Photos by Chris Ryan
In the 18 years Willamette Week has chosen a Restaurant of the Year, never once has a single chef received the honor twice—until now. In 2007, we picked Toro Bravo, John Gorham's stellar tapas spot as our favorite of the year. Three years later, Toro Bravo still has lines out the door, while Gorham has lost 130 pounds and gained a second, 2,200-square-foot restaurant—the family-style brunch headquarters Tasty n Sons, a globe-spanning spot in North Portland where buttery eggs and flaky Southern-style biscuits cohabit happily with North African couscous in the name of elevating Portland's love of brunch to a daily obsession. It's that good, and we are proud to give Gorham the award a second time.
Many of our reasons for honoring Tasty n Sons are the same as those for its sister restaurant: bold, rich flavors; a comforting ambience; and the kind of consistency that guarantees you'll get the same dish tomorrow as you did the first time you fell in love with it. What reviewer Heidi Yorkshire wrote of Toro Bravo in WW's 2007 Restaurant Guide equally applies to Gorham's new home: "It's a restaurant that makes people laugh, put their arms around their friends and kiss their lovers." Except at Tasty n Sons, you get to start your day off with that delicious, ephemeral feeling and, since it expanded to dinner hours in September, end with it too.
This is not a quiet, reserved establishment. The clash and clatter of cooks sautéing onions, frying eggs and crisping bacon (cured by Gorham and crew in Toro Bravo's basement) in the open kitchen is constant. So are the moans of pleasure and giddy cackles of neighborhood families, bleary-eyed hipsters and tidy tourists all sitting elbow to elbow at the big front table by 10 am—some already on their second, stellar morning cocktail. Smooth concrete floors and a roll-up garage door contribute to a din that can become nearly overwhelming on busy weekends, but it's worth it. The servers are friendly and speedy and, despite the restaurant's popularity, the wait for a table is rarely more than 30 minutes, even during the Sunday rush. Also, and this is the real kicker, a group of four can stuff themselves silly, drinks included, for around $20 per person.
Gorham says the itch to open a second restaurant started as early as 2008. He long had his eye on a long warehouse space in North Williams Avenue's Hub building, once home to the vegan restaurant Nutshell, where he envisioned creating the brunch spot he and his neighbors groused about not having for years. He jumped at the chance to claim it in early 2010. He signed the papers in February and got to work, enlisting a group of friends who are metal and woodworkers to help retool the space, building sturdy tables and a long tall bar overlooking the kitchen line. "We threw two trash cans full of stuff away and everything else was recycled or reused," he says proudly. Tasty n Sons opened only 40 days later.
"Everyone's calling it tapas for breakfast, but I see it as family-style. We're saying, 'Here, share this, have a good time with it,'" says Gorham. Sharing is indeed inevitable. Most of the dishes come sizzling hot to the table in cast-iron pans or the shallow, earth-toned cazuelas that are synonymous with Toro Bravo. One iron pan might be full of a hearty frittata, recently packed with a kitchen larder's worth of long, skinny confit string beans, sweet roasted zucchini, salty olives and caramelized onions, just browned on top and happy with melted feta. Another hosts a wide disc of crunchy cornmeal cake spiked with green onions, topped with buttery scrambled eggs and small bits of juicy seared flank steak. It tastes a bit like a Mexican tamale, crossed with Disney's Country Bear Jamboree. Before you can process either dish fully, here comes a cazuela brimming with shakshuka, a Middle Eastern stew co-owner Ron Avni demanded Gorham include on the menu. Thank him for his insistence. This is the best breakfast slop ever: a slurry of roasted red peppers and tart tomato laced with cumin and chiles and bits of juicy merguez sausage, which all act as a cushy bed for a pair of baked eggs. Use a plank of buttered Fleur de Lis toast to shovel it directly into your face. (Then head to the video below to learn how to make it at home.)
"The only thing that could make this better is if I were eating this in my own bed," a curly headed man sitting a table over from me sighed during a recent meal. He rubbed his belly as he gawked at the bounty in front of him: an order of creamy Italian sausage polenta, a plate of summer berry- and maple-drizzled Auntie Paula's french toast and a Bloody Mary garnished with a stick of bacon.
The cumulative effect of all these dishes is to lull diners into a giddy, food-drunk stupor. As the meal ends, watch as a fleet of spoons dive-bomb for the last bite of a molten chocolate potato doughnut. Balance just one, last taster bite of biscuit, fried chicken, oozy egg and sweaty cheddar on your fork, determined that your overstuffed tablemate not miss out on the good shit. Just stare at the juicy, no-nonsense burger, willing your stomach to expand.
The credit for Tasty n Sons' consistency goes to Gorham's staff, many of whom were with him at Toro before emigrating to Tasty. Head chef Kyle Prewitt oversees the line on a daily basis, while Gorham works with local farmers (his roster of purveyors, including Viridian and Singing Pig farms, are displayed on a giant chalkboard in Tasty's entrance), plans menus and deals with logistical headaches. "It's definitely a younger crew—25-to-30-year-olds. I don't give out a lot of freedom," he admits. "We develop ideas together, but I want—with all my restaurants—it to be known that that's my restaurant." Gorham, who was part of the original Viande Meats and Simpatica collective before striking out on his own with Toro, still works the line at both restaurants at least two to three days a week. Unlike most chefs, he does not work weekends, carving out Saturday and Sunday to spend with his 6-year-old daughter, Ruby.
Family plays a big part at Tasty n Sons, especially in the recipes. Take a bite of the dense yet flaky biscuits, smothered in reindeer gravy or kissed with sugar and topped with fresh cream and sautéed blueberries. There's a strict method to produce their tender magic. "We box-grate the butter into the flour mixture so you don't melt it. The colder the butter, the fluffier the biscuit," Gorham says, noting that the second secret is a trick he learned from his family while growing up in Savannah, Ga., and Myrtle Beach, S.C. " You flour the dough lightly and you leave it there and you fold it four times over, so the flour stays there and you get those layers."
Many of Tasty's dishes will be familiar to Gorham acolytes. The cinnamon- and coriander-laced North African sausage and couscous have been quick kitchen nosh for Toro Bravo's day crew for years. The chef has prepared the Burmese pork stew, a kind of sweet-and-sour teriyaki, for his Sunday dinners for friends for years. "I made a big batch of it and brought it in [to Tasty], and we chopped up some hard-boiled eggs and fried some eggs on top of it and had it for breakfast. We were like, 'Wow, that's freakin' awesome,'" he says.
When dinner service debuted last month, Gorham was adamant that it stay true to the restaurant's original brunch mission. It does. The morning offerings are simply buttressed by the addition of the famed romesco- and manchego-topped Toro Bravo burger and the Tomas burger, the restaurant's "Mexican dishwasher's favorite burger," which boasts sour cream, jalapeños, and ham as well as rotating delights like an herby breaded pork cutlet surrounded with housemade spaetzle or a zingy octopus-and-prawn cocktail that tastes like a Bloody Mary of the sea. The chef, who often spends his own mornings at Vietnamese pho shop Ha & VL, promises Asian morning soups and ramen in the months to come but swears he's not opening another neighborhood restaurant in the near future.
For now, Gorham says, he's got his hands full with Toro and Tasty. "It's a lot like getting a tattoo," he says. "You start a new restaurant when you forget how much it hurt to do the last one."
GO: Tasty n Sons, 3808 N Williams Ave., Suite C, 621-1400, tastynsons.com. 9 am-10 pm daily. $$ Moderate.
Video by Riley Hooper and Rachelle Hacmac. Music by 3 Leg Torso.
WILLAMETTE WEEK'S RESTAURANTS OF THE YEAR, 1992-PRESENT
1992: Zefiro (closed in 2000)
1993: Le Bistro Montage
1995: Paley's Place
1996: Caffe Mingo and Assaggio (closed in 2007)
1997: Tapeo (closed in 2004)
2000: Mother's Bistro and Bar
2001: Mint and Bluehour
2002: Pho Van and Pambiche
2003: Noble Rot
2005: None; Alberta Street was the "Street of the Year."
2006: None; we declared it the "Year of the Artisan."
2007: Toro Bravo
2008: Sel Gris (closed in 2009)
2009: Beaker & Flask
2010: Tasty n Sons