When I was younger, I was repulsed by my father's obsession with jelly doughnuts—the filling seemed hazardous, often squirting out wildly when he took a bite. Little did I know that years later I would become infatuated with another small bun stuffed with both sweet and savory goodness—the kolache.
Originally born in central Europe, the flavor-packed kolache has immigrated to Southeast Portland, thanks to a gem of a cafe called Happy Sparrow.
The cafe's exterior is nondescript, but the colorful bird on its sign hints at the cheerful vibe inside. A warm greeting from owners Danny and Mary Quach rings out as customers sweep through the door.
Sparrow's yeasted dough buns actually hail from the couple's Texas hometowns (first Houston, then Austin), which both boast large numbers of Czech immigrants. "We grew up eating kolaches; it's like a staple down there," Mary Quach says. "That would be a definite breakfast item—bagel, kolache, doughnut.... We noticed [Portland cafes] don't have breakfast tacos, either."
All sorts of things gooey, creamy or even meaty are stuffed inside the Quachs' buns—from Nutella ($1.95) or Portland-centric salmon and cream cheese ($2.50) to barbecue pulled pork ($2.25) or a "vegan delight" garden loaf ($2.25). The sausage and Tillamook cheese ($1.95) kolache is a soft, slightly sweet dough ball that reveals warm, oozy cheese and perfectly cooked sausage "smokies" with every bite. A recent "Thanksgiving" kolache came packed with turkey, cranberry sauce and housemade stuffing—comfort food at its best ($2.50).
The ingredients come from local farms and businesses, and the kolaches are freshly made every morning by the Quachs themselves, who are thrilled to fill Portland's hot-pocket niche.
Drink options at Sparrow range from fresh, local berry smoothies ($4.25) and Mount Hood Roasters coffee ($2-$4) to sweet, strong Vietnamese coffee ($2.95) made with condensed milk (it is delicious poured over ice).
Though patrons can curl up with warm kolaches at the front window overlooking Belmont (or at the side window with its lovely view of the Plaid Pantry parking lot), the nooks and corners in the back area are cozier. The walls glow with warm colors and murals, and speedy wi-fi encourages loafing with laptops or browsing the books scattered about.
With these amazing Texan kolache creations in hand, Happy Sparrow is destined to take flight even under gray Portland skies.
Happy Sparrow Cafe, 3001 SE Belmont St., 445-0231. 7 am-4 pm Monday-Wednesday, 7 am-2 pm Thursday-Friday, 9 am-2 pm Saturday. $ Inexpensive.