Review #16- Little Beast Brewing Beergarden

WHERE: 3412 SE Division St., Portland, OR 97202

When I first moved out to Portland from New Jersey nearly four years ago, one of the first things I was struck by is BIKES EVERYWHERE. In New Jersey, a bike was how kids got around, or what adults did for exercise while wearing goofy clothes.

In Portland, a bike is possibly the easiest way commute through the city and go about your life- and the city leans into that fact hard. Special low-traffic “greenways,” specially-marked bike lanes, bike accessibility on public transit… for a city rife with steep hills and busy streets, cycling is how you get around. In fact, I’d say that bike commuting is as much a part of Portland’s constantly metastasizing culture as “weird,” beer, small food businesses, and big green spaces.

So when I was tooling around Division Street on my bike yesterday, felt the need to dodge the near-record heat for a bit and came across a cute little house with a big front lawn, a sour beer menu, and some simple eats, you didn’t have to twist my arm.

That’s Little Beast in a nutshell.

Exterior shot of Little Beast Brewery Beergarden

Welcome to Little Beast

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Keep On Truckin’- Portland’s Portable Food Scene

Good morning, friends and neighbors.

Some time back, I asked a group of professionals what movies about kitchen life got it “right,” and which ones really REALLY got it wrong.

“Waiting” and “No Reservations” were among the “don’t mention that movie in my presence” list, but there was one movie that everyone- and I mean everyone- claimed hit the nail on the head: Jon Favreau’s 2014 father/son megahit, Chef.

Movie poster for

Whether it was the sweet story of a busy chef trying to keep a relationship with his son, that same chef bucking a demanding owner and going into business for himself, or just the gobs and GOBS of on-location foodporn, Chef struck a chord with every pro I met who’d seen it.

When my mother saw the movie for the first time, she said, “See Matt? That looks fun, and not that hard! You could do that!”

Thanks for the vote of confidence Mom, but as cool as it looks- running a food truck is NOT exactly the “easy mode” of the food world.

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Review #15- The Cavern

Where:  4601 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland OR, 97215

When you notice a small corner bar on a normally bustling strip of the city open for a few weeks, but then closed on Friday nights and Saturdays, one of the first things you start to wonder is “…who’s idea was that place?”

The small, narrow corner space- sharing its block with Zach’s Hot Dog Shack, the locally-famous Por Que No?, and a nondescript Tibetan tchotchke shop- had for a short time been the “Hawthorne Public House.” I’d looked in a few times in passing, and that’s precisely what I did. I passed. A whistle-clean bar on the inside, with big TV screens… that was closed at 4pm every Friday.

Passing by, regardless of day or hour, the joint was always empty or closed, and nothing ever compelled me to walk in.

One day, the windows were papered, the sign was down, and another Portland bar vanished like a fart in a Jacuzzi.

A couple months later, my friend Pete caught up with me at the beer cart next to the cafe. He’s a writer for Willamette Weekly, and besides just casually talking to folks about where they like to go for the best ___, he’s one of my go-to sources for new places to try.

“Hey Matt, you like pork, right?”
“Uh, yeah?”
Ok, you need to go to this place. It’s like an old rocker, punk bar. You know where Por Que No is?”

“Oh, yeah that’s… oh wait, yeah! Someone finally did something with that space? I wondered what happened to it after the Public House went out.”

“… There was something there? Anyway, it’s called The Cavern. Go there sometime- one of the best places for meat in the city. Get the pork belly skewers, and spring for the mousse dip. It’s so raunchy and weird.”

If you want to be noticed, you’ve got to make a little noise- having a whiskey list and a knack for the carnivorous helps too.

Exterior shot of The Cavern Bar on SE Hawthorne Blvd

“Hey ho, let’s go”

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Review #14- Toro Bravo

Where:  Toro Bravo,

120 NE RUSSELL STREET
PORTLAND, OR, 97212
(503)281-4464

Everyone’s trying to save a buck these days.

Restaurants, cooks, workers, all of us. Even bakers- ironically- are having trouble making a little dough.

Sadly, when belts get tighter, it invites fewer opportunities to loosen them. You start finding ways to bring in a little cash- and moments when you get to spend that cash are limited to special occasions.

That’s why I’ve been pretty light on the restaurant reviews as of late.

It’s also why I’m writing this one on my wife’s insistence.

It was our anniversary, after all- and she loves watching me be a food nerd.

The author and his wife at Toro Bravo in Portland Oregon

Yep, still adorable.

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Review #13- The Nerd Out

WHERE: The Nerd Out, 3308 SE Belmont Ave., Portland OR, 97214

 

I don’t remember WHAT was in that space in the little strip on Belmont, right across from The Liquor Store and the old Zupan’s. I was always going to work, or to one of the other joints in the area- that’s probably a good explanation for why it went out of business. Portland is a thriving, mutating city- eateries and concepts popping up with new trends, and dying just as quickly if they don’t offer something to make people want to help them stick around.
For weeks, paper covered the windows of the old store front. All I saw through slits in the paper was glowing neon in a dark room, a few framed cells, and the already-finished window decals.

 “Huh… a comic book store? That’ll be interesting around here… I should come back when they open.”Well, I was close.

 

 As soon as I saw that the Nerd Out was open, and that it was in fact a restaurant, I knew I needed to stop in. I have always been an unabashed sucker for kitsch and gimmick, and from the menu to the signs on the door, they’d gotten me. As Candi says in “Django Unchained-” “You had my curiosity… now you have my attention.”
 Walking in, I was immediately bombarded by fandom. Comic pages cover the walls and tables. Comic-inspired art hanging. Someone’s collectibles shelf exploded, with nearly every horizontal surface sporting figures from comic books, Star Wars, Star Trek, or a hundred other cultural icons.

I grabbed a seat at the bar near two men debating the merits of “The Last Jedi.” A young lady with rockabilly makeup and purple hair greeted me and poured a glass of water, sliding a menu toward me. As I sat, there was a quiet pouting sound behind and to my left. A young blonde waitress with her hair in two small buns sighed. “Augh, you’re getting all of them tonight, Aimie!” She sidled around and stood at the end of the bar. “Hello there! Welcome!” She offered a pixie-ish smile, and Aimie (the bartender) stuck her tongue out at her as she continued cleaning glasses. “Sorry Hannah, next time?”

I chuckled and soaked up some more of the atmosphere. Murals of superheroes and movie villains were all over the wall near the bar. Wolverine was apparently playing Magic The Gathering with Batman, Jack Skellington, and Lo Pan from “Big Trouble in China.” The bar tools were stashed in a ceramic pot shaped like Jabba the Hutt. A light fixture made of a Stormtroopers helmet illuminated the menu I should have been looking at.

“The Spider-Manhattan.” “The Sonic Screwdriver.” “The George Romero” Oh my God, they were serious.

 “Anything catching your eye there?” Aimie leaned over and asked after clearing the other guests check.

“Uh, yeah… I’ll do the Spider Manhattan?”
“Alright, one Spider-Manhattan!” Aimie gets to work mixing the cocktail. “You know, I’m not a big bourbon fan, but I like this one. We use chocolate bitters rather than Angostura, and get these REALLY great cherries- not that neon red maraschino crap.”
As the other guests leave, she wonders aloud. “Jeez, never heard so many people argue that much over a movie. You see the latest one, ‘Last Jedi?’”

“Oh yeah,” I answered sipping some water. “There were a few problems I think, but on the whole I enjoyed it.”
Aimie slides the drink in front of me. The Manhattan is excellent- well-mixed and smooth as glass, preferring one of their cherries to a muddled orange peel.“Yeah, I keep hearing that, haven’t seen it myself yet.”
“Well, no spoilers then- but at least it was better than Rogue One.”

An older man comes out of the kitchen at that, “I thought Rogue One was alright.” He is sporting a Rebel Alliance ballcap and an old-school Atari t-shirt.

I’ll spare you the next hour of conversation, where we compare the virtues of recent science fiction cinema, and skip straight to the man introducing himself as Mitch- the owner and “head nerd.”
“I’m glad people are coming in- this is exactly the kind of stuff I wanted to happen here: just folks being able to get a bite and a drink and talk about what they love!”

That is about as perfect a mission for this place as I could ever think of. Everything in the restaurant is geared to spur nostalgia, discussion, conversation, and collaboration among the faithful. Besides decorating the small cafe with his own collection (again, I was half-right that someone’s collectible shelf had exploded,) Mitch even incorporated slide-out power strips under the bench seats so that people could plug in their tech and work on projects together. As we chat, he mentions ideas for trivia nights, cosplay nights, and geek debates – his theory is that it’ll be more fun than doing it online, since it’s harder to be an asshole when you can see the other persons face, and he’ll be acting as mediator.

“Hey, come by again soon! We’re still getting things squared away, and you should totally get something to eat too!”

“Alright, I can do that I think.”

—–

​A couple nights later, and I’m back. This time I remembered to bring my appetite. As I walk in, I notice there’s a couple additions. A small children’s playcorner has been established, with toys and a comic library. Mitch has young children of his own, and wanted the place to be fun for younglings as well as Master Jedi.
Hannah is off tonight, but Aimie is still behind the bar. She is joined by another older man- this one wearing a black flatcap, a Joss Whedon t-shirt and Doctor Who belt, complete with TARDIS buckle. This is Josh, the “Booze Emperor” and head mixologist. Aimie passes me a menu again- she’s remembered my name.
“Heya Matt- just drinking tonight, or want something to eat?”
“Oh, I’m hungry… hmm.. what are ‘chales?’”

The menu of The Nerd Out is filled with stick-to-your-ribs comfort food, and I’m more than intrigued. Chales are apparently two thick-cut slices of pork belly, deep-fried to crisp and served with flake salt, a radish slaw, and grilled lemon and lime slices for juicing. They are Aimie’s favorite shift meal- and I’m officially on board.
“And uh… to go with that, what’s the George Romero?”
Josh turns and indicates the rum he’s holding. “It’s my take on the classic Zombie cocktail- I layer it up a bit so you can mix it up yourself.”
“Sold- I could go for a boat drink.”

The George Romero Cocktail at the Nerd Out

Josh whips around and mixes up the technicolor concoction. “Of course, it’s a boat drink, so it needs an umbrella,” he remarks as he harpoons a cherry. “…but it’s a George Romero, so you know something has to go wrong in paradise.” Plunking the small umbrella in the cocktail, he sets it down on the bar and proceeds to light the umbrella on fire. Josh grins and pushes the drink towards me. “I could tell you the smoky smell from the burn lends something to the flavor of the drink- but let’s be real, it’s just kinda cool.” Weirdly, the smoke DID help the flavor a bit. Note to self: “Create a cocktail called ‘Flaming Zombie.’”

 

Another night, another bizarre string of conversation- this time about my wife’s art and fanfiction- until the chales arrive.


Thick, crispy, fatty, and addictive. A squeeze of the grilled citrus, and all that was well is made even better.
Mitch pops out of the back again. “Oh hey, Matt! How’s the chaques? Good, right?” I nod in emphatic agreement as I chomp down the last bit of the radish slaw- the bitterness and tartness slicing through the fat coating my tongue.

“Yeah, that one’s my favorite- through our vegetarian French Dip is really good too.”

Back up a second- VEGETARIAN French Dip Sandwich? I check the menu- sure enough, “French Onion Dip- caramelized onions, apples, cheese, on local bread, with mushroom au jus.”
Oh yeah, TOTALLY getting that next time.

After all, I’ve been surprised by sequels before- and this one is definitely called for.

WHEN: Tue-Wed, 4p-12a. Thurs- Sat, 4p-1a. Sun, 4p-11p. Closed Mondays
HOW: Stop in! No reservations, check out their upcoming events on Facebook.

WHY: Because seriously, that casino side quest was total BS, and Leia Poppins? Really? Hold on, let’s get a drink and sort this out, see it REALLY went off the rails when….

Review #12- Beulahland

There’s a threat of foulness in the sky over Portland. Not merely rain, but a cold, dank drizzle. The kind that seems to soak you and sting your skin, even though it’s by no means a “heavy” rain. Pushing my way out the door of the cafe, I can already feel that I’m not up for going home right now. Not if it means walking in this, and I really don’t want to buy a bus pass just yet.
What I need is a beer- a beer, and a familiar space somewhere where I can just LISTEN to the rain, and be alone with my thoughts in the company of others.

Two blocks down, I lean through the door of Beulahland and sigh. The jukebox is going, there’s a soccer game on the TVs, but nothing loud enough that people need to shout at each other. Unlike other bars, the smell rolling out of the small kitchen isn’t dirty frying oil. It’s smoky, with a bit of open flame and charring vegetables.
Dean behind the bar waves me in. “Heya, Matt- been wondering when we’d see you again.”

“Hey hey. Yeah, well- you know. Between the work and the writing, I’ve been kinda tied up.” I slip my hat off to eye the beer list. “How’s that Porter?”

Dean’s already tipping me out a little sample. “It’s pretty good- folks seem to like it fine, but I’m all about that cream ale.”

The shot glass of porter IS good, but he’s got a point. Not the finest I ever had, and the cream ale is tempting.
“Yeah, alright- let’s do the cream ale and a hot dog.”

“Right on.”

As I open up a tab, the back door to the patio clicks open. A middle-aged, bedraggled man in a hooded jacket pushes it open with his back as he’s holding two glasses. Slipping up next to me, he sets the glasses down on the polished sloped wood of the bar.

“Hey Dean, same again?… Oh, hey Matt! Long time no see!”

Dean’s just brought my beer. “Heya Patrick. Yeah, well- you know.”

Welcome to Beulahland.

Picture

The dive bar.

Unassuming, unpretentious, a-regular-is-as-good-as-family-if-you-aren’t-then-shut-up-and-drink dive bars.

They are everywhere, and they are magical, and they probably would not like to hear you say that.

Dive bars have a simple role to play: exist, provide good alcohol and edible food for cheap, and have no expectations of their clientele other than that they pay their tabs and don’t make too much trouble. Customers, similarly, have few expectations of their favorite watering holes- have alcohol, have room to sit, and maybe remember their faces.
Go to a dive bar often enough, and you’ll find a regular cast of characters. The bar is where they go to relax. It’s where they ALWAYS go to relax, and see the same people they always do, drink the same things they always drink, and it doesn’t need to change.

Beulahland is currently my favorite dive bar in Portland. I don’t forsee that changing anytime soon.

 


Picture

 The best way to describe the bar itself is “eclectic.” Art from friends and patrons hang on the walls, alongside band posters, chalkboards listing upcoming soccer game times, and various odds and ends of the bar’s weird past in a weird city.
Looking past Patrick for a moment, the vintage pinball machines in the back glow lecherously in the dim light. There’s a large photo booth I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually use, and a vending machine.
The vending machine is a trip in itself. It doesn’t have snacks or sodas in it, but rather a mass of odds and ends: pulp novels, condoms, a pregnancy test, individual tarot cards, addressed blank postcards to the White House, and so on. I’ve never seen anyone use that machine either, but one really doesn’t go to Beulahland to peoplewatch. You go to be alone with a crowd.

Patrick and I head out to the small back patio. It’s crisp and cold, but a plastic corrugated roof keeps out the rain- the sound is soothing as we slide into two of the metal chairs. In Portland, “back patio” is a sort of shorthand for “smoking section,” given the city’s strict laws regarding it. Patrick resumes rolling his own with a huge carton of tubes and a gallon-bag of his favorite tobacco, and I just contentedly sip my beer as we compare our work weeks.

Rain drums on the patio roof, and soon we’re not alone. Beulahland is a popular post-shift bar for a lot of folks like Patrick and I. We’re soon joined by Rick, Mike, and Valerie- all employees of City Star, the cafe next door. Mike was in the dish pit, while Rick and Valerie are servers. Every one of them collapses into a metal chair, sips a drink, and lights up.
That’s one thing I love about what I do for a living- the community that you join continues after hours, and we can all relate to the various ways we take the rough edges off our day. A quiet recognition of kinship in this crazy thing we do.

Ashley’s just come on duty- a younger waitress with curly dark hair and cateye glasses, permanently in a knit beanie and cardigan. She’s the one who brings out my hot dog, grabs glasses, and asks who she can bum a smoke from on her break. Everyone with a pack volunteers- they’ve all been there.

The hot dog is REALLY damn good. Steamed to snap, and dressed up with aioli, roasted red pepper ketchup, pickled mustard seeds and onions. Recently, the Beulahland menu has been renovated. You used to get things like veggie wraps, burgers, and greasy chicken wings there- but since a new cook has come in, the menu now features street tacos and sliders, made with meat they smoke themselves outside. It’s all still simple comfort food, but with gourmet twists as foodieness worms its way into every neighborhood. Walking the line between gourmet and dive bar comfort food is difficult, but Beulahlands staff has it right.

The beer goes down, and the sound of the rain is starting to do its work. The edginess of the day is gone, and now just weariness is setting in. I say my goodbyes to Patrick and the rest, and pay off my tab with Dean. If I can keep it together, I might be able to walk home- but a bus stop isn’t far away.

Jeez, I needed that.

HOW: Swing by, or check their website: beulahlandpdx.com
WHEN: Mon-Wed: 9:00*AM-12:00 AM, Thurs-Sun: 9:00*AM-2:00 AM
WHY: You just need a place to take the edges off the day. A good beer, no muss no fuss, no pretension.