When Casa Diablo owner Johnny Zukle opened his second club, Black Cauldron, on Halloween, he vowed to operate it as an all-ages vegan restaurant until 7 pm. Blossoming Lotus alum chef Jake Farrar was to helm the kitchen inside the imposing former Woodshed building two blocks west of the Gresham border, preparing a prix-fixe meal for two seatings per night—like Beast with a brass pole and no foie gras bonbon.
It was a beautiful idea, perhaps hashed out between Drake songs in the middle of a long, sodden night at the rail. I called to make reservations on Dec. 1, exactly one month after the Cauldron started bubbling, only to learn the ambitious plan had been scrapped. Instead, Black Cauldron's menu would be essentially the same as Casa Diablo's. But, despite that club's international fame, no critic has ever done a serious review. So why not let Trifecta, the new tavern from Beard Award-winning baker Ken Forkish, rise for another week?
Black Cauldron is housed in a pointy-roofed barn of moldering wood shingles. Interior walls are painted like the musty gray brick of an old castle—it looks like a haunted house constructed by high-school theater geeks. In the center of the room, behind the pole, sits a "cauldron," a round bed of green faux fur that glistens with stripper dew. Unless you're vegan, you're probably better off with a beer and a stack of $2 bills—not stained red here, sadly—than a plate.
Let's start with the top.
The samosa ($6) was the best thing we sampled in two visits. Recommended by a dancer seated at the bar-—it's worth mentioning that these ladies are independent contractors familiar with the fare and with no incentive to misrepresent their experience, making them reliable resources—the Indian snack packs big curry flavor into a golden-brown sachet of potato and peas. The shell was a tad too oily and the inside was mushier than I prefer, but an excellent sweet chili dipping sauce made up for it.
We happily used the extra sauce on a haystack-size pile of thin, crispy fries ($4) plated with our Diablo burger ($4). The burger is built from a soy patty topped with raw onion, pickles, ketchup, mustard and a small splat of a vegan Thousand Island dressing. It was unavailable on our first visit because the previous night's cook had neglected to thaw the buns. While it's no Sassy's steak, there's far worse grub at Portland clubs of this ilk.
The yakisoba ($6) is a pile of wheaty noodles in a thin sauce that's not terribly oily, salty or flavorful, and a few hunks of batter-fried tofu. As big plates of noodles go, it easily betters the beefy stroganoff ($6) that fell victim to the limitations of dairy and meat substitutes, ending up floppy, tepid and without any creaminess.
And now it's time for the bottom. I found vegan "mac and cheez" made with nutritional yeast basically inedible—chasing every bite of funky, rotten flavor with a sip of Vortex IPA and a long look at the stage. Which basically reinforced my long-held belief that the best vegan food is of Asian descent and that American comforts are better left natural and animalistic. Zukle and Farrar could have proven me wrong with that tasting menu. Then again, any strip club that doesn't leave customers a little disappointed is probably due for a visit from the vice squad.
- Order this: Samosa ($6), yakisoba ($6) and fries ($4).
- Iâll pass: Mac and cheez ($6).
- Best deal: One free lap dance per hour is given after 9 pm.
EAT: Black Cauldron, 16015 SE Stark St., 265-8929, blackcauldron.net. 11 am-2:30 am daily.