Had Old Spain stuck around to conquer North America back in colonial days, we'd have cooler accents and no trouble finding decent coffee in places like Missouri. That didn't happen, so in 2005 I sold my North Portland home and traded up for 12 months of living on Iberian soil, a decent command of the Spanish language and a reverence for smoked paprika and salt-cured pig parts. But when I came back to PDX, I found that Spain had come to me.
There seems to be a philosophical link between the gastronomies of Oregon and Spain. Oregon's ethos—to use the best ingredients and alter them as little as possible into a cuisine that's more defined by abundance than a style of cooking—is very much in line with the great food regions of Spain: Basque Country, Navarra and Catalonia. (Although I lived in pork capital Madrid, I got to eat my way through the north of Spain last summer.) Though we haven't had as many thousands of years to hone our skills, a handful of local chefs are making up for it, especially at Toro Bravo and Patanegra.
Like anyone who has spent time in Spain, Toro Bravo owner and chef John Gorham shares this reverence, although he says his new tapas restaurant isn't trying to clone Spain on American soil. "We wanted a good Spanish vibe with classic dishes, but with a strong Oregon influence...these won't be exactly like the tapas you had in Spain." He's right. Gorham takes fundamentals (the paprika, the pig parts) and mingles them with local ingredients and touches reflective of both his background in Italian kitchens and with Simpatica and Viande, which he co-owned until 2006. The shareable plates are affordable and can be washed down with the likes of Basque cider, Spanish reds, Oregon pinot or Coca-Cola from a glass bottle. Plus, Gorham's restaurant doesn't fall for stereotypes. Manu Chao albums play, but photos of men fighting bulls are thankfully absent.
"Pinchos" and "tapas" are separate categories on the rotating menu, though the former is merely the Basque word for the latter. But why be a nitpicky jerk when the fried fresh anchovies ($5) are so good with the addition of fennel and fried lemon? A plate of Serrano ham with Manchego ($6) keeps it real, while a young marinated sheep's milk cheese ($5) with rose petal harissa and mint is spicier and mintier than one would find in Spain.
Gorham blanches his radicchio in ice water—an Italian trick to kill bitterness—and tosses it with a Manchego vinaigrette in a superb four-ingredient salad ($8) that feeds just as many people. Patatas bravas ($6) are a staple all over Spain, and Toro's cubed, fried spuds seemed a little dry but were saved by a garlicky aioli that would have resulted in plate-licking had the zealous busser not removed it so quickly. Gorham imported a dish of fennel and tomato braised artichokes ($6) from his stint at Eugene's Cafe Zenon, topping them with the same aioli that accompanies faultless salt cod fritters ($7)—which are more like the meaty croquettes served at Lisbon's lunch counters than the gooey-but-great ones of Spain.
A trio of griddled shrimp with chili flakes were excellent but seemed tiny for nine bucks. Gorham gives a shout-out to Andalusia with perfect grilled lamb glazed in honey and mint ($12), as well as slow-cooked oxtail molded into croquettes ($14). Think pot roast in capsule form, then fried and topped with a spicy aioli. It sings. And something to look forward to? Gorham says he has 1,200 square feet of basement where he plans to cure his own ham.
Spaniards say paella is suspect outside of Valencia—let alone in North Portland—and it holds true at this restaurant: If the paella toro ($18) contained saffron, I couldn't find it among the chunks of spicy pork sausage. I preferred the fideo ($16), a paella that subs noodles for rice, with duck and clams.
Toro Bravo isn't the only place where Spain has staked a claim in this city. A more authentic tapas restaurant, Patanegra, lives across town. Owner Richard Segura (who also owned Portland's beloved Tapeo) grew up in Cáceres, Spain, not far from where fellow expats Cortez and Pizarro exited the womb. From the anchovy-stuffed green olives and white Navarran asparagus on the ensalada mixta ($8.50) to the hoops of calamari ($8) served with a giant glob of housemade aioli, Patanegra's fare reflects what you'd eat throughout 80 percent of Spain. Wrapped in Idiazábal cheese, the albondigas ($7, meatballs) are identical to those at my favorite Madrid watering hole. Even the beer glasses are the same.
Even restaurants that aren't Spanish by classification share the Iberian love. Patanegra's pulpo a la gallega—tender boiled octopus with olive oil, sea salt and paprika—is impressive, but our stage critic Ben Waterhouse claims that a recent stack of Spanish octopus at Navarre was as good as what he had when lived in Galicia. No surprise—Navarre's chef/owner John Taboada has spent time there. His wingman, Alex Westphal, passed two weeks in March wandering Basque Country where he ran into Cheryl Wakerhauser from Pix Pâtisserie on the streets of San Sebastian. Had they ventured into the countryside, they might have seen the co-owner of Alberta Street wine shop Cork, Daryl Joannides, who was moseying through Ribera Del Duero and Montsant choosing wines. And Gorham and his wife, Courtney Wilson-Gorham, spent two weeks in Spain before opening Toro Bravo. With travelers like that, it's safe to say that Hispano-philes eat well in Portland—in fact, there are two more tapas restaurants on the way later this year, Toreador in Northwest Portland and Lolo on Alberta Street.
Sure, you wouldn't find many of Toro Bravo's menu items at the tapas bars of Barcelona, Madrid or San Sebastian, but nothing would seem out of place if you did. Unless you were born without taste buds, it's nearly impossible to get a bad meal here. Better yet, it's also pretty hard for two people to break a hundred dollar bill on a single visit. And the best part? You'll get to keep your North Portland bungalow. Toro Bravo is right down the street.
I, Mike Thelin, am a man of many appetites who loves a good burger as much as foie gras or Spanish ham—OK, maybe not that much. Steaming bowls of fresh ramen noodles are my favorite food, I eat kimchi with everything, and if you're a chef or eater on your own culinary bender, I wanna to hear about it. Eat Me is WW's new food column, and I'm the lucky, hungry and often irreverent bastard who gets to write about Portland food during this very exciting period. Email me at email@example.com with your suggestions, feedback, corrections, complaints, disagreements and accolades.