandelier of antlers. While the impromptu patio is comparatively sedate with its picnic tables and plastic walls, the menu offers dishes with good-natured and quirky names- “The McKale” and “Atomic Wedge” salads for instance, or a sandwich called “A Happy Death.”
“A Happy Death”- something we should all wish for, especially in sandwich form- is a fine example of My Vices good-natured audacity. The locally-sourced braised beef on a perfectly grilled ciabatta bun, with a Gorgonzola aioli (lo and behold, a place where “aioli” isn’t hipster for “mayonnaise”) Mama Lil’s relish and arugula went down like the worlds smoothest Sloppy Joe- especially when pared with a Boneyard IPA.
(Yes, take note, dear reader. I, a round-heeled pushover for porters and stouts, ordered a hoppy IPA specifically to pair with this sandwich. You can consider that it’s own endorsement.)
That sandwich set what I quickly learned was a precedent- that if it gets cooked low ‘n slow at My Vice, you won’t be sorry. The Pork Verde, accompanied by foil-wrapped house tortillas, is the bright and messy burrito bowl you wish you could make yourself if you only had the patience. A few days later at brunch, my wife would order “The Homage”- a similar dogpile of that soul-cleansing braised beef with everything good in this life. Roasted sweet potato hash, peppers, and onions huddled beneath the beef, topped with an over-easy duck egg that ran like golden gravy over the beautiful mess. Between two cocktails, her plate, and my order of the “W.A.B” (Wet-Ass Burrito), neither of us needed dinner that night.
THAT night. A week or so later, after a blizzard scuttled our attempts to enjoy their Valentine’s Day weekend dinner, Emily and I were greeted again by Tarl beneath that antler chandelier. With the promise of a “Black and Bleu” steak special, we were eager for the “in your face” flavors we’d seen at brunch.
The McHale salad was surprising and sedate. A kale salad tossed with roasted yams, pickled fennel, and a ginger sesame vinaigrette, I found myself amused that the tough, julienned kale served as the “crunch” in the salad while the yams- looking for all the world like croutons- were squishy. The thought was only in passing, though, as my wife and I finished the plate with haste. We’d made the kind of agreement that defines our marriage- “one of us gets the special, the other gets something else, we both eat everything.”
While my Pork Verde was, as I mentioned earlier, sublime in it’s messiness (especially paired with a dinner-friendly tequila cocktail called “Bus Fight”,) the confit potatoes were the star of Emily’s plate. Compared to everything we’d had so far, the blackened steak topped with Rogue Bleu cheese was surprisingly tame and-it must be said- a bit tough. It wound up being another addition to the Clean Plate Club all the same- “Low n’ slow” is My Vice’s wheelhouse, and it was a good effort at offering something different.
A glass of port and a slice of the classic-but-versatile Flourless Chocolate Cake later, my wife was driving us home. I’d been beaten into submission by comfort and joy, and as I sit writing this I can’t help but contemplate when I’ll get to go another round.
WHEN: Hours are available on their website, myvicepdx.com. While their lunch and dinner menus are excellent, I strongly recommend showing up for brunch and a shot at that W.A.B.
WHY: Because you want a meal where every part of you can relax- except your tastebuds.