When then-presidential candidate John Edwards referred to "one America," his catch phrase might have been referring to the ubiquity of the Atkins diet. Scoff if you want, but the low-carbohydrate, high-protein eating plan has seemed to become the one diet for legions of weight-challenged Americans.
Now there's Uncle Butchy's, Portland's first restaurant devoted primarily--and passionately--to the low-carb lifestyle.
Of course, the restaurant's diet-friendly menu isn't its only claim to fame. There's its location in what used to be the Blackbird, a short-lived--but well-loved--club. The wedge-shaped building on Northeast Sandy Boulevard has been scrubbed of all traces of its rock-and-roll heritage, its interior walls painted stark white with mint-green trim and decorated with hand-drawn illustrations by kids, friends and customers. It doesn't look anything like the Blackbird. But on the bright side, it doesn't smell like the Blackbird's potpourri of cigarettes, fried food and spilled Oly, either.
With its dinner menu, Uncle Butchy's does an admirable job of constructing flavorful dishes that don't scream "diet." The bomb prawns appetizer (as in "da bomb," $8) sautées shrimp with sliced red onion and mushrooms, binding the whole with a spicy red chile sauce. Sure, there's no bed of jasmine rice, no bruschetta for dipping, but you don't really miss it; the shrimp are tender, and the juice released by the onions and mushrooms makes a simple and ingenious sauce.
The flavors of the tequila chicken entree ($15), which blends cubed chicken breast with ground cumin, lime juice and a little cooking Cuervo, are pungent and satisfying. This entrée comes with steamed broccoli and--wait, is that starch on the plate? Of course not! But since it's the restaurant's mission to eliminate carbs quietly, substitutions aren't obvious, and can result in creative surprises. Accompanying the chicken, there's mock mashed potatoes--puréed cauliflower, white and fluffy, with a fringe of melted cheddar for flavor.
Ah, cheese and meat--they're the staples that make Atkins such a controversial diet. There's no pasta on the menu, no bottomless basket of bread, not even croutons on the Caesar salad ($6).
But the stick-to-your ribs factor runs high in protein-rich options like the meatloaf (a self-basting brick of ground beef, veal and pork, $13) and the cheese-and-chile pork chops (center-cut chops covered in diced jalapeño and cheddar, $12). Decently prepared, and accompanied by simple steamed vegetables, these meals taste homey--if not exactly hearty.
Even if you're not striving for ketosis, a few visits to Uncle Butchy's do seem capable of retooling your metabolism. It's hard to believe that gorging on garlicky mushrooms stuffed with Italian sausage and mozzarella ($7) can possibly be healthy. Paired with a Michelob Ultra ($3), this oil-dripping-down-your-chin repast is a dead ringer for good ol' guilty pub fare.
Some entrees--like the pork-rind-encrusted tilapia ($12)--are literally not for the faint of heart; it takes a true Atkins devotee to appreciate them. Still, even the rest of us might emerge from a dinner at Uncle Butchy's without once craving a baked potato.
Lunch options are comparatively modest, with three choices of salad--Caesar ($6), spinach ($2.50), or "confetti," a mix of diced carrot, cucumber, celery and radishes mixed with ranch dressing ($2.50). Other choices include wraps, open-faced sandwiches on low-carb tortillas ($7-$9), and bunless hamburgers ($6). Burgers can be topped with sautéed mushrooms, cheese or bacon for an extra buck each. Since part of the Uncle Butchy's business model is creating food to go, these items are pretty basic--well, if you define mayonnaise and pepper bacon as "basic." The confetti salad is drowned in dressing, while the tuna salad wrap, dotted with ripple-cut sweet pickles, was mayo-laden.
And about that bunless burger? Well, remember when most restaurants served a grilled patty and a peach half and called it a "low-cal plate"? It's kind of like that.
The absence of starch hobbles the success of the lunch menu--I found myself gnawing at my low-carb tortilla, even though its flavor and texture resembled construction paper. The good news is portions are large--even huge--so you won't go away hungry.
Of course, it takes more than ground beef and a few packets of Splenda to make a restaurant. The ultimate question is whether Uncle Butchy's can ever become a general-interest joint--a place where people gather to dine just for the taste of it, irrespective of their weight goals. So far, that doesn't seem likely. Even though thanks to marketing hype it might seem like all America is hooked on Atkins, there are still plenty of unrepentant sinners in town who are bound and determined to fill up on bread.
3728 NE Sandy Blvd., 288-5955 11 am-9 pm, Tuesday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.
Uncle Butchy's was founded by Terry Allen, his wife, Norma, and their daughter, Heather, after the trio lost a combined total of 175 pounds on the Atkins diet.
Terry Allen says his children--now adults--like to tease him by calling him Butch, his childhood nickname. When the family decided to open a restaurant, niece Colleen, then 11, suggested "Uncle Butchy's" and the name stuck.