âMeet me at the counter,â the song says. âIâll be here every day, smokinâ on through the night.â
Every day except Sunday, as it turns out. The song, "Mary Jane," by Mack & Dub and the Smokin Section, is all about medical marijuana and how it's maybe a good idea. But these days the lyrics could just as easily apply to Dub's brisket at his soul-food counter, Dub's St. Johns, open six days a week. Since December 2013, he's been cooking up brisket, chicken, waffles and burgers out of a window inside the Ranger Tavern.
It's a bit of a phoenix turn for Dub, aka William Travis III. He and musical partner J. Mack—a former member of local Billboard R&B charters U-Krew—had started a beloved restaurant on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Mack & Dub's Excellent Chicken & Waffles, that WW called the best soul food in Portland. In November 2012, however, the business was lost to a fire, with signs that it might have been racially motivated arson.
Fast-forward to Jan. 21, 2014. It's Dub's birthday, and there's cake. Dub is holding court at one of the Ranger Tavern's tables. His family and friends pay their respects, as do a pair of old customers from the Mack & Dub's days, who are just plain tickled to be there. "Happy birthday," they tell him on the way out. "Thanks for the cake."
The Ranger Tavern, Dub's new home, is a friendly sports-and-lottery bar on a dark stretch of road a few blocks from St. Johns' downtown; it's the home drinking turf for Portland wrestling legend Len "The Grappler" Denton. It's probably called the Ranger in honor of the antlers and taxidermy on the walls next to the beer knickknacks, but it might as well be named for its position as the northwesternmost watering hole in the city, en route to the industrial district surrounding the Columbia Slough. Dub's new spot fits comfortably, though oddly, into the bar's north side, with a collection of tables and cushioned booths near the pool table.
The chicken and waffles ($12) have gone through some changes after a year's absence. The fried-chicken skin is a bit more browned on the leg and thigh, and more heavily salted and spiced, though the interior is just as juicy as always—a perfect complement for the Frank's RedHot that squirts freely out of the bottles on every table. The waffles remain crisp-free; the sweet-battered Belgian squares have pretty much the same texture as the pats of butter served on top of them. This is a tremendous comfort, like a bite of cookie dough.
The brisket ($14), meanwhile, is juicy and thick and infused with sweet barbecue; it's not the dry-smoked Texas version, but rather a saucy, butter-tender slab. Heck, everything's butter here. But the sides don't really measure up. Not the dry mac 'n' cheese that becomes an unintentional casserole, nor the one-note garlic collards, nor the dense cornbread. Dub's is a meat showcase, and that juicy brisket is best ordered in the $9 sandwich.
Pair the food with a $2.50 Bud—because, America!—but take note: You've got to order beer on the other side of the Ranger from Dub's window. The Ranger is the sort of tavern that's less frequented than lived in. On a recent visit, the regulars on the bar side fought over whether I was a Seahawks or Broncos fan before I'd even sat down, and the bartender warned me to sit at least one stool away from a beer-drinking patron she described as "grumpy."
But it's OK. At places that feel a little like home, everybody always tells you what to do. And then when you eat the food, you're reminded why you always come back.
- Order this: Chicken and waffles ($12).
- Best deal: A sloppy dog, topped with spiced ground beef, is $4. The heart attack is free.
EAT: Dub's St. Johns, 9520 N Lombard St., 998-8230. 10 am-9 pm Monday-Saturday.