The term "screen door" evokes certain images—tall glasses of sweet tea, simple home cooking and lazy summer days silently swaying on a porch swing.
Screen Door, the new Southern-inspired eatery on East Burnside Street, hits the mark on most of these points. Sweet tea can be had by the glass or by the pitcher, there's grits and greens all over the menu, and the servers are as earnest and welcoming. There's even shelves displaying a rainbow of canned vegetables and fruit to drive home the homey theme.
What isn't so homey is the postmodern, cinderblock-walled dining room that was ear-splittingly loud upon every visit. Though there's carpet nailed to the underside of the tables (an old restaurant trick to absorb sound), blaring alt-country music and clatter of pans from the open kitchen make the space feel more Grand Central Station than Whistle Stop Cafe.
Fortunately, the cooking is more in line with the clever name. For starters, the Alabama pimiento cheese ($5.75), a creamy spread accented by a copious amount of smoky roasted red peppers, is an example of classic Southern appetizers done right. Ditto for the crisp, corn-studded hush puppies ($5.75) and savory slow-baked beans loaded with shredded ham hock ($4.25).
The kitchen is devoted not only to Southern-inspired cooking, but also to local and organic ingredients (witness the specials on the weekly menu). I would have loved the orchard salad ($6.50), an interesting variety of baby greens with slices of apple and a smattering of cayenne-dusted pecans, if there had been more of it. Another winner from the local/organic category was a side of sautéed sweet corn with sugary cherry tomatoes and basil ($3.75), a brilliant tribute to the end of summer.
Entrees continue with a roster of Southern favorites done well. My order of juicy fried chicken ($14.75) encased in a peppery buttermilk batter was so outstanding that when a shard of deep-fried goodness bounced off my plate to the floor, I seriously considered invoking the "three-second rule." The pulled-pork sandwich ($9.75), done in traditional Carolina style with a vinegary sauce and a dollop of creamy coleslaw, was likewise heavy on taste and generosity of portion. I subbed out the pale French fries for a mound of thinly sliced, crunchy sweet-potato fries ($3.50) and will crave them forever more.
Screen Door's only snag is consistency; hopefully it's just part of the learning curve of a busy new place. A pool of loose, creamy grits served with the crispy catfish filet ($12.95) on one visit was so good that my partner excitedly exclaimed, "Oh, I didn't think I liked grits!" A week later the gluey, bland mess I got with my low-country shrimp and grits ($14.75) had me wondering if I really liked them at all.
Desserts hold the same pattern. The deep-fried apple pie ($6.25) could have achieved mood-lifter status—had it not tasted of fry oil and fried chicken. The noble tradition of Southern sweets was redeemed, however, by an order of pecan pie ($6.25) that came in a warm gratin dish full of flaky crust and rich, sugary pecans.
There's a real love of Southern cooking in Portland. Maybe it's because, as such a relatively new part of the country, we long for the soulfulness only old food ways can provide. Screen Door is a great neighborhood place to feed that need. Just wear earplugs to dinner until they work out the acoustic kinks, and be open-minded about those grits.
Screen Door, 2337 E Burnside St., 542-0880. Dinner 5:30-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday; brunch 9 am-2:30 pm Saturday-Sunday. $$ Moderate.