Good evening, friends and neighbors.
The other day, my mother called me a “curmudgeon-” and I think I’ve earned it.
A little backstory is in order here.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
The other day, my mother called me a “curmudgeon-” and I think I’ve earned it.
A little backstory is in order here.
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.
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.”
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….
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Emily and I were hoofing it against the stiff breeze down Burnside, still trying to reconcile the warm weather earlier in the day with the fact that we were both now scarved, gloved, and double-coated. Darkened windows of houses and apartments leered in from opposite sides of the busy road- there was a threat of rain.
“So what are we going here to try?” Emily suddenly pipes up, her hands deep in her coat pockets.
“I was told they have a Fernet-Branca Chocolate Pie, and there are interested parties that want to make it for themselves,” I state matter-of-factly.
“Adam and Nancy, huh?”
Emily chuckles. “Well, I hope they have more than chocolate pie here, I’m friggin STARVING.”
“I hope they have friggin’ seats that AREN’T outside…. oh good, doesn’t look too busy.” We hustled inside the Tannery Bar and left the wind outside.
The restaurant is long and shallow, with a small open kitchen behind the bar and long tables of communal seating. There are a few stools at the window where no one in their right mind would sit- simply because it puts you right in the way of passing patrons and servers.
Emily and I get seats at the far-end of a table, underneath antique tools and oil lamps. My back is to the main thoroughfare, so I try to sit as close to the table as possible- I’m keenly aware that not everyone is used to saying “Behind!” when they are slipping past someone, and as wonderful as the kitchen smells, I’d rather not be wearing anything from it.
Emily and I have lived near Philadelphia most of our lives. We KNOW something about soft pretzels, and… my God, YES. After the first bite, we fall upon that curvaceous little wonder like a two-person plague of locusts.
Shortly after the vacated plate is removed, our entrees land- both Emily’s steak and my burger are accompanied by a small escort of the handcut fries and the house salad. The salad is a simple, but pretty little number- dolled up with hemp seed, sprouted almonds, shaved parmesan, and poppyseed cider vinegarette.
As we donned our coats and prepared to slip back out into the windy night, Emily happened to catch a glance at someone’s menu.
“Hey, you know they do brunch?”
“Huh… well, I guess we’re doing that next.”
“Possibly a good idea.”
[A week later, Saturday morning.]
I was never a big “brunch” person. Brunch was a thing for Sundays, Mother’s Day, and people who slept late enough to want their breakfast at 11am- so just the experience of walking back down Burnside toward Tannery was fairy odd. I had looked over the menu, however- and I was told there would be waffles. From my first Eggo to the finest Belgian- I am a round-heeled, loose-walleted pushover for waffles.
Three weeks later, Tuesday evening.
The post-shift. A long day of work, a long walk home, and I’m on my own. This review had waited QUITE long enough. It was time to get the last piece of the puzzle that is Tannery. I’d had their dinner. I’d survived their brunch. The goal post was now in sight as I unbuttoned my wool coat in the door.
“Hi there- just me tonight, and… do you have the pie?”
“Let me check…. Yep! We got some!”
“… A piece of that and a White Russian, please.”
It’s distinctly more calm in the dining room on a Tuesday evening. Only two people manning the tiny kitchen, and a single server pulling triple-duty as waitress, bartender, and hostess. I slip into the nearest stool at the bar and watch the cook casually peel potatoes and stir a pot of chili. The waitress buzzes about, and I wait for my cocktail and pie.
WHEN: Dinner hours are Mon- Sat, 4p to 1a. Brunch is on weekends from 9a to 2p. HOW: Just swing in.
WHY: Because you need a casual, not-too-swanky place with great food for a date night. Or you really want a hell of a good brunch. May the odds be ever in your favor.
WHERE: Pepe Le Moko, 407 SW 10th Ave., Portland, OR
Fridays are the days I get to myself, and I like to take that seriously.
As much as I love spending time with my wife, getting out on my own and putting pavement under my shoes is a necessity. I can walk the up-and-down streets of Portland, breathe in the wet air, and be alone with my thoughts. When I was job-hunting, almost every day was like this- me, a heavy coat over a tidy suit, and a briefcase full of legal-sized hope looking for my next answer.
It had been a very long day.
Emily and I had spent much of the day out shopping, and both of us were more than ready to put our weary feet up and get some solid dinner. The words of a trusted friend led us to the front door of a particular restaurant in the Cultural District of Portland… and no farther.
That’s the funny thing about spending the day shopping- as necessary as everything we got may have been, perusing the prices on the posted menu gave us pause. It sounded heavenly… but heaven would have to wait.
“Well shit.. where now? What are you tasting?”
“…Yeah, same… don’t you have a list of places to try now?”
It was true. Since starting on this food writing gig, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to find good food is to hit the streets and ask where everyone is eating. As it happens, my friend Sam had given me a lead on some theoretically cheap eats a while back.
”Hey, you feeling Russian?”