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March 26th, 2003 Caryn B. Brooks | Food Reviews & Stories
 

THE QUEEN of Williams Avenue

Lue Parker has presided over her soul-food shack for 40 years and counting.

     
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Lue Parker opened the Tropicana in 1956, when North Williams Avenue was a busy business district.
IMAGE: martin thiel
If you're reading this story looking for information on a new restaurant, you're out of luck. If you've come searching for insight into the latest culinary trends, you will be disappointed. Unlike most of the reviews that appear in this spot, the following piece is about a restaurant in the late autumn of its life and the street it lives on. It's also about spicy ribs.

I prowl North Williams Avenue on a regular basis. Home to one of the better commuter bike lanes in the city and a particularly byzantine wall mural by Portland artist Tom Cramer, North Williams often feels like a gold-rush town deserted when the going went bad. Nestled between I-5 and Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Williams hasn't been designated an arts district, like nearby Alberta Street. Empty lots seem to outnumber actual buildings, and the commercial structures that do stand tend toward the squat, cement and windowless variety. There are artifacts that lead you to believe that this street enjoyed another life--the faded "House of Sound" sign over one storefront, the husk of a former drive-in restaurant at another corner, the remnants of foundations mossed over and sticking out of the ground like reefs exposed during low tide.

During my many excursions at erratic hours, I often noticed what I came to think of as a ghost ship of a restaurant. Light salmon in color, with darkened windows and a faded-to-the-point-of-unreadable sign over the door, it looked about as abandoned as deserted brig the Mary Celeste. No lights ever seemed on, but when I went by early enough in the day, I'd see a sandwich board out front. I never saw anyone walking in or walking out.

One afternoon I had some time to kill and, much to my delight, the sign was out front. I entered the Tropicana Restaurant and found a tiny luncheonette with an L-shaped counter flanked by 1950s stools and three booths lining the walls. The open kitchen seemed smaller than what you'd find in a modest apartment; a refrigerator was wedged against a wall next to the counter. What looked like a brick oven of the sort you'd find in a pizza parlor took up the bulk of space. Framed portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and a young Jesse Jackson hung on the wall. Spotlessly clean, the room felt hermetically sealed. The air hung with the smell of scores of meals cooked, so much so that my jacket was scented with it for weeks. Even though it was chilly outside, inside it was steamy. There were no other customers.

An older woman greeted me from the kitchen and pointed me to a blackboard and a letterboard. The blackboard listed a bunch of full-course meals for $9.95 (chitterlings, chicken neckbones, oxtails, baked chicken and dressing, smelt, chicken and dumplings) and BBQ options (ribs and chicken). The letterboard had breakfast and sandwich options. I wasn't that hungry, so I asked for a tuna melt. "Not today," the woman, who I found out later was owner Lue Parker, told me. A grilled cheese with fries and a Coke was OKed. I asked her how long the place had been around. "Only 40 years or so," she told me. We both laughed.

My Coke came in a chilled glass, a minor detail I appreciated. I have this strong pet peeve about beverages coming in paper cups--these wax-coated holders always seem to suck the life out of whatever you pour in them. (The recent trend toward serving milkshakes in these bastard beverage containers has been known to throw me into tantrums--the integrity of the milkshake quickly breaks down.) The grilled cheese sandwich was nothing fancy; it tasted like what your grandma might make for you on a teacher in-service day--with more butter on the bread than Mom would ever allow.

My next visit I delved deeper into the menu. When I asked for the chicken and dumplings I got the same "not today," so I went for the oxtails. My friend ordered the ribs. During this visit, two older men sat at the counter discussing their favorite restaurants in town (Soup and Soap and Yam Yams topped the list) and the current mortgage rate (5.75 percent!). A television propped on the counter blared generic daytime talk-show chatter.

The full-meal deal started out with a cup of tasty vegetable soup, and I could tell by the ragged cut of the beans that it was homemade. The oxtails (which came with a choice of two sides; I picked yams and greens) arrived on one of those molded plates that have indentations where the different parts of the meal should go. The oxtails were tender and delicious. The accompanying yams and greens had a distinctly home-cooked taste. Two little cornbread muffins, one slightly browned, came with the meal. The ribs, which I found out are cooked in the indoor brick pit that Lue's brother built for her in 1959, are very unusual. The short ribs are piled high on the plate and served dry in the Korean BBQ style. They are very, very spicy with hints of cinnamon and hickory. Lue said she made up the recipe years ago. My dining partner had a hard time getting through them all because of the searing heat, but a friend from the South I turned on to them has become a regular. I got a cute little bowl of pudding with graham-cracker crumbles for dessert.

I became a little obsessed with Lue and her place. I found out that she is 79 (doesn't look it); she owns this little building that is flanked by empty lots on either side; and during its heyday in the late 1950s and early 1960s it was open 24 hours. "It was a beautiful street, everything was happening," Lue says. "People lived here." Lue says business went away a long time ago for her, but she has kept the place running because "I don't have anything else to do, and this keeps me alive." She often has friends her age work there with her for the same reason.

So what happened to Williams? Richard Engeman, public historian at the Oregon Historical Society, says Williams used to be a main thoroughfare with a streetcar line running down it. Then came the highway that tore down housing and diverted traffic. In came Emanuel Hospital, which tore down even more houses and businesses, making infill promises that were never met. And, Engeman notes, urban renewal in the 1960s and 1970s tore down properties in the hope that development would come next. "So a lot of stuff would get torn down, and then it was whoops," says Engeman. "This was seen as a tactic of busting up a community--with good reason." Interestingly enough, Tropicana resides right in the middle of a current Portland Development Commission urban-renewal zone--the Interstate Corridor; $335 million will be invested in the area through 2020. Lue seems mildly interested in such progress, ending sentences with sentiments such as "if I live to see it."

She does, however, get excited if you order the ribs.


Tropicana Restaurant
3217 N Williams Ave., 281-8696. No credit cards. 10 am-6 pm Tuesday- Thursday, 10 am-7 pm Friday- Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday. $



Up the street, recently opened Pizza A Go Go spiffed up a former rib joint and moved in.



The Tropicana very recently hung a new sign over the door.



The buildings on either side of the Tropicana were lost to a fire that Lue's restaurant somehow survived.



Lue says she picked the name Tropicana at random.



Lue's daughter Deborah, who lives in Los Angeles, bought an adjacent parcel with hopes of developing it with help from the Portland Development Commission. She says the plans are now on hold.
 
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