Much of this city's shape was determined within the walls of Bijou Cafe. Not just inside the kitchen of the stalwart bruncherie, one of the first Portland restaurants to push organic and local provisions. But in the dining room, site of so many fateful handshakes and kingmaking coffees.
As one story goes, when the ambitious young John Kitzhaber wanted to challenge incumbent partymate Barbara Roberts for the governorship in 1994, he sought the blessing of Neil Goldschmidt, Roberts' powerful predecessor. Where to stage such a ring-kissing? Bijou, of course.
Maybe it says something about Portland that our rulers convene not over old whiskey and bloody meat in a wood-walled den, but over fluffy oyster, bacon and onion omelets in an airy downtown breakfast joint with a waiting list. Our rulers are not necessarily any less nefarious—Goldschmidt's mysterious decision to step away from gubernatorial re-election and become a party godfather was explained a decade later when WW revealed he had sexually abused a 14-year-old girl as mayor of Portland in the '70s—but they do eat in louder and sunnier environs, surrounded by unfolded visitor maps.
And they eat well—especially when they're willing to order unconventional breakfast fare at Bijou, now 35, old enough to run for president.
The front of the menu, where the breakfast standbys queue up, isn't anything special in the $40-breakfast-for-two range. Bijou's buckwheat griddle cakes ($7) can be soggy, those French-style omelets a little pale, soupy and light on the cheese for my taste. A dry muffin came with the main course, instead of with coffee and cocoa as requested. Bijou sits next to Stumptown, but that coffee comes from Illy.
Flip the menu over, though, and you find some wonderful surprises, including two Latin-influenced entrees that are among the best breakfasts I've had in recent memory.
The first, a plate of cowboy-style, sliced medium-rare steak with bright chimichurri and two over-easy eggs ($13) atop a bed of stewy, brown borlotti beans specked with chorizo, delivered enough spicy herbed protein to fill me up until dinner time. The second, spoon-tender achiote braised pork ($10) with over-easy eggs, slivers of mildly hot poblano peppers, pickled red onion, cilantro and plump hominy kernels, was just as gooey, flavorful and filling.
Not all the classics disappoint: Oatmeal, granola, bacon, sausage and fruits are all solid. A hash ($10) with cauliflower, kale, feta, black olives and two eggs, was good, the runny yolks and tangy feta coalescing beautifully over home fries. Likewise, not all the Southwestern options were quite so good. Enchiladas ($12), a cassolette filled with two rolled tortillas each stuffed with an average street taco's load of shredded chicken and baked under sauce and cheese, were too crispy on top, disintegrating to mush below.
Meanwhile, two breakfast salads were standouts. A plate of buckwheat noodles ($9) with shredded cabbage, carrots, black sesame seeds and a light, gingery dressing may be intended for Asian tourists, but I found it very enjoyable. A salad of roasted yams and beets ($9) was made both sharp with apple-cider vinaigrette and sweet with crisp local apples and crunchy walnuts, creating a tangle of bright pink, purple and orange chunks that looks like an abstract painting. Neither would make a great breakfast on its own, but both were perfect for sharing as a side dish.
So share, and look around. Chances are, one of the surrounding tables has two people making a decision that will change your life.
Order this: Cowboy-style steak and eggs with chimichurri ($13).
Best deal: Achiote braised pork ($10).
I'll pass: The hashes.
EAT: Bijou Cafe, 132 SW 3rd Avenue, 222-3187, bijoucafepdx.com. 7 am-2 pm Monday-Friday,
8 am-2 pm weekends, 6 pm-close Friday supper jazz. $$.