Review #9- Kachka

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?”
“Umm… food?”
“…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?”

A short bus ride away, and only a couple blocks off the river on the east side, lies Kachka, where Sam assured me the food was wonderful and I could “eat the menu for under $60.” This was not COMPLETELY true, though the effect to which it was is worth mentioning later.
Despite my Eastern European Jewish roots and the care of a Polish woman in my youth, my knowledge of Russian food is absurdly slim. Following is a complete list of my prior knowledge of Russian cuisines, informed mainly by visits to “Red Square”- a Soviet-themed bar formerly in one of the casinos of Atlantic City, so I will freely admit my expectations were mixed-to-low.

1. Fish are involved. Likely smoked, sometimes cured.
2. Sour cream.
3. Potatoes, cabbage, and other hardy vegetables.
4. Pork or game are the preferred non-piscine proteins.
5. VODKA, and the eating of food based around consuming it in vast quantities.

As with Cuban food at Pambiche, I was never so happy to be proven right AND wrong.

Emily and I had the exact same impression as soon as we walked in- “Elegant rustica.” The restaurant gave in only slightly to the expected decor of its Russian theme. Soviet-esque small posters trailed up one wall, depicting smiling workers and food. To one side of the bar hung a small portrait of Lenin. Apart from that, however, the ambience of the room was comfortable ease, even as crowded as it was.

Arriving as walk-ins, we were informed that we could sit at the bar or in the lounge almost immediately. The “lounge” was a circular area far forward of the dining room, close to the front window.


Once presented with the menus, Emily and I quickly saw where the expected kitsch from the walls went. The menus were littered with a tongue-in-cheek humor regarding the nature of each offering and what the diner might expect.
Our eyes quickly zoomed in on the drinks menu. Kachka is known for not only an excellent vodka list, but for infusing/creating their own interesting liquors, for in-house use and retail sale. Emily opts for a “Countess Rostova”- a concoction of rose vodka, chartreuse, dolin dry, and Townshends white rose that drinks like a bouquet and goes down like a dream. I, on the other hand, opt for the slightly-rougher “Jewish Rye-” caraway rye whiskey, orgeat, combier kümmel, and orange bitters. A sniff made promises of good times, and a sip kept them. Memories of Jewish deli, hot bagels, and tangy cream cheese came through….
Besides the cocktail menu, the bar also offered curated flights of their vodka collection. While I am not a vodka man by any means, it seemed wrong to go for Russian food and NOT have some. I opted for the “PDX” flight, which Emily charitably shared with me (or perhaps it was enlightened self-interest. No one wants to drag along a drunken husband one-and-a-half times their weight.)
Three shots of vodka backlit by a small candle lamp. The glasses look chilly and delicious

The “PDX” Vodka flight, from left to right: Rolling River, Portland Potato, and Dystopia.

The shots arrived ice-cold, as it should be. I was torn for a moment- how quickly can I taste each one and give it its proper due, without allowing the others to lose their chill? Then I realized that the vodka was getting warm, and I should stop putzing around and drink. The first in the flight- Rolling River- was a grain based. It was mellow, smooth, and slightly warming despite being frigid. The second, Portland Potato, was the exact opposite- it was potato-based and had an oddly firm, starchy quality to it. It was a little more coarse, but amazingly refreshing. Last came Dystopia- a blend of grain and potato vodkas. It…. well, it tasted very strongly of bananas. Not unwelcomely, and not like banana candy- but bananas none the less.
All were very good, but alas- I remain NOT a vodka man.
Towards the bottom of the list was a VERY curious offering- “Pickle Juice- nature’s hangover cure. 100g- $1.” I am quite familiar with the idea of a pickleback, but I was curious enough why the brine deserved its own place on the menu. Kachka makes its own varied pickles, and switches out which brine gets poured for their pickleback regularly. Tonight, it was their watermelon pickle.
Emily was… skeptical to say the least.
More for me then.

First courses involved the toughest choices. Fully two-thirds of the menu was given over to zakuskie- small plates of various cold and hot snacks meant to be consumed with copious amounts of- you guessed it- vodka. You could pick and choose from their selection, or for $25 a person and the full tables’ cooperation, you could get a chef’s selection from the cold menu. There being only two of us, we decided to just pick whatever seemed most delicious. I chose their hot smoked king salmon with toasts, and Baltic Sprat Buterbrodi- a simple presentation of tiny fish on pumpernickel toast with a parsley mayo. Emily plumbed for their cod liver pashtet- a kind of runny mousse.

The king salmon was rich and decadent, and Emily’s pashtet was light as air- almost something to be dipped rather than spread on the accompanying toast squares. Over all of it, however, stood the Buterbrodi. Every part of the simple dish- fish, mayo, and bread- stood out uniquely but united. The fish didn’t crowd out the mayo, and the toast did not vanish into the background- and of course, it all went wonderfully with vodka.
Then the main courses arrived.
I had opted for Golubtsi- pork-filled sweet/sour cabbage rolls in a tomato sauce and a drizzle of sour cream. This was only somewhat familiar to me, as I had had stuffed cabbage leaves prepared by a family member before. Emily similarly chose something vaguely familiar- Tvorog Vareniki, tiny pirogi-esque dumplings filled with scallion and cheese.
It was pasta… and cheese…. with onions… warm in a bowl. Of course she would get that- she pretty much knew I was going for *thing with pork in it* too, though it was a hard choice between that or the Beef Shashlick (which I am DEFINITELY getting next time.)
I apologize for the quality of the pictures here. I was trying to be quick and careful because 1. I absolutely HATE being “that person” that lets their food get cold while they are taking pictures of it, and 2. I took one look and knew I needed to get these little tubes of delicious in my face as rapidly as possible.
The vareniki were little pillows of cheesy loveliness, of a lighter texture and flavor than I would have expected. The golubtsi were similarly astounding. The smell of cooked cabbage (which I normally dislike) was utterly absent, replaced by the bright acidity of the tomato sauce and the richness of the solidly-packed pork. I had anticipated a punch and a steel weight in my stomach- I got a pat on the back and a belly rub.

A splendid evening required a splendid ending, and Emily and I agreed that dessert and tea were to be had. The dessert menu was modest, but appropriate- a variation on a berry shortcake, an ice cream, a dessert preparation of Emily’s vareniki featuring sour cherries. All quite acceptable- but after delicious (and copious) food, it was the cookies that caught our eye. It’s not all that bizarre- we wanted something pleasantly sweet and crunchy to go with our tea, and the menu claimed that the cookies “could change your life.”

Tea arrived, and I will happily admit- yes. The little cookies at the end of such a fine dinner were ABSOLUTELY PERFECT. Oreshki- little caramel-filled nut-shaped cookies came in a small cup and offered tiny spikes of sweetness, while the Chocolate Kolbasa cookies came ice-cold and smacked of rich chocolate and toasted hazelnut.

“Mmmm… better, love?”
“Oh yes… probably more fun than that other place would have been, too.”
“Agreed…. course now I want some more watermelon pickle juice.”
“… No, dear. Let’s get home. You need to write.”
“Yes, dear.”

That’s how I know I have the best wife. She joins me for tasty fish, and reminds me when I need to be writing, and not drinking pickle juice.
It’s a interesting life we have.

WHERE: Kachka, 720 SE Grand Ave., Portland, OR
WHEN: Daily, 4- midnight.
HOW: Drop in, or check out their website at http://www.kachkapdx.com for how to get reservations or reserve their back room.
WHY: Because you are in the mood for something different, but oddly familiar. You want to feel elegant, but relaxed at the same time, and kinda want to enjoy some good liquor with curious finger foods.

Kitchen Magic- Rites, Rituals, and Esoterica

Good evening, friends and neighbors!

It’s Sunday morning- my Monday at the cafe, and the ritual begins as soon I walk in.

An impressionist-style illustration of a tall, hooded figure by a gravestone.

Photo from Unexplainedaustralia.com

Our laminates guys, Roy and Chris, promptly clear the bench flour from my table when they see me walk in. My bag drops and I pull out whatever personal affects I’ll need at my station that day- phone charger, headphones possibly, hat if I’m not already wearing it, and a slide to keep my hair back.
After a quick look at the board for the day’s requests from Morning Bake and glossing over the letter from Victoria containing my to-do list, it’s straight to the back corner to drop my bag in the locker and swap my shoes. Punching in rings the bell- let the day begins in earnest.
A red bucket and sanitizer are acquired and I leave it to fill in the sink while I grab my apron and sidetowels- always two. One hits my table dry, the other is tossed in the perfectly filled bucket as I return and cut the water- just a little finesse.
Bucket goes by my feet, apron goes on- I’m ready to head up front and check the case.
—————–

Not exactly what you think of when you hear the word “ritual”, is it? No weird hooded figures, mystic amulets, or chanting in dead unholy languages. The clean bench, the bucket, the two towels- it’s all so mundane.
It makes a world of difference.

Food, and the preparation thereof, are integral parts of any culture- and the thing about culture is that any activity within it, performed with intention and will, is imbued with meaning. It is made magical.

Magic
Sandra’s seen a leprechaun,
Eddie touched a troll,
Laurie danced with witches once,
Charlie found some goblins gold.
Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I’ve had to make myself.”

Shel Silverstein, Where the Sidewalk Ends

In an article in Psychology Today, researchers explore the role of ritual in athletic performance. That is to say- when a basketball player always bounces the ball a certain number of times before a freethrow, or a tennis player sets his water bottles down in a specific way before a match, does that really make them perform better?
I invite you to read the full article and study, but the bottom line seems to be that these seemingly-innocuous actions have a powerful affect on their performers. By easing their mind with a reliable familiarity, they are partially inured to the neural deficits of performance anxiety- that is, even if they fear screwing up, it doesn’t get in the way nearly so much.

My little morning ritual above is similarly innocuous and mundane- certainly not as obvious or quirky as other rituals performed by athletes- but it helps me start my day with my “head in the game.”

A man standing alone on top of a dune. The text is the

This one is pretty ideal if your job involves pain-inducers or riding sand worms.

Since I have been in the working world, I’ve picked up more than a few eccentricities, superstitions, and historic hand-me-downs from an industry that is, necessarily, fueled on passion, madness, and being your best at all times.

1. The Tools For The Job
In a previous post, I introduced you to my Bubba’s kitchen witch, its history, and the fact that I insist on putting ONLY wooden utensils in her. Given that statement, it’s not a stretch to understand that the number of wooden spoons in my kitchen in beyond comical. While I cannot pinpoint exactly where I acquired my affinity for wooden spoons, I can say that there has been a LOT of study and ink dedicated to the humblest of utensils- their merits, their history, how the flavor your food (spiritually AND physically) with their presence.
While they are certainly not ideal for everything (a non-reactive metal spoon is necessary for checking the consistency of Creme Anglaise, for instance,) just holding on in my hand feels close, earthy, and companionable- enough that I would tattoo one on my arm at any rate.

A close-up of the tattoo on the authors right inner arm. The tattoo depicts a birch spoon, hickory rolling pin, and mahogany fountain pen bound with a banner reading

The same can be said of rolling pins and fountain pens, really.

2. Knives
Even if you don’t believe in the woogy-woogy, touchy-feely business of this post, knives are a real big one. Good knives are EXPENSIVE. They last generations. Their owners rely on them, baby them, keep them in perfect sharpness, and God help you if you grab someone’s knife without their permission.
By the by, if you ARE given permission to use a chef’s personal knives, you are hand washing that thing immediately afterward. Not letting it sit dirty, and DEFINITELY not putting it through the dishwasher. As Chef Masaharu Morimoto points out:
3. Symbols and Superstitions
Food is part of culture. Cultures get REALLY weird ideas regarding it, as this article from The Kitchn enumerates. (Link) Some it turns out have basis in fact, such as the Chinese belief in “wok hei” (link), or “the breath of the wok”- the idea that a wok that has been passed down through a family for generations and constantly seasoned rather than cleaned imbues it’s own indescribable flavor to food, similar to maintaining a cast-iron skillet in the American South.
For the most part, however, symbolism in the kitchen is an extremely personal affair. Just like the athlete’s rituals I mentioned before, bakers and cooks may have their own rituals and superstitions they adhere to to bring out THEIR “A” game.
Here are a few of mine-

Animated GIF from Dreamworks' From “The Prince of Egypt”

Exodus 4:17 – 20
Unsurprisingly, I take things that I have tattooed on me pretty seriously. Every wooden tool I have on my tool box has the passage quotation written on it. The quote is as follows:

“The Lord said unto Moses, ‘Take the staff in thy hand, that you shall do My wonders.’ And Moses descended from the mountain and spoke to his father-in-law Jethro. “Please let me take my family and return to Egypt, for it has been many years since I heard from my people there, and I do not know if they are dead or alive.” Jethro said, “Go in peace.” And so Moses packed his family on a camel and returned to Egypt, and in his hand he carried the staff of God.”

Without getting into too much detail, the quote to me is an allegory for talent and finding what you were meant to do. Every time I look at it, it reminds me of where I was in life when I got the tattoo, and all the scariness and sacrifices I’ve undergone and will undergo to do what I love.


Ravens and Beavers
Long before I was a baker, I was a Boy Scout. Scouting has been- and continues to be- a huge part of my personal development, and there are a number of symbols I attach special meaning to because of it.
The Raven was my Scout Patrol animal, and in the lore of various Native American peoples, the raven is not just a clever trickster character, but one of creativity and intuition as well. The Beaver, meanwhile, was my Wood Badge patrol, held in lore as not just a teacher of diligence and industry, but of dreaming and the ties of family. Having a likeness of one or both of them on me when I work quietly inspires me,, reminds me of their lessons, and all the things that Scouting has taught me to take through life.

A pewter pendant depicting the sephirot in the Etz Chaim pattern.

The Sephirot
No, not the Final Fantasy villain- the original Sephirot.
Though I have not always been outspoken about my Jewish faith and heritage, I have always been proud of it. The Sephiroth (Hebrew for “emanations) come from Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, and this layout of them is called the Etz Chaim (or “tree of life.”) In Kabbalah, the Sephiroth depict how Divine will is enacted upon the world by way of human behavior and experience. In brief, it depicts the act of creation beginning as Divine Will, and finally being born as inspiration and action through the work of humans. I regularly wear this pendant when I work- not just as a symbol of creation, but as a connection to my heritage.

How about you? Any of you out there have certain symbols or rituals that, against all reason, just seem to help you work?

Stay Classy,

Review #8- The Big Legrowlski

WHERE: The Big Legrowlski, 812 NW Couch St., Portland, OR, 97209

Let it never be said I’m not a sucker for a good gimmick.

I can’t remember when I first saw the cinematic cultural touchstone that is the Coen Brother’s “The Big Lebowski.” I think it may have been while I was flipping through channels and came across the stark and baffled faces of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman after the famous “ringer at the bridge” scene. A moment later, John Goodman uttered the line that formed a cornerstone of my life philosophy since college, and I was a fan forever:

Since that boring night on the Jersey Shore, I have downed more than a few White Russian cocktails and irritated two girlfriends and my wife with viewings and trivia.
For the most part, they abided it well. (See what I did there?)

Thus, find a certain bar during my perambulation of Portland can only be expressed as a sign from the Heavens.

I truly am a round-heeled pushover for the things I love- especially fandom.

As soon as I walked in, the message was received loud and clear with a quick look around. I was meant to walk in here, sit down, and… “just take it easy, man.”

The Big Legrowlski not only combines one of my favorite beverages and favorite movies, it does so with a minimum of fuss. The decor is mellow, dark, and dedicated- woodblock prints of famous figures from the the movie line the walls. The menus are scribbled in colored chalk on the walls by the bar, and there’s- well, an overall very Dudelike vibe to the whole place. Hard decisions (outside of which beer to get) seem strongly discouraged. Their eighteen taps are all local, microbrews, or otherwise curated for quality in a selection of styles. Besides the taps, a few bottles on the rack betray a penchant for cocktails as well- such as “Bunny’s F***ing Martini”, “Jesus’ Margarita,” and- of course- “The Dude’s Caucasian.” For this, they keep a running tally. 5,108 served to date.
I wind up going for a Ft. George “May the Oats Be With You” Porter and eye up the bar for a place to crash.

Picture

“Two oat sodas, Gary.”

The seating encourages mellowness and intimacy- you can choose from the bar, small tables inside, or sidewalk chairs to peoplewatch from. Like any reasonable front with a gimmick, they merchandize. You can buy sweatshirts, 64 oz. growlers, t-shirts, even prints of the the woodblock artwork and specific elements from the movie. I’m more than a little tempted to pick up a “Treehorn Productions” growler- but Emily will kill be if I shove one more container of mead in our fridge. Instead, I mosey on through to “The Rug Room.”
Picture

Mike the Busker, live in the Rug Room

More prints. Rugs EVERYWHERE. A small alcove with a TV for karaoke or live bands and entertainment. (Apparently bands are forbidden from playing ANYTHING by The Eagles.) The Dude’s zip-up sweater in a shadow box.
Yes… I can be comfortable here.

After a beer or two, the munchies set in. The food menu is simple- the food is not the issue here, Dude. They’ve got some sausages from Olympia Provisions- served up simply on a pretzel roll with mustard and sauerkraut, and some finger foods if you just need a snack. Fresh-popped popcorn and cinema salt shows up on the table- a good companion for beer and literature. Every night, some form of entertainment rolls in- open mics, a DJ- tonight it’s Mike the Busker, banging away at Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and the Pogues among others. Not bad at all- goes well with the Caucasian I just acquired.

Picture

The Holy Vestment

Picture

It really ties the room together, does it not?

You know, life in this city has its ups and downs, strikes and gutters… but as long as places like this exist, I’m pretty sure I can take it easy for all us sinners.
Another Causcasian, then I’m out.
WHEN: Hours: Tuesday-Friday 3.00pm to 2.00am, Saturday 12.00pm to 2.00am, Sunday 11.00am to 12.30am, Monday: 3.00pm – 12.30am. Happy hour 3pm to 5pm Monday-Thursday. Great place for a post-shift!
HOW: Drop in, or check out their website to check out upcoming events, pick up some merch, or rent the Rug Room.
​WHY: Cause you’re a conscientious objector, and you just wanna drive around, bowl, and ideally NOT get wrapped up in a nihilist kidnapping scheme when you try to get your rug replaced. This is not ‘Nam, there are rules…

Keep It Moving

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The professional kitchen has a reputation for being loud, busy, sweaty/on fire, and mired in what looks like absolute chaos but is in fact a precise choreography (affectionately called “the dance.”)
Not all kitchens have this vibe though. Some high-level chefs enforce a “silent kitchen-” where if you are not calling orders, calling back orders, or otherwise describing the tasks immediately at hand, you are to be silent and focused utterly on your work.
For the most part, pastry kitchens are considerably more quite than the average, line kitchens. The very best ones are almost like medieval scriptoriums- lines of bakers focused quietly and diligently on delicate work.

In all kitchens, though, there are times when it MIND NUMBINGLY BORING.

No matter what’s being made, when or how- nothing comes from nothing. SOMEONE had to stand in one place and peel all those potatoes for your vichyssoise. It was SOMEONE’S job to painstakingly peel an inconceivable number of oranges in order to get that delicate candied orange peel garnish on your chocolate cake. Certainly it’s tasks like these that most chefs- particularly those with restaurants who need to focus on quantity as much as quality- prefer to farm out. They buy Candied Orange Peel decor, or peeled and cubed potatoes in a 30 lbs frozen bag.

In some cases, they go REALLY deep. The very first day of my professional career consisted of cutting 30 frozen, pre-decorated, Italian Rum Cakes. 30 cakes, taken out of cardboard boxes, sliced in 12, placed on boards… and set up to be served to about 300 hungry casino-goers.

For THIS I went to culinary school….

My own personal traumas aside, the point is- when you go to a fine restaurant, no matter what you order, SOMEONE was standing in one place for hours at a time grinding through the same task. It is possibly the single most obvious, inescapable, and soul-crunching part of my professional life.
In the last few days, I:

  • Diced 6 lbs. of bell peppers
  • Diced 1 gallons of onions.
  • Individually zested 50 lemons to make lemon poppy bread and scones.
  • Individually scooped and dipped 80 Buckeye truffles.

Sound like a lot? THIS IS LIGHT. Compared to the work in banquet and resort kitchens, this is practically nothing compared to tray upon tray of petit fours, all necessarily IDENTICAL, or chopping onions by the 50 lbs bag. This is generally the work that falls to the lower rungs of kitchen hierarchy- the prep guys, the new kids, or the student/stagieri who’s there “for experience.”

No matter who or what it is, though- it’s easy to go into autopilot. Your brain shuts down, you move automatically…and then you slow down, or make mistakes. The Zen master Dogen wrote about just such situations.

“Do not just leave washing the rice or preparing the vegetables to others but use your own hands, your own eyes, your own sincerity. Do not fragment your attention but see what each moment calls for; if you take care of just one thing then you will be careless of the other.”

Those of old tell us, “For the tenzo [head cook], the mind which finds the Way actualizes itself through working with rolled up sleeves.”‘

– Tenzo Kyokun, “Instructions to the Cook” by Eihei Dogen, trans. Anzan Hoshin roshi & Yasuda Joshu Dainen roshi

Like so many things, “easier said than done.” Eventually your neck starts to cramp from looking down for hours. Your back hurts from hunching over the table. Obviously you can make some ergonomic changes- change your stance and posture regularly. None of that helps your mind though.

​So how to keep focus?

I normally can slip on some headphones and listen to music or a podcast, but that’s obviously a rare exception. Most kitchens forbid their cooks from wearing headphones even in one ear for obvious reasons. Therefore the options are generally music/technology free.
1. Keep Your Brain Busy
Sometimes just keeping your mind busy helps the work go faster. My friend Karen would do math problems while she worked at grinding tasks- how many lines of 15 pieces could she do? 14?
Being a bit of a literature/storytelling nerd, I tend to think of old stories and try to come up with how I might retell them later given the chance.
2. Go full-on Zen
As Dogen suggests, cooking and food preparation can be seen as holy work and the act itself as meditation. As you work, find your rhythm. Simultaneously focus on each aspect with due diligence, and also let them pass.
In Taoism, there is a concept called “Wei wu Wei” that I have discussed previously. It translates as “doing not doing,” or “Effortless Action”- the point at which there is no difference between the actor and the act. Motion becomes as simple and thoughtless as breathing. This is something I like to believe I approach when doing prep. When my wife and I cook dinner, there’s an unspoken agreement that whoever had the worst/most stressful day gets to do the prep work for dinner- the feeling of quiet, rhythmic industry can be meditative and soothing, to the point I actually got a bit salty when Em shoved me away from the cutting board and took over prep because she was in a bad mood.
She apologized later, though- I did the dishes. Not quite as satisfying as chopping, but still very soothing.
3. Go HAM on the task.
When all else fails, go HAM and GET IT DONE. Actually, this is probably the FIRST thing you’d wind up doing- figuring out the fastest and most efficient way to chop a pepper, or zest a lemon. Analyze your motions, figure out the best way to move to get the job done quickly and completely- and constantly reevaluate the task. Especially for zesting lemons, I have found that- by moving only my right hand, and keeping the “to do” lemon bowl in front of me and the “done” bucket to the right, it takes me roughly 30 second to completely denude a lemon. 30 seconds times 50 lemons is 25 minutes.
I could probably get faster if I stopped looking at a stopwatch.

Those are the music-free methods that tend to work for me- but frankly if you’ve got a job that doesn’t mind you having a set of earphones (and you’ve got a LOT to do,) I heartily suggest Welcome To Night Vale, Myths and Legends, and Fictional for your listening/storytelling/vegetable chopping pleasure.

Whatever you choose to do, however- remember to make the task worth doing, and take pride in your work. If you can’t do that, then it doesn’t matter how quick, complete, or focused you are- the effort is wasted.
​Again, from Dogen:

When I was staying at Tiantong-jingde-si, a monk named Lu from Qingyuan fu held the post of tenzo. Once, following the noon meal I was walking along the eastern covered walkway towards a sub-temple called Chaoran Hut when I came upon him in front of the Buddha Hall drying mushrooms in the sun. He had a bamboo stick in his hand and no hat covering his head. The heat of the sun was blazing on the paving stones. It looked very painful; his back was bent like a bow and his eyebrows were as white as the feathers of a crane. I went up to the tenzo and asked, “How long have you been a monk?”

“Sixty-eight years,” he said.
“Why don’t you have an assistant do this for you?”
“Other people are not me.”
“Venerable sir, I can see how you follow the Way through your work. But still, why do this now when the sun is so hot?”
“If not now, when?”

There was nothing else to say. As I continued on my way along the eastern corridor I was moved by how important the work of the tenzo is.

Stay Classy (and conscious),

Review #7- The Bivy / Saint Burrito

Where: The Bivy/ Saint Burrito 113 SE 28th Ave., Portland

I was 25 when I was first exposed to the glory of food trucks.

My older sister invited me to visit her in New Brunswick where she was attending grad school. Besides record exchanges, all-you-can-eat mediocre buffet sushi, and other wonders of the modern world- Steph said I HAD to get a “fat sandwich” from one of the grease trucks while I was there.

Fat sandwiches are what the country would eat for every meal if no one discovered kale and Whole Foods fell off the face of the Earth. Everything you can fit on a New Jersey sub roll- usually starchy/meaty/deep fried things- all wrapped up into a 10-inch long heart-murdering missile of joy. She brought me to a square of trucks staffed by evil/enterprising young student bent on the perfection of these lethal concoctions, and I- to my only partial shame- finished a chicken finger/fries/meatball/cheesesteak/Parmesan/mashed potato sandwich in one sitting.
We sat in a parking lot, knocked them back with bubble tea, and felt no pain.

Even before I moved to Portland, a veritable food truck capital of America, street food had- quite literally- gained a place in my heart. Some food is simply best experienced- NEEDS to be experienced- while standing in the elements, leaning against a wall, or hunched over a public garbage can with the sounds of the world surrounding you.
Even so, I have yet to review a single truck.

It’s time to fix that I think- so let’s start with breakfast and burritos.

Around the corner from the cafe where I work is a smallish food pod (the term for a food court-style gathering of trucks.) Ranging from various-cultures chicken to Middle Eastern to Thai, the pod boasts 7 venues as well as a beer-only truck with regularly-rotating taps. Most of the carts have been there for several years, but nothing lasts forever. When the Mexican-inspired “Guero” left its truck to establish it’s first brick-and-mortar down the street, two new businesses were ready to fill the vacancy.

First came “The Bivy”- offering “campfire inspired brunch”, they took the flavors of a camping cookout and dragged them back to town, smoking their own meats right by the service window and baking their own English muffins. The Bivy perfectly represents my own philosophy for the best way to cook- “Simplicity with Elegance.”
When I first stopped by the new truck after work, cold beer already in hand thanks to the Captured Beer Cart, I was hit by a barrage of scents wafting from inside. The hot metal of the flattop. Browning butter. Spicy smoke, as their bacon (butchered and smoked on site) sizzled away, and the hot fat blending with the butter underneath eggs.
“Whatever that is, I need one.”

It was the Prigo- their flagship sandwich, and the best goddamned breakfast sandwich you will find anywhere.
It came out to me about 15 minutes later, and as soon as the foil-wrapped puck hit my palm and the sweet smell of grease eked out- I knew I had chosen wisely.

The Prigo features a scratch-made English Muffin, a slice of Tillamook cheddar cheese, house apple butter, big chunks of their bacon, and a seared egg. No, not fried- SEARED. The white is slightly crisped, and yet- at the first bite- the barely-cooked yolk explodes, coating the contents and taking the sandwich over the moon.

You might notice, however, that I mentioned “brunch.” The Bivy’s hours are only from 9a to 4p. While not the same financial burden as a brick-and-mortar, running a food truck is still a costly and demanding proposition. When you have a skeleton staff and a specialized menu, how do you afford to keep your place?

Well, you go halfsies. Enter Saint Burrito, and the first timeshared food truck I’ve ever seen.

Saint Burrito, a Mexican-inspired truck that runs select days from 4:30p to 9:30p, signed on to share the truck with The Bivy- completing the unique pairing by painting their menu and signage on the backs of the Bivys. Run by a couple who confess themselves as “not being cooks,” Saint Burrito’s menu offers – duh- burritos loaded up with chicken, carnitas, or vegetables. There is no “build your own” dynamic here- all burritos are compounded as the should be. Rather than typical yellow rice, Saint Burrito says “No. Red rice.”
Wilted, depressing shredded lettuce? “No, shredded green cabbage to maintain its crunch.”
Meats lingering on a steam table? Try crispy pulled pork, or guajillo-ancho pulled chicken.
Salsa in a Burrito is for amateurs- Saint Burrito says pico de gallo and their light-but-fiery arbol chile crema.

These are ridiculously good burritos- delivered in the simple foil wrapping that says “Here you go, dude- all good. Take that thing for a walk, man- enjoy it.”
Then you realize they also have fish tacos.

Every now and then, Saint Burrito runs a Yellowfin Tuna fish tacos, for $3 a piece. Forget the “Taco Tuesday,” limp greaseslop-filled sleeves of sadness you associated with the word. These are honest-to-God street tacos- three bites maximum, loaded up with sashimi-grade marinated tuna, grilled rare, and paired with their pico de gallo and chile crema. Finished with a little wedge of lime to make it all that much better- a quick little nosh before while you wait on the main event.

WHEN: The Bivy is open daily from 9 to 4. Busiest times are the late morning and early afternoon. I try to show up around 1 or so.
Saint Burrito takes over Wednesday through Sunday, 4:30p to 10p. Call either at (503) 875-0038

WHY: You are in the city of Portland, a goddamned food capital, and it just doesn’t feel right if you aren’t walking around with a greasy, meaty, delicious something wrapped in foil in your hand.

Turn The Page- At the end of the day…

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

When I was culinary school, I had a chef instructor who didn’t just teach pastry arts and baking- she also taught how to put them down and walk away.

     Chef Chelius was one of the toughest, most exacting- and consequently, one of the very best- teachers the school had. There were teachers that were a little goofy, others were jovial and paternal, sardonic and dry, even matronly and sweet. Chef Chelius was a BOSS. She was known for NEVER giving anyone an “A”- “An ‘A’ is perfection,” she would say. “I’m not perfect. If I wouldn’t give myself an A, like hell one of my students will get one.”
     When it came to cleanliness, Chef Chelius was the one who got me to compulsively clean my workspace. “Your table reflects your mind. If your table is messy, so is your mind. You can’t focus.”
​     She had absolutely no problem telling me, early on in my first class with her, that if I didn’t shape up I would be kicked out of the program, and my future as a baker would be shaky at best.
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A young Black Hat Baker getting graded on his Cucumber- Winter Melon Granité presentation.

    This hardly seems like the type of person who will tell you how to go home at night and not think about work.

    Clearly, I shaped up. A year or so after that conversation, I was in my third class with her. That was when she took a few moments at the beginning of lecture to tell everyone “When you go home, remember to GO HOME.”
    Chef Chelius was a holy terror in the kitchen- but she also practiced violin, read, and enjoyed gardening. She encouraged us all to have friends and hobbies outside the kitchen. “If you don’t, your life will only be kitchen people, talking about kitchen things, and nothing else.”
  
     I especially remember her describing a particular “ritual” she had when she got home. She used to make a lavender-scented sugar handscrub for herself. It was her finish line, so to speak- when she got home, hung up her uniform and used that scrub, that was it. She was scrubbing her hands of the day, and leaving it behind.

    
    One of my favorite memories between us was during this same course. I had had a miserable day in the kitchen, and berated myself (as us young people do/did) publicly on Facebook. I had forgotten that Chef Chelius had friended me on there- and would read it.

    
     The next day, she called me to her desk. 

“You had a rough day yesterday, Matt.”
“Yes Chef, I’m sorry- today will be better.”
“I certainly hope so, it was an interesting status you posted.”
“…Oh. Um.. yes, Chef.”
“Matt, do you remember what I told you two years ago, standing over by the flour bins?”
“… Yes Chef- that if I didn’t shape up, I’d be out of the program.”
“Yes, Matt- and you’re still here. You’re going to get an ‘A’ in this class. You’re doing fine- it’s just food, Matt. Remember to go home.”

—————–

Flash forward, from 2013 to now. Nearly 5 years after that conversation, and sometimes I still forget to go home.

    As I write this, I am sitting in the Horse Brass Pub, behind a short glass of Rauchbier Weizen- a creamy smoky tasting beer I am increasingly fond of. I am on Day 4 of nine-day work week, and I have been berating myself for the last two days or so for not working the way I feel I should be.

    Not at the cafe- work has been rough for the last few days, but I feel confident in my accomplishments there and how I handle my shifts. It’s THIS- the blog, and being the BHB. I want it to be more a part of my future career, and I am frustrated- a lack of creativity, a lack of energy… just the feeling of lack.

But your thoughts will soon be wandering the way they always do
When you’re riding sixteen hours and there’s nothing much to do

And you don’t feel much like riding, you just wish the trip was through

     It is because I forget to “go home.” 

     Between baking at the cafe, and then coming home to research and write, I go from one office to another.  There isn’t even a change of uniform to mark between the two (as I no longer have to wear a uniform at my current job.) There is nothing like Chef Chelius’s sugar scrub anymore- no ritual to mark the distinction between work and the rest of my life- simply because my life is increasingly wrapped up IN my work.

Ah Here I am, on a road again
There I am, up on the stage
Here I go, playing the star again
There I go, turn the page

     That is maybe why I enjoy writing in cafes and bars the most. That may be why I can write this all down now- I am in the midst of my little Rauchbier Ritual. The “quitting time beer o’clock beer” as I call it on my Instagram.  Sitting down and nursing a beer tells me that my time is my own again- to work or do whatever I please with.

Back in my old house, I had a hammock in the sunroom where I would lounge, drink, and write. I had a mental image of something between Hemingway, Norman Rockwell, and Jimmy Buffett when I would work like this- it was a clear division between my daily work for OTHERS, versus my work for MYSELF. I had to leave the hammock behind in New Jersey though, and our apartment has no room for one anyway.

    Note to self: get a big wingback armchair, with armrests wide enough to support a cup of tea/whiskey. Tell Emily it is for mental health reasons.

Later in the evening as you lie awake in bed
With the echoes from the amplifiers ringin’ in your head
You smoke the day’s last cigarette, remembering what she said…”

Remember to go home, people,
and of course-

​Stay Classy,

Review #6- Neat

WHERE: Neat, 2637 SE Hawthorne Blvd., Portland, OR 97214
  Sometimes, you just want a good whiskey. Not complicated cocktails, not pastel drinks, not funny or cute names.
    You just want a place to be quiet, to relax, and to enjoy a goddamned whiskey.

    Walking down Hawthorne Boulevard in just such a mood, I was on my way to another bar that had an interesting name. I’d passed by it before, and thought it looked fascinating.
     Neat is not that bar. It’s the bar that kept me from going there just after sticking my head in- everything I needed, and a shorter walk to boot.

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By the way, I eventually did go to that other bar. Fun place, but not what I was wanting just then.

As soon as my head pops in the open door, Robert Volz, the owner, grins and gestures me in. Immediately after the copper-topped bar and veritable wall of whiskey, I am struck by the word “COZY.”
Not literally, but certainly a physical manifestation of the word. Leather-topped stools, easy chairs and low couchs, deer heads on the wall- painted portraits of women and children, modified with handlebar mustaches. That one was a little odd, but everything else feels just about right. “Appropriately kitschy” might be the right description- a reminder to relax, and not take things too seriously.
Except for whiskey, of course. Treat that deadly serious- the owner does.


The list is extensive, intriguing, and- unlike some places- explicitly curated. Apparently, several people who work at the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library came by and asked if Robert had a couple high-profile bottles.
“Absolutely not.”
“Are you kidding?! That’s top shelf stuff, why WOULDN’T you have them?!”
Robert shrugged, “I don’t buy stuff because it’s popular- I get it because it’s GOOD. I tried that stuff- it wasn’t good.”

No flavored crap. No Fireball. No Canadian whiskey (“Ugh, that stuff isn’t even whiskey.” A direct quote.) Not even top-shelf flavors. At Neat, whiskey is about corn, rye, grain, smoke, water, wood and time. All things I can get behind.

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Take your time.

After 15 minutes, I’m one drink in and deep in conversation with Robert. Conversation and education for that matter. Robert started off his professional life as a sommelier, and turned his attentions to whiskey purely to open up Neat. Slowly draining two fingers of Famous Grouse (with one small rock, my preferred whiskey prep), Robert gives me an education on the distilling world- from trivia about the world’s distilleries to why an Old Fashioned in Wisconsin is different from anywhere else (it’s made with brandy rather than whiskey, the fruit is muddled, and no bitters. Yeah, sugar bomb.)
​ 

Over his head, the single TV in the bar is not showing the news- thank God- or sports. Robert is a classic TV and movie buff, and if he’s not pouring you can expect him on the stool next to you- or beating you at pool.
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High West Whiskey’s “Campfire”- one of a number of excellent bottles I’ve helped put a dent in.

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The scene of a few beatings, and at least one push-up wager.

Between the whiskey and Robert’s friendly company and conversation, Neat has quickly become a stop on my “regular” bar rotation. Like all good bartenders, the man knows his fans, remembers their likes and dislikes, and has a list of suggestions for when a weary man can’t make up his mind.

The other day was one such day for me- a grueling day in the shop left me in need of a spirit, a sit, and a sandwich… and I remembered that Neat not only had the whiskey I was tasting, but a small menu- made and curated by Robert, with whiskey pairing in mind.
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Shlomo the Deer approves

I walk in and drop my bag.

A grin, a scotch (Famous Grouse Smoked Black), a BBQ pulled pork sandwich with hot baked beans, and Star Trek TNG on the TV. Early in the series, too- Jonathan Frakes without a beard, and Denise Crosby as Tasha Yar. 

Apparently Robert smokes the BBQ pork on the roof of the building, and the hot baked beans are spiced up to give them a significant- but not unpleasant- kick.
In a minute, he’s sitting next to me grilling me on what Uhura’s job was on the original Enterprise, and why there didn’t seem to be a communications officer in TNG.

This is how all days should be lucky enough to end.

WHEN: Neat is open 7 days from 4 to midnight. No reservations except for special functions.

WHY: Because you need a place to cool it for a while. It’s been a hell of a day, and you just need a whiskey and to sit for a bit- maybe catch some tv and forget the rest of the world for an afternoon.