Review #19- The Bellwether Bar

WHERE: 6031 SE Stark St.

By all accounts, Caldera Public House should have been my preferred local bar.

It was walking distance from my house in a historic building, had an eccentric vibe, a beautiful back patio, decent food, and hosted live Celtic music? I have even have an amusing memory about the place. Before we got married, I came home from work one day and heard Emily in the bedroom. I said “hello,” and she called out “Oh… you’re home already? Um… I’m trying on the wedding dress.”

“Ah… gotcha.” I promptly walked down to the Caldera and got a seat because, before our marriage even began, I’d been kicked out of the house and sent down to the pub for an hour.

All the same, I rarely went to Caldera Public House, and chose other bars that were closer to work or run by friends. The food at Caldera was good, but never very good. The beer list was underwhelming, and I’m rarely a “fancy cocktails” guy. Above all else, the place was just not comfortable for very long. The live bands were good, but loud. You couldn’t sit at the actual bar because there were tables in the middle of the main room, and a small reading nook in the middle of the building had the most comfortable seats, but it was frustrating to read, eat, and drink there at the same time.

When Caldera closed up even before the pandemic, I was sad but not surprised. Then, when a new sign was hung outside the door about a month ago, I wondered if someone was trying to be the neighborhood bar Caldera struggled to be.

They were, and they are.

The exterior of the Bellwether Bar
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Why I Write in Restaurants

It’s possible for a space to feel too comfortable.

Looking at my own “workspace” at home, it absolutely looks like I spend a lot of time sitting there. There’s an art print on the wall behind my comfortable high-backed chair from IKEA. There is a minimalist desk lamp (also from IKEA) that illuminates the space directly between my laptop’s keyboard, the coaster for my tea mug, and the stand where my iPad or phone controls my Pomodoro timer and music selection.

It is my preferred space for book work. It is my preferred space for editing and tweaking my own work. Beyond that little ring of light and cheap wood, though, the rest of the desk is chaos. It is too comfortable. One of my culinary teachers warned us that our workspace reflects our minds- if you have a messy workspace, you have a messy mind. Beyond my laptop, thar be dragons.

When it comes to this weekly blog, I feel like I have to go mobile. The wanderlust of the “nomadic entrepreneur” seizes on me, and I need to pack everything in a satchel and “find a place to write.”

Today, my “office” of the moment is My Vice. It has cocktails and a really good beef sandwich. The table is empty except for my typing machine and a late lunch. Arguably, I could save money and do this myself by cleaning my friggin’ desk up- but what’s the fun in that?

My name is Matt Strenger, and I do a lot of writing in bars.

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Future for Two, 6 PM

Good evening friends and neighbors!

As the pandemic sunk its teeth into the American culinary industry, there was no shortage of worries and opinions to fill column inches. They included hopeful outlooks, doomsaying, and more than a few appeals to our elected leaders that they should stop resembling a monkey sodomizing sports equipment.

A few of those hot takes even came from me- but one in particular came from my therapist:

“You’ve mentioned before how you and your wife enjoy going out to eat together. That’s certainly tough right now, but there’s got to be ways to make do.”

“Making do” is one of those skills that we humans are great at, diseases be damned- and tonight I went out to dinner to see how some places are doing it.

Selfie of the author sitting outside of Ankeny Tap and Table in Portland Oregon.
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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 #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….