Food's power to evoke memories is undisputed. Nearly everyone eats something occasionally that brings to mind their grandmother's kitchen, the first time they planted a garden, or a particularly disastrous date. But the flip side of Proust's madeleine is the recollection of food itself. I may not remember the kids I played with in grade school or much about family vacations to Arizona, but I can remember what I ate. From my boyhood, I remember the sweet flavor of the Dungeness crabs we pulled up from Nestucca Bay and cooked over driftwood on the beach. I remember Mo's clam chowder (back when there was only one Mo's, but still not as good as my grandmother's or my mom's), A&W root beer from a cardboard carton, and the blackberries that grew down near the river where we weren't supposed
Some of my earliest restaurant memories, or at least memories from restaurants where you didn't eat from a tray hanging from the car window, are from our trips to Portland in the 1960s. We lived in Roseburg, and my father worked for a company based here, so we would occasionally pile into the car and head north. One of my favorite spots was the old Crab Bowl on Barbur Boulevard. I still liked it even after my father drew the limit on my choices. "Order anything you want," he'd say, "except the abalone." The company my father worked for was owned by one of Portland's old-line Jewish families, and we sometimes ate with them at Goldberg's in the Lloyd Center.
Another popular spot was Rose's. I had my first tastes of both pastrami and corned beef at Rose's, and it was most likely the first place I ever ate kosher dills, dark rye and chopped liver. I was just a country goy, but I loved those sandwiches, piled so high that I could barely get my mouth around one. Stuffed as I'd be, I still made sure to get a slice of whipped-cream roll, a soft sponge cake rolled around a half-gallon of whipped cream and maybe a few strawberries. I can see one like it was just yesterday.
So you can imagine how I felt when I went back to the reincarnation of the old Rose's, the new version on Northwest 23rd Avenue and Kearney Street, and realized that nothing was the same. Sure, the same names appear on the menu, and there's a re-creation of the original neon sign at the back of the dining room. But the food is not what I remembered.
A bowl of chicken soup ($4.25) contained a decent matzo ball, but there was no evidence that an actual chicken had come anywhere near the insipid broth. A traditional Reuben ($8.75) contained the requisite corned beef and sauerkraut, but it wasn't different from any other run-of-the-mill Reuben. Ditto the Club ($7.25) and the other sandwiches. And the "house recipe" meat loaf ($6.95) looked like that mysterious "Swiss steak" they used to serve at the school cafeteria. (I remembered that I didn't like it then, either.) The desserts don't measure up to the historical yardstick of the old-school Viennese pastries from the original Rose's. The big, dense cakes tend to be on the dry side, irredeemable by the inevitable thick layers of chocolate. The whipped-cream roll looks like the original, if a bit smaller, but tastes mostly of air and sugar. A Napoleon had pastry crust so tough I couldn't cut it with a fork, and an eclair was similarly chewy.
Drive back down Northwest 23rd toward the old Rose's (where Restoration Hardware is now), head up Burnside, then veer right onto Skyline just past the top of the hill. A few minutes of winding curves brings you to Northwest Cornell Road and what used to called the Skyline Drive-In. There's no more car service, and the neighborhood is no longer the sleepy little patch of countryside it was after World War II when Portland's teens would cruise out in their flathead Fords for a burger and Coke.
But the Skyline hasn't changed all that much. There's an espresso hut tacked onto the Cornell Road side to service the stream of commuters that pours by every morning and an ATM inside for those who might think they can charge their burger on a credit card. The dining room, a warren of roomy booths and a few small tables, still wears the faded glory of an 40-year-old upgrade. Wood paneling, acoustic tile ceiling, and those Jetson-y light fixtures from the days of Sputnik provide a fitting setting for food that might have been transported from the Kennedy era as well.
Just about everybody serves a basic hamburger, but who still toasts and butters the bun? The Skyline's burgers (ranging from $2.75 to $6.45) and other sandwiches (the BLT on white toast ($3.75) pretty much defines this classic) are just like what I'd eaten at roadside cafes, bus station lunch counters and small-town diners when I was younger. I can't remember the last time I saw cottage cheese and pineapple ($2.50) on a menu, or a fried-egg sandwich ($2.50), or one made with American cheese. I do remember eating them. This isn't necessarily food to write home about, but it's honest. There's no doubt about what you're going to get, and the bonus is that it's well-made, fresh, and pretty damn tasty. Which makes what's happening at Rose's even worse. The Skyline doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't, but Rose's wants us to believe it's just like the place the little widow from Toledo used to run down the street. It's not.
838 NW 23rd Ave., 222-5292
7 am - 9 pm Monday- Thursday,
7 am - 10 pm Friday,
10:30 am - 10 pm Saturday, 10:30 am - 8 pm Sunday
1313 NW Skyline Road,
11 am9 pm daily
Credit cards not accepted
While most of Rose's offerings fall under the category of "industrial food," the fresh-made, skins-on, mayo-light potato salad is surprisingly good.
At the Skyline, go for the soft-serve milkshakes over pie; the crust goes way too far toward tender without a bit of flaky, and the fillings have that strange, gel-like consistency.
James Beard, Portland's most famous gourmand, called the Skyline burger "one of the best" he'd ever had.