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October 19th, 2005 KELLY CLARKE | z-Bite Club
 

The Hustler's Last Meal

     
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Chef Spence Lack takes aim at crab cakes and cue balls at the Rialto Pool Room.
Bite Club blows at pool. We spend most of our time pacing around that big, green, felt rectangle with an alluring fake limp, trying to channel Piper Laurie's sexy-lame boozehound from The Hustler.

But in the course of the past two months, we've found ourselves inexplicably drawn downtown to the Rialto Pool Room (529 SW 4th Ave., 228-7605). It ain't the 12-year-old off-track betting and billiards parlor's recent Vegas-style makeover—a two-level panopticon of high-definition TV screens and snazzy airport carpet—luring us in. It's the creamy, ever-so-slightly-sweet corn and crab chowder. And the fresh Willapa Bay oyster shooters. And the housemade pizza. It's Spence Lack's high-minded, wallet-friendly bar food that's forcing us to rack up night after night.

Yes, the Rialto has great grub. And, yes, we also wondered how the hell that happened.

"Bar food has become the new American cuisine, and it's always bad. It's always Sysco, frozen or pre-made," Lack says in a subtle drawl that betrays his West Texas roots. "I wanted to make food that really tasted the way you really wanted it to be when you order it."

He's succeeding: From tender halibut fish and chips battered with a cloud-fluffy mix of yeasty Widmer Hefeweizen and Bob's Red Mill flour (the same batter that lightly coats his onion rings) to hefty salads—our fave's a Niçoise loaded down with hardboiled eggs and slathered in tangy garlic vinaigrette. Since the Rialto reopened this past summer, Lack has turned its snoozy cafe menu into a stand-up crew of inexpensive comfort-food faves created with—what else?—local greens and proteins. "The first week [I cooked], the regulars were wondering where their microwaved nachos were," Lack remembers. "And they were pissed."

This kitchen miracle worker's actually got a golden Portland pedigree. He was the first chef hired by ripe back when Family Supper was still an at-home affair. His sister, Brooke Lack, is Gotham Bldg. Tavern chef Tommy Habetz's fiancée. To add to the restaurant incest, Lack's wife, Heather, is the front-of-the-house manager at another ripe project, clarklewis (and the former pastry chef at the much-missed Cafe Azul). The roaming chef was also an instructor at Caprial and John Pence's Sellwood cooking school before it closed, a development that led him to the Rialto. He wandered into the pool hall earlier this year seeking a bartending job. Instead, like a plot twist in some feel-good Disney movie, the management offered him a whole kitchen.

He fires off some Rialto roadblocks with relish: Aside from his sous chef Jorge Gallarado, who previously worked at Taqueria Nueve, the kitchen staff was made up of untrained short-order cooks. "The place used to smell like a titty bar—that fryer smell," he says. Only months (and a new, stench-killing $14,000 self-filtering fryer) later, the chef sounds like a proud papa when he talks about his crew—and his latest "fine dining" job.

"I told [the management], 'I'll give you six months. I'll set you up and I'm gone,'" he laughs. "Now, they'll have to kick me out."

Today, OTBs—tomorrow, strip joints? Maybe the kitchen at Magic Garden is looking for some transformative help.

 
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