A little, midcentury cinderblock box in inner Southeast Portland is gradually moving up in the world. Once a '70s truck stop, then an indie-rock-ish bar, the space currently known as Acme is now home to Portland culinary scenesters Kevin Dorney, Jon Beeaker and Marcus Ginther, who have spiffed up the bar's dining room with minor remodels and are now touting Acme as a hipster show joint and family-friendly upscale barbecue pit. While that may seem like a cumbersome set of goals to reach for all at once, the new Acme is simpler than it sounds.
The design wavers between minimal-chic and utilitarian-bare. Upon entering, your eyes may be drawn to glowing paper lanterns and votives lighting up the Doug Fir-chic wood paneling—or to the really unfortunate institutional vinyl flooring. Outside, strings of lightbulbs arc across widely spaced picnic tables on the sprawling cement patio. A rack of tasty magazines, from W to Edible Portland, goes down as easy as the drinks. Cocktails like the Rhubarbarita ($7.50) and Earl Grey Fizz ($6.50) sound stylish, but the bartenders use the exotic flavorings here as their dive-bar counterparts use frozen orange juice: for color. Pair drinks with fried Willapa Bay oysters ($8), tender as oceanic custard, to avoid pre-dinner drunking.
When the new owners stepped in, bringing experience from both Saucebox (Beeaker) and the Moon and Sixpence (Dorney), they flipped the menu from straight-up bar food to saucy designer barbecue and walled off half of the dining room which, according to the OLCC, is where the family-friendly part comes in: Minors can be served in an area separate from the bar, although none was spotted during WW's visits. The partitioning serves private parties equally well; the Oregon League of Conservation Voters was whooping it up on a recent Friday evening.
Chef Beeaker's pan-Asian track record is apparent in the beef short ribs ($12) with kimchee and lettuce wraps, and wild boar spare ribs ($14) roasted with lemongrass, cilantro and chilies, but the rest of the menu is all-American grill. While the previous lineup's common denominator was grease, the new theme is barbecue sauce, in which just about everything is swimming. Acme's sauce is tangy and rich but tends to bully the subtler flavors it's meant to enhance. It nearly overpowers the just barely gamey pulled pork ($8), it's slathered on half a tender, spice-rubbed smoked chicken ($12) and a lake of it holds afloat an enormous but misused pile of brisket ($12.50). The brisket, which excels as a juicy roast, wasn't badly smoked, but like a gifted student slacking off in class, it just wasn't working up to its potential.
A parade of sides cuts through the sauce-fest, like addictively creamy, herby mac-'n'-cheese ($2.50 à la carte), crispy-battered onion rings ($4) and salty-sweet maple sweet potatoes ($2.50). Seal your food coma with the buttery bread pudding ($3). Delicately crusted on top, silky and dense within, yet still maintaining the integrity of the individual pieces of bread, it proves the controversial theory that humans actually have two stomachs: one for food, and one for dessert.
With pedigreed chefs and hearty prices, Acme creates expectations it doesn't quite satisfy. But if you don't care about that gourmet stuff and just want to chow down on a big ol' plate of saucy, savory, home-style barbecue, Acme, contrary to its name, is anything but generic.
Acme Food and Drink, 1305 SE 8th Ave., 230-9020. Dinner and late night 4pm-2am Monday-Saturday, 4pm-midnight Sunday. $$ Moderate.