Where: The Liquor Store, 3341 SE Belmont Ave. Portland, OR
"Oh hey, Matt! You just finish? Wanna come down to the Liq for a beer?"
In this neighborhood, everyone in the industry knows everyone. Restaurant workers finish their day, they go down the to bar their buddy works at for a post-shift. After two years, I can only say I'm a "regular" at a few bars- places where they know my face, and what drink I'm about to order. It's a good feeling, and if I'm honest I hit the bars up in a rotation just so no one feels slighted.
If you know Victor, though- you find yourself a regular EVERYWHERE.
In every restaurant, there is (or should be) "a guy." A man of means. Possibly crazy, possibly criminal, but with a good heart who's been known to make things "appear" from time to time. A guy who can talk his way into and out of anything- and who has been thrown out of more places than you knew existed.
Victor the barista is our "guy" at the cafe. He's the one that just recognized me on my bike after work.
Beer o'clock, it is.
"Japhy got out the tea, Chinese tea, and sprinkled some in a tin pot, and had the fire going meanwhile, a small one to begin with, the sun was still on us, and stuck a long stick tight down under a few big rocks and made himself something to hang the teapot on and pretty soon the water was boiling and he poured it out steaming into the tin pot and we had cups of tea with our tin cups. ... 'Now you understand the Oriental passion for tea,' said Japhy. 'Remember that book I told you about the first sip is joy the second is gladness, the third is serenity, the fourth is madness, the fifth is ecstasy.'"
Where: The Tao of Tea, 3430 SE Belmont St, Portland, OR 503-736-0119
The sun beat on my back as I biked up Belmont Street. Every three minutes or so, though, it would hide again and the wind of the otherwise crisp spring afternoon would chill the sweat.
It had been an another day in the bakeshop, and while I wasn't necessarily eager to run to home just yet, I wasn't feeling the noise and stimuli of a bar. I'd spent the day setting everything up and double-checking supplies so the new kids first solo day in production would be smooth- and now I needed to let go. Find a quiet place where I could crash in silence, chain up my bike, and slip into some light fare.
Fortunately, I knew such a place.
UPDATE (8/19/2018)- Likewise has since closed its doors. I wait to see what Adam and Nancy intend to do next. In the meantime, I'm keeping this up as a memoriam to a great concept and bar.
Full disclosure: While I am a "member" of this establishment, I have no stake in it, financial or otherwise. Similarly, this review is entirely unsolicited by the establishment, and all opinions are inviolably my own. The nature of my membership will be expanded upon further in the review. - BHB
Where: LIKEWISE, 3564 SE Hawthorne Blvd., SE Portland.
When you're mostly-unemployed, you find yourself pounding pavement a lot.
Sidewalks meld together, the curbs all start to look alike, and your eyes only really respond to flashes of neon, streetlights, and window displays of things you'd love to be able to afford one day. The only things that stir you up are potential places to look for work- or places to make you feel a little better about not having it.
In short, it's a wonderful excuse to go exploring- and I was in exactly such a state clomping down Hawthorne Boulevard a year or so ago.
Hawthorne Boulevard is a local strip comprised of bars, restaurants dedicated to various cuisines and budgets, and intriguing shops varying from the mundane stationery to exotica. The street is rife with nightlife venues- a barcade (Quarterworld), a kitschy sci-fi bar from the 50s (the Space Room), and a number of restaurants, food carts and stands ready to offer delicious boozemops for when you just need SOMETHING to get you home.
This considered, the presence of LIKEWISE is not remarkable.
It's really the ONLY thing about LIKEWISE that is not remarkable.
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 friggin' 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.
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.)
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.
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.
Good evening, friends and neighbors.
It was almost a perfect night.
Good evening, friends and neighbors!
I tend to do my best thinking when I'm outside. I've heard that it's something to do with endorphins, or the activity of the body matching the activity of the mind. It might also be the mirepoix of light, fresh air, and action that stirs the imagination to open doors it might have sullenly slogged by- even if the body itself seems to be slogging it's way through the rainy, suddenly sleet-in-May-filled streets of Portland.
I tend to do my best THINKING when I'm moving around outside.
My best WRITING, however, tends to happen in pubs and restaurants.
As I write this, I am ensconced in a small subterranean cocktail lounge called Pepe Le Moko, hidden away between two stores on 10th St., just off of Washington.
Past a young woman in the doorway shucking fresh oysters and prepping appetizers, a narrow staircase leads to a pleasantly dark, well-arranged bar- moodily lit as seems appropriate, with smooth jazz playing at a noticeable, but not obnoxious level. I can't help feeling nostalgic for certain bars in Philadelphia that echo this sort of not-unpleasantly-stereotypical atmosphere.
Really, only the most uninformed tourist would doubt that beneath it's shiny, liberal-artsy, crunchy exterior, Portland is an honest-to-God drinking town, and there really does seem to be a bar not just for whatever you are craving, but whatever mood you are in.
Since moving to Portland a year ago (oh god it's been a year), I've found myself belly-up to many fine establishments, and there are a few I come to again and again, based on what I'm feeling. Maybe it's a fantasy of vintage class. Perhaps it's a place to swap stories and lies with friends. Often it's a quiet place to nurse a drink, sit down, and write.
Here's my list.
These bars tend to be either subterranean or well-secluded, allowing you to ignore the world outside and focus on whatever it is you are doing, whether that is writing or just drinking at enjoying a classy form of isolation. Usually not specializing in anything in particular, what makes a good writing bar can really depend on the person. For me, I like a good beer list, or solid cocktails.
Joining Pepe le Moko in this category is the McMenamin's-owned "Al's Den" in Downtown. I first found this place while trying to find a place to wait out the rain, have a pint and write. A narrow flight of stairs down from the pavement leads to a smallish, warm basement bar with a quiet atmosphere, fine McMenamins beer, and friendly people- the perfect place to wait out the storm.
On East Burnside is a curious addition to this category called Rontoms. With the unobtrusive exterior of an old warehouse, Rontoms is a hip and spacious bar with regular music, great beer, and great food. Rontoms is a BIG space, but the choice of furniture (almost all low couches and chairs around coffee tables) and the layout of the room give one the sensation of people-watching in an enclosed space. An ebullient staff and solid food menu means an experience that I can only describe as "feeling pleasantly alone in a crowd."
If you are interested in going a little further east and checking out the North Tabor neighborhood, you'll find the Caldera Public House. Locating in a historic drug store, Caldera offers bar seating, a few comfortable chairs around a bookshelf, and a back patio. While their beer menu is a little lacking for Portland, their cocktail list presents intriguing offerings, like the "Dark Garnet" and "Leche Diablo." Both Emily and I have found ourselves slipping down the block to get some writing in at their comfortable tables. Their 10pm closing time, however, tends to forbid late-night workshopping sessions.
The Local Watering Hole
Like a traditional Irish or English-style pub, the common thread in these bars is the homieness- between the atmosphere and the staff, you get the feeling that coming here is a pastime, where the servers know you and what you like. You might even have a favorite spot. Not necessarily a place to be alone, these are places to meet friends, enjoy company, and drink a few beers. As you can imagine, this is the category that MOST bars in Portland fit into. No matter what part of the city you are from, you are rarely far from a pub you can call home.
My current local is the Horse Brass Pub, on SE Belmont. With an absolutely phenomenal beer list, and excellent English and American pub fare, the Horse Brass sometimes doubles as a Writing Bar for me when I really crave the noise and action of a busy bar. While you won't be getting too many cocktails from the bar, that's not the reason you came. This is a place to meet friends and have a beer or whiskey...and then another... and another... and another.
If, on the other hand, you're feeling something a bit more divey, the Yamhill Pub has you covered. Yamhill Pub stands proud as your loud, dark, windowless dive tucked in the bottom of an office building along Yamhill St. A raucous jukebox, even money on getting a craft microbrew or a big label domestic, and a generally colorful clientele means a splendid place to disappear into the noise and forget you exist for a while, or at least until you get sucked into another patron's story time moment.
Maybe you're not really feeling a dive, but also don't want something TOO fancy or clever. For that state of mind, my favorite place in the city so far is Beulahland- dark, but open. Divey, but friendly and welcoming. Great beers on tap, and a menu of solidly-done sandwiches, burgers, and other staples makes it the gold standard for local in my book, and the perfect place for an after-hours drink. You're as likely to watch English Premier Soccer on the screens as you are to see flamenco dancing- which is to say, "Yes."
If you had the day off, however, you might find yourself on SE Hawthorne- a main drag of shopping, dining, drinking, and amusements. All the way at the end of the street, you'll find Quarterworld and the Space Room. Quarterworld is a retro-gaming dreamland, with a great bar and carnival-inspired food to keep you fueled as you play vintage arcade and pinball games, listen to live bands, or guess at trivia.
For a quieter time, however, wander over to the Space Room. Kitschy and goofy by purpose and pride, The Space Room is a small bar decked out with all the 1950s sci-if shlock and goofy lighting you could want, and with a classic drink menu and infused vodkas to match. Laugh at the kitsch, and drink it up. It's what you came for, and you got it and more.
These are the bars that I usually find I'm in the mood for when I have guests, or if I'm taking Emily out on a date. Make no mistake- these places are solid places to get a drink, but they aren't really the kind of place where you necessarily hang out and drown your sorrows. These places are a little swankier- you walk in here to see and be seen, and to drink the strange and wonderful cocktails they do so well.
Given that it is the commercial and tourism heart of the city, the Downtown area west of the Willamete seems to be the nexus for these sort of bars. Notable among them is Shiftdrinks. When I first walked in to Shiftdrink, I was struck by the minimalist, warehouse-like decor. I had anticipated something akin to MIlkboy- a bar in Philadelphia notable for the fact that it is directly across from Jefferson Hospital, and has a "happy hour" timed for each shift at the hospital- one should always be able to end a day's (or night's) work with a drink.
Shiftdrink, however, is something clearly different. It's a place to meet friends, and specifically to grab a cocktail. While their beer menu DOES sport some fine choices, come on- you don't go to a sushi restaurant and order pizza.
If you're feeling something a bit less cosmopolitan in FEEL, if not necessarily in location- there's always Swine. The companion bar to the Swank restaurant at the base of the Paramount Hotel, Swine specializes in two things: moonshine whiskey, and pork. With an exciting and intriguing bar menu for the bacon-obsessed individuals in your life, and great whiskey-based cocktails, it's a great place to meet friends after dinner, or before a show.
Beyond all this, however, there is one place that MUST be mentioned. Tucked away on SW Alder Ave is the Multnomah Whisk(e)y Library. No, the "library" bit is NOT just them being clever. Open to the public, but reservations only available to membership (at a $600 yearly price tag, and currently wait-listed), one may ascend a staircase in an dark, wood-walled hall and enter the smoking-room/study you always wished you had. With a leather-bound whiskey list an inch thick, listing two walls worth of whiskey in alphabetical order, this is a place for special moments. This is where you can melt into the leather upholstery of an arm-chair, enjoy a whiskey poured precisely to your wishes, and wrap yourself in the serene splendor. With very few actual tables, the Library DOES sport a brief but impressive menu- the price point, however, makes it a VERY special occasion sort of place. When you have the chance to taste whiskies that cost up to $2000 an ounce... yes. You ENJOY it.
This list isn't comprehensive by a long shot, and I always love finding new and different places to try- but for the stranger in the Rose City, who may be worried by early hours of his hotel bar, or put off by the crunchy hipness of the local populace, fear not!
Portland is weird, it loves BEING weird, and it REALLY loves getting weird.
About the Author
The Black Hat Baker, a.k.a. Matt Strenger, lives in SE Portland, Oregon as a professional baker. Here, Matt bakes, cooks, exercises, and explores, returning to his wife and their hobbit hole up Mt. Tabor to write about all of it.
Email the BHB at blackhatbakery(at)gmail(dot)com
Want to support the BHB and On The Bench? Click here!
The BHB Instagram