A Wedge Salad Kind of Life

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

A few weeks ago, I was in a bit of a state. It was a cloudy day, I had run out the door relatively early in the morning to make an appointment- the kind that requires a tie, vest, and pressed slacks. It required me to remind myself to pick a briefcase that matched my attire. My shoes were shined, and I’d even remembered to floss.

The appointment was… underwhelming, I should say. If you were to put a gun to my head right now, I couldn’t tell you want was said at any point in the meeting. All I remember is that I walked out at the end, looked up at the street signs, and decided I needed lunch and a beer.

Fortunately, I was near a restaurant that Emily and I had heard great things about, and throughly enjoyed dessert at. It was close enough, the menu and price were right- and I was certainly ready to walk in to something that felt certain.

“Down on His Luck”, Frederick McCubbin, 1889

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It’s Not The Floorspace, It’s the Headspace

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

It’s a Sunday afternoon in Portland. The sky has been spitting rain all day and threatening more, but in Portland you tend to just get used to a constant state of moisture. I didn’t even bother with a jacket or umbrella on my way out today. I’ll be under cover or shelter long before the wetness can bother me, and the cool air feels sweet to breathe.

 

I’ve just gotten off the phone with an old friend of mine who had more than a few words to say about self-publishing, and I researched some new technology to make doing my work as the Black Hat Baker easier. Now, I find myself (finally) getting ready to tell you all about whatever’s on my mind this week.
Just another day at the office… except this office I share with the rest of the city.

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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 #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?”

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Review of the Week #1: 24th and Meatballs

Good evening, friends and neighbors!
As you may have noticed, I love food. I do some of my best writing when sitting in a cafe or bar, and over the course of two years I’ve accumulated a list of favorite places- some are great to write in, some have great music. Some have amazing food, others their drinks are the stars. Socialize in some, hide in others.
I’ve also got more than a few opinions on what good food and drinks ARE, and I don;t mind telling anyone that’ll listen.
So, at Emily’s urging, I’m gonna use this space maybe once a week to review the places I’ve been!
No totally negative reviews- every restaurant deserves a shot and your own opinion- but it will always be the honest truth. I’ll tell you not only where to go, but when and WHY.So let’s talk balls.

WHERE:24th and Meatballs, NE 24th + NE Glisan St.

A few weeks back, the planets once again aligned in a felicitous manner, and I had a day of beautiful weather off. Donning my favorite aloha shirt (they are always in fashion and I will fight you), I took to the streets for a bit of a wander around parts of the city I don’t often get to see.

As I walked and soaked up the sun before the inevitable days of rain, I found myself around NE Glisan. Before picking up my current job, I’d had an (obviously) unsuccessful job interview at a restaurant nearby, and found myself with some time to kill. If memory served, there was an interesting meatball place around here….

So it was. 24th and Meatballs clings to the end of an unassuming string of restaurants, with indoor and outdoor seating. The placement is perfect for people-watching on the busy street, with food well-bent toward the mid-afternoon doldrums.
Even before you walk in, the elephant in the room comes out and greets you. There are a LOT of testicle jokes everywhere- and yes, you ARE there to eat balls. Their phone number (50-EATBALLS), their menu, their advertising all make it quite clear that the dining experience will not include high-brow humor.

PictureBehold- the Baller-Melon.

Now that the 12-year-old in you is satisfied, you can medicate the adult. The beer and cocktail menus are limited, but effective. Beers are mostly local microbrews, and the cocktails are twists on classics (with yet MORE ball jokes.) I put in for a Baller-Melon (vodka, lime, watermelon juice). The fruity, neon boat drink fits the weather- cool, refreshing, and pairs nicely with obnoxiously loud clothing.

Next comes ordering, done off a chalkboard. It’s a simple progression if there ever was one:
1. How do you want your balls? 24th and Meatballs offers their wares in various platings and numbers, including pasta and sandwiches, ranging from the humble slider (one ball on a bun for $3) to the Hero (three balls, sauce, cheese, on a hoagie roll for $10)
2. Pick your balls! (Choice of Classic Italian, Pork Piccante, Chicken, or Vegan)
3. What Sauce? (Classic Marinara, Creamy Cheesy similar to an alfredo, a pork bolognese, or an arugula pesto.)

All balls apparently work with all sauces, but I go with the Classic Italian and the Marinara- just three on a plate, with foccacia, referred to on the menu as “Balls, Balls, Balls” for $7. If you need extra balls, it’s $2 a pop. Much easier than getting surgery. (Crap, they’ve got me doing the jokes now. Sorry about that one.)


Picture“Balls, Balls, Balls”… I think there’s an AC/DC song here.

My order comes out pretty quick, though I was maybe one of 5 people there on a Friday afternoon. Meatballs and booze in the sunshine? This I could do more often.

The meatballs are VERY good- very meaty, with not much filler. Most of the meatballs I’d had use bread crumbs or eggs as a binder. The ingredients are locally sourced, and the texture is firm and satisfying. The sauce, however…. oh good God that SAUCE.

This might be a nitpick that’ll earn me a beating in some circles, but I can’t stand sweet tomato sauce. I want fresh, spicy, zesty- but not sweet. Pizza, pasta, it doesn’t matter- if the sauce is noticeably sweet, it’s an instant turn-off to me.

24th and Meatballs’ classic marinara is exactly what I want out of a tomato sauce. When I think of “the gravy” in Italian-American cooking, this is what I come up with now. Take a look at that plate again. When I’d finished the balls and had run out of bread, I was sitting there scooping up with sauce with a fork. If I wasn’t sitting in public, I probably would have gone ahead and lapped at the bowl like a dog.


A cocktail, meatballs, and an aloha shirt in the Portland sunshine. I could REALLY do this more often. I need more of these balls in my life.

I’m sorry about that one too.

Picture

Not this one, though.
When To Go: Anytime seems right, but pick a day with good weather- indoor seating is somewhat limited.
Why: Because you need a simple, delicious, meaty lunch and a good drink to wash it down with on a lazy afternoon.
How: Visit them, or their other location on 87th and N Lombard St here in Portland (appropriately named “87th and Meatballs.”) If you’re stuck at home, they deliver! Order through their website at 24thandmeatballs.com, or call in at 50-EATBALLS.

P.S. Maybe you’re a purist who needs to have wine with your Italian. In yet another cosmic alignment of convenience, directly across the street from 24th and Meatballs is Pairings, “Portland’s Weirdest Wine Bar.” This guy sells wine the way I pick restaurants. Need a wine based on your zodiac? They got you. Pairings based on movies and tv, and even a wall of choices based on which awkward social situation you feel compelled to bring a bottle to. Eat your meatballs, then slip across the street for a glass of something red and weird. You might even see my wife there- it’s her new favorite spot.

Stay Classy,

There and Back Again

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

Emily and I stood in front of the sleek, modern apartment complex on St. James, our coats bundled up tight against the wind. It was carrying something beside freezing cold, though, and we wanted ALL of that. Greasy food, car exhaust, wet leaves, motion and attitude and frustration. The smells of home.
We were back in Philadelphia.

Picture

Photo from Wikipedia

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