The American Local is neither American nor local—which is to say, it's as American as it gets. Like Smallwares, which it mirrors on the Portland city map, this clean-lined modern space is heavy on light cocktails and small plates bent on ingredient-forward fusion. The restaurant's back wall features a diagram of the Oregon highway system, but if the restaurant meant to show the birthplace of the flavors found on its menu, it would show airports, boat docks and border stations—the cutting boards from which ingredients are scraped into this country's grand melting pot.
But the American Local remains eminently accessible. It's a high-low rave-up of regional flavors, alongside Asian spices that have become as familiar to the U.S. palate as chicken gravy. Crisped pork-belly skewers ($6) are braised in maple—essentially breakfast syrup on bacon—accented with a jolt of Sriracha. A soft-centered grit cake is topped with salmon tartare and creme fraiche ($7) for a delicate rendition of a snack still recognizable as tuna salad on a cracker.
Meanwhile, a grill toast ($6) pairs La Quercia prosciutto with a gobsmacking dose of pimento cheese—the caviar of the South. The fast trip to the bottom of the food pyramid is bracing and a bit nostalgic, kind of like Splash Mountain. The menu also sports a straight-ahead version of the roadside burger with "special sauce" ($9). Its claim lies in execution: The cheese is charred on the outside and tender in the middle, as is the burger, and it's lovely.
But whatever its American diner obsessions, the Local's most exemplary dishes are more vegetable than meat. By far the richest item on the menu is a fry bread topped with mushrooms, sheep's milk cheese and a lovely herb salad with mint and dill ($7). It attained an almost meaty fulfillment that was far more interesting than if someone had thoughtlessly pelted it with bacon.
Also wildly successful was a stack of pickled, thin-sliced watermelon radish—a particularly lovely-hued version of daikon—marinated in nuoc cham with scallions and black garlic ($6). It's basically a Vietnamese-Chinese version of tsukemono, and I could eat it happily until my blood drained of water. Similar sentiments apply to the Brussels sprouts with pickled jalapeño, blood orange and miso ($8), which operate much like Smallwares' fried kale or Tasty N Sons' radicchio salad: It's the menu's staple and baseline, satisfying both stomach and palate.
But the skewers that make up one-fifth of the menu are pleasant but hardly interesting. And the true failures were two of the most expensive dishes. In a Dungeness crab-fried quinoa ($14), the grain and bewilderingly forceful pickled carrot beat the crab's more delicate flavor into submission. An egg could only lubricate the mistake. Meanwhile, an $11 poutine with foie gras did nothing to justify its empty carbs: It was a soggy mess without the umami high one associates with the dish.
Empty carbs fared much better on the sundae ($8), a ridiculously fun jumble of textures from housemade kit kat to nut to three flavors of ice cream made with the old Caffe Pallino machine, which the Local inherited along with the space. It was as entertaining to eat as that first seaside sundae when you were 6.
Which brings up the role it will serve for many in the neighborhood: It is a spot where families can take children but still find their own tastes attended to. The subtly balanced drink menu offers its own argument for the restaurant, from an effervesced drink pairing Macchu Pisco with grapefruit and tarragon ($10) to a lovely $12 number with rye, fernet, ginger-flavored Domaine de Canton and chocolate bitters. For those on a budget, Momokawa sake is served at a supremely economical $1.25 an ounce (four ounces, sipped gently, can suffice during a meal.) I witnessed a harried couple apparently enjoying the chance to get elegantly sauced next to distracted toddlers.
Given that I am very much an American, a drunk and a toddler, I found myself well within the target demographic.
- Order this: At least three dishes from the vegetable menu, the fry bread, some barbecued oysters.
- Best deal: Those Brussels sprouts ($8) are beautiful filler.
- Iâll pass: Foie gras fries, crab quinoa.
EAT: The American Local, 3003 SE Division St., 954-2687, theamericanlocal.com. 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday.