Unless you've got an XXL stomach and an equally large wallet to match, you're never gonna make it to all of the city's restaurants. But there's a handful of locally owned eateries that WW staffers admit to dismissing for years; places that we've always wondered about: rundown joints on Portland's busier, exhaust-choked main drags or theme restaurants and buffets that seem schmaltzy in an era where every neighborhood boasts its own authentic pho shop. Given the gridlock in the parking lots, somebody was eating at these joints—it was high time we did too. Our reviewers didn't like everything they noshed on, but, either due to sweet service, cheap deals or the power of American excess, we now understand why these places hold a special place in our friends' and neighbors' hearts.
THE ORIGINAL TACO HOUSE
Preconceived notion: I drive past the Powell Boulevard location, which sits between a suspect Chinese place and DeNicola's Home Style Italian Restaurant, on the way home from work daily. The playful midcentury type of the sign and the terra cotta tile in the room imply that the restaurant exists outside of time, a relic of the days when Oregon strawberries were still picked by children, not migrant workers, and nobody thought that was maybe a little fucked up. It looks like the kind of place where they put a sombrero on you on your birthday*, and every enormous order comes with a half pound of refried beans and a pint of shredded iceberg lettuce.
The real deal: It is exactly that kind of place, but the food is not nearly so bad as expected. Sure, the "sizzlin'" steak fajita ($5.95), which did not sizzle, was dry, and the beef-and-chicken "taco burrito" was bland, but all the ingredients were recognizably real food—no mechanically separated chicken here. Sauces, beans and fillings are all made in-house (you can order them wholesale, if you like) and taste fresh enough. The Original Taco House was opened in 1960 by the Waddle family, of "Eat Now!" Jantzen Beach clock fame (now claimed by Hooters), and claims to be the city's first Mexican eatery; is it any surprise the food is timid? Don't try to be adventurous here. Just indulge any childhood nostalgia you may have for bubbling cheese, large drinks (the largest serves "2-4" and contains six unnamed spirits) and ersatz Third World decor, order the excellent-looking nachos ($7.95-$12.95), a chimichanga ($9.95) and, of course, fried ice cream ($3.50), and settle in for a good time. The service is excellent.
Why you really should go: Decent well margaritas ($5.95) are just $3 in the bar during happy hour, 3-6 pm and 9 pm-close nightly. Order three and some jalapeño poppers ($5.95) and you're set.
Why you should keep on driving: The halibut tacos ($9.50) managed to taste more like a shrimp cocktail than any fish taco I've ever had. BW.
*They do; I have a photo of it from my 14th birthday party, at which I slurped a virgin strawberry margarita and ate a bean-and-cheese burrito with no lettuce. —Kelly Clarke
SUPER KING BUFFET
Preconceived notion: Once the home of the downscale-provincial version of Chuck E. Cheese that was the Organ Grinder (best known for the decrepit, becymbaled monkey guarding the front portal), this Murder Flats building stood vacant for years before being rehabbed with the four-walled, forbidding one-way glass of a mafia-owned strip bar, along with the unenticing prospect of hot-plated, presumably ptomaine-rich Chinese buffet.
WE ARE THE WORLD: Global excess at Super King Buffet. IMAGE: Roger Bong
The real deal: Though the food may ostensibly be Chinese, Super King Buffet is, in truth, America itself. It is an absolute church to democracy and tawdry excess. Past the koi pond, under multiple glinting chandeliers, in a cavernous casino-style space; there are no fewer than six massive buffet stations (lit, of course, from within), a soft-serve ice cream station, a sushi bar, a seafood bar sporting mussels and sloppily bisected crabs, and a Chang's-style stir fry. On the buffets, amid the expected seafood soups and gooey red-bean paste dumplings—the pot stickers, the coconut chicken, the variegated spicy porks and broccoli beefs and shortribs—one discovers pizza, salmon, whole cod, baked yams, fried plantains, macaroni salads, half-shelled oysters doused in pot sticker sauce. And it's all yours, in any combination and whatever unsalutary quantities you'd like, for $8.99 at lunch, $12.99 at dinner. Every impulse is indulged, and it shows in the truly heartwarming breadth of clientele: On my Sunday visit, my neighbors included the local football team; giant families black, white, Hispanic and Asian; seemingly thousands of children; and a raft of Sunday-best churchgoers. A caveat, though: All of the food is slightly terrible, with the exception of some wonderful Asian radishes at the salad bar, and the stir-fry station. The pizza tastes slightly of oyster sauce, the yams of the nearby clams. But it doesn't matter. Though all is mediocre, there is simply so much mediocrity that you're constantly distracted, amazed, and confused: Bright lights! New food! What's this? What wonders! America!
Why you should really go: What? Do you hate America?
Why you should keep on driving: After my admittedly excessive feast, my eyes were so dilated and head so dizzy and feverish from an MSG overdose that I almost got into a car accident. MK.
Preconceived notion: This is a place most people drive by without even registering, let alone consider going inside to eat. A huge rectangular slab the color of overcooked meat, Tom's tries its hardest to look uninviting—and succeeds. After dark, three or four disreputable-looking black-clad rocker types hang out on picnic tables outside the bar, not increasing the allure.
The real deal: The diner half of Tom's is one of the friendliest places in Portland for an old-school, solid breakfast. Nothing about it is fashionable in any way. There are babies and old people here, but no skinny jeans. The cheese on your Denver omelette ($7.45) is either white or yellow, and it's shiny. The bacon is thick and perfectly cooked, but probably not organic applewood-smoked or anything like that. (In the tasty bacon-mushroom-swiss omelette, also $7.45, the fungi are fresh, not canned.) Stellar hash browns take up half the plate, or you can choose pancakes instead. Juice comes in pint glasses. Booths fill up at peak breakfast times, but nobody cares how long you stay; the coffee keeps coming. Waitresses will indeed call you "hon," but only out of habit—it's not intentional. Maybe the nicest thing about Tom's is that it's so un-Portland. It could be anywhere.
Why you really should go: A huge new mural of the Steel Bridge covers an entire wall of the diner. Check it out.
Why you should keep on driving: The bar side of Tom's is actually about what you'd expect from looking at it. BO.
AMALFI’S ITALIAN RESTUARANT
Preconceived notion: Amalfi's looks like an antiseptic proto-Olive Garden. Every time I walked by I swore I heard the strains of Kenny G streaming from the open door as a parade of fleece-clad parents toting six kids each filed inside. I kept walking.
The real deal: There's a reason for the old school Italo-American vibe. Although the family restaurant got an earth-toned facelift last year, it was opened back in 1959 by Jack and Diane Baker (Jack's dad, Fred, opened Caro Amico, which claims to be the first Italian restaurant to serve pizza in PDX, a decade earlier). These days the couple's granddaughter runs the biz, which makes up for its mostly unremarkable pasta and pizza dishes with a genuinely welcoming vibe, big cocktails and giant-sized meal deals, complete with bland minestrone soup, perfect tossed salad (with zippy honey-mustard dressing) and a half loaf of garlic bread per person. The star of this show is the 10-layer lasagna ($13.75 à la carte, $16.75 full dinner). It's a Nerf football-sized dish of mild sauce, pasta and Italian sausage rounds sandwiched between stretchy ribbons of ricotta and mozzarella, all topped with a layer of addictive cheese crispies. It tastes like something your friend's mom would make you for dinner in the 1950s—not an Italian mom mind you, but a particularly gifted middle-American mom who had yet to encounter concepts like "fat content" or "heart disease." You will take half of it home.
Why you really should go: There's Pantene hairspray and Secret aerosol deodorant on offer in the ladies bathroom. And every visit culminates in three desserts—spumoni ice cream, an Ovation mint stick tucked inside your bill and a Dum Dum lollipop from the bowl on the hostess station as you waddle out the door.
Why you should keep on driving: The fabled pizza is really more of a bland flatbread topped with elastic cheese. And that really was Kenny G playing on the stereo. KC.