At Union the other night, Rocky overheard us talking about our Portland jaunt and immediately said “You have to go to Pambiche. It’s the most awesome Cuban food.” And then he reminded us again the next morning over breakfast. When the Rock tells you something’s this good, twice, I advise you to listen.
With all the wedding goings-on, we weren’t really sure if we’d be able to fit Pambiche into the agenda. Luckily, we timed it right: On our way out of the hotel, we checked the map and — sure enough — Pambiche is even en route to PDX. Sweet. They’re also open from lunch straight through to late night. (There’s a joke here about having your medianoche at medianoche, but I am too tired to pull off a bilingual pun.)
As we drive up Glisan, it’s not difficult to find Pambiche. Even from blocks away, we spot the brightly-colored building and row of umbrellas covering the patio tables. Inside, the colorful chaos continues, with art and artifacts verging on kitsch covering nearly every surface. (Here’s a link to the photos.) It smells impossibly good in here, and already I’m verging on sensory overload. We’ve been blessed with remarkably sunny weather all weekend, so I can only imagine what a wonderful touch of the tropics Pambiche would be during the depths of a Portland winter.
We scan the menu and find many familiar tastes: Ropa vieja, various plantains, beans of many colors. We need a little coaching through ordering a sampler appetizer plate called the Primera Vuelta — neither the menu nor our server does a very good job explaining how we choose which aperitivos and in what quantity.
In the end, we settle on the empanada de picadillo (spicy meat-hash turnover). and two each of the croquetas de papa y bacalao (potato and salt cod croquettes) and frituras de malanga (garlicky taro-root shreds formed into cakes and fried). They’re attractively presented, served with remolacha (beet and watercress in sour-orange dressing) and ensalada caribiena (citrus cabbage slaw). Everything on the plate is delicious, although we both agree the empanada is the standout item, with the earthy beet salad a close runner-up. We dab on a bit of a house-made smoky chile sauce, brought to the table in a plastic squeeze bottle.
It’s not even 5pm yet, and the place is filling up, with guests putting their names on a sign-in sheet and retreating to a set of benches along the sidewalk. While we wait for the rest of our food, we sip a pair of Limonadas de Guarapo, a cool concoction of fresh-squeeed lime and sugar-cane juices, served with a chunk of the cane to nibble. it’s an acquired taste — Cameron likens the sour-sweet flavor to pickle juice — but it grows on you… and works well with the food.
Our entrees arrive hot on the heels of the appetizers, but we’re not bothered. My Cuban Sandwich looks amazing: Pressed between a perfectly crunchy-soft roll, there’s plenty of ham, roast pork and Swiss cheese, slathered with a mustardy spread and a tart pickle. It’s served with a pile of tostones, a barely-sweet version of banana chips. Cameron’s Plato Cubano features roast pork, white rice, and a cup of the best vegetarian black beans I’ve ever tasted. How do they get them so flavorful without meat? Man. Seeing an order of red beans go by on their way to another table, Cameron flags down our waitress and asks if he can have a cup of them, too. She’s initially confused — “didn’t you order black?” — but we set her straight, and the red beans arrive within minutes. And what a grand idea! They’re even more amazing than the black ones, redolent with herbs, bacon, and other porky bits. After my first taste, I’m not even asking Cameron for another bite before grabbing the spoon. The beans alone are worth a trip.
We’ve been ogling an impressive display of traditional Cuban cakes and pastries all through our meal, but we haven’t saved room. Their descriptions take up two whole pages of the menu, and they’re glorious to behold but United waits for no man, Ah, next time… and there will be a next time.
Pambiche Cocina y Repostreria Cubana
2811 NE Glisan Avenue
Portland, OR 97232
We’re staying overnight at the 5th Avenue Suites, one of two Kimpton hotels in Portland. And as much as we love Kimpton — and recognize that their restaurants can sometimes be better than merely decent — we’re pretty clear on the fact that you’re not going to a hotel restaurant in search of culinary excellence. You’re usually pretty safe with American standards like burgers, club sandwiches, Cobb salads and the like, but expecting anything memorable is a recipe for disappointment. This, we know well.
So why in the name of all that is foodie did we take the elevator downstairs to the Red Star Tavern & Roast House, rather than seeking out a truly worthy place to brunch? Well, kids, today’s the Portland Marathon, and the whole city — most especially the area around our hotel — is jammed with people. And, on a more personal note, it’s also the morning after a very late night spent celebrating the marriage of two long-time friends, Karen & Nelson, out at Edgefield, the McMenamin’s brewery’s rustic resort on the edge of town. Let me say that again: Brewery. Wedding reception. Nelson’s crew. You get the picture…
Now, we didn’t know this ahead of time, but it turns out that Red Star has a D.I.Y. bloody mary bar on the weekends. You choose one of ten decent vodkas, and they bring you a very healthy glug in a salt-rimmed pint glass, and point you to the bar. Along said bar you’ll find a wide assortment of bloody mary mixes, plus straight tomato juice, celery salt, hot sauces, horseradish, and what must be the city’s best-stuffed array of olives. No Worcestershire sauce, Tony Cachere’s, or celery stalks… but I suppose pickled asparagus will do in a pinch.
And, you know, the drink’s pretty average. It’s not a stunning beverage, but I’ve got no one to blame but my own sweet hung-over self. (Mental note: This is why we generally leave brunch to the experts.) Cam wisely sticks with coffee and water in the beverage department, and busies himself with the Sunday NY Times. I never did trust a newspaper that’s too uptight for comics, but that’s probably best left to another post…
In a strange departure from our usual preferences, Cameron opts for fish & chips — a lunchy brunch option! — and I choose the biscuits and gravy. The service is polite, prompt, and cheerful, and we’re all happy. Until the food comes, that is.
My biscuits are fine, but the gravy looks and tastes rather prefab. And I don’t understand why a fancy hotel like this can’t afford a slotted spoon for the kitchen: my poached eggs come in a bowlful of water… a pet peeve of mine, admittedly. On a more serious note, Cameron’s fish is coated in a delectable-looking batter, but what’s inside is clearly wa-a-ay past its prime, reeking of ammonia. He calls over our server, who apologizes profusely and whisks the plate back to the kitchen. Almost as quickly, she brings it right back to the table, explaining that although she’d be happy to replace it with another dish, “the cooks say it’s catfish and that’s just how it smells.” Uh, yeah. No.
Ultimately, French toast with real Vermont maple syrup turns out to be a wiser choice.
I vaguely remembered having eaten at Red Star on our last swing through Portland — what is it about this city that brings out the food-slackers in us? — and being unimpressed, but I suppose the bright spot in the whole debacle is that I certainly will remember this round… even I won’t make the same mistake three times.
Red Star Tavern & Roast House
503 SW Alder Street (at Fifth Avenue)
Portland, OR 97204
It’s almost a law: You can’t drive down Interstate 5 without stopping for a burger and fries. Back home in California, of course, it’s In-N-Out that’s everyone’s favorite I-5 stopover. In the Northwest, no sooner will the phrase “road trip” cross your lips than someone will mention Burgerville.
Burgerville — at least the location in Centralia where we stopped yesterday — looks and feels much like any major fast-food outlet. Unlike other specialty burger spots, there’s nothing retro, chic or upscale about it. But when you take a closer look at the menu, you notice some telling differences: Tilllamook cheddar cheese, seasonal fresh berry shakes, Diestel Farms’ free-range turkey, and Oregon Country natural beef — just like at Palace Kitchen.
Holy cats! It even says “fresh, local, sustainable” right there on the brightly-colored menu board, in huge letters… and yet, everyone eating (and working) here looks like normal semi-rural folks, just like you’d probably see in the McBurgBox down the road. Nobody’s a hippie, nobody looks like Alice Waters. It’s downright tear-jerking to see so many of My Fellow Americans choosing to vote with their wallets and feed themselves something other than crap.
The fries are pretty good, with a nice potato-y taste; the so-called ketchup we’re dipping them in is ghastly, worse than you’d find at a cheap diner. The burgers are merely serviceable: They may be made from happy cows, but they’re typical machine-made smashpatties, cooked to within an inch of their lives. They’re saved from snackbar status by fluffy sesame-seed buns, leafy lettuce, truly ripe tomatoes, and tasty cheese. And Cam’s Mocha Perk milkshake — made with real ice cream — sports little flecks of espresso.
As much of a sustainable-food geek as I am, I’m not sure I could give up In-N-Out for Burgerville; the food’s just not as tasty. But it’s a damn sight better than McD’s or any other mainstream greasepit, and a worthy stop when hunger strikes on your next Northwest road trip.
Cameron says: I’m not in love with B-ville — certainly not enough to give up In-N-Out. But Anita pegged how I feel about the place as we were pulling out of the parking lot: “I don’t feel like I just ate a vat of chemicals.” A poignant note, particularly with the memory of a desperate, nasty, late-night trip to Jack-In-The-Crack in Seattle still fresh in my mind.
818 Harrison Avenue
Centralia, WA 98531
(and 38 other locations in Oregon and SW Washington)
If there’s anything wrong with wandering around in the sun all day and drinking a bunch of different kinds of beer, then I don’t want to be right. I was up in Portland last weekend for a bachelor party, and as part of the festivities our crew spent a lazy Saturday afternoon at the 19th Annual Oregon Brewers Festival.
I’m not sure which was more impressive, the number of brewers in attendance (50+), the number of people in attendance (50,000+ per the Fest organizers), or the number of Grateful Dead cover bands you can safely book in succession without inciting a riot (I lost count).
One of the things that I miss desperately about living in Seattle is the reverence that the Pacific NW has for beer. Two of my favorite brewers and my single favorite beer purveyor are located in the Seattle city limits, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface.
Now, I’m not knocking the Bay Area beer scene. I felt strongly enough to blog about it way back in the day, when real men wrangled HTML with their bare hands. But my Portland trip was like a return to the promised land of cerveza.
Now if I could just get “Touch of Grey” out of my head.