April 9, 1984
He could well be the John Carpenter of chefs. With his slicked-back hair and turned-up collar beneath a crew neck sweater, the intense young man in the kitchen is better known in Portland for making B-grade horror films than manning omelette pans. But these days, Don Gronquist, owner and part-time chef of Pink’s Grill, would rather be carrying on his passionate affair with diners than churning out cheap splatter flicks.
According to one friend, Gronquist may be one of the few people to admit that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is his favorite movie. He’s also one of the few to have the moxie to open a high-style diner with a lowbrow, roadhouse menu with such things as Spam and eggs, balloon bread and Texas-style chili. Not many people could pull the concept off. But, with an eye for detail, a cool aesthetic, and an understanding that grease is the central feature of the cuisine that Americans love best, Gronquist has done it with aplomb. As a result, Pink’s has been packing them in ever since it opened a few months ago. “It’s hip,” says a regular breakfast person. “It’s the new place to be.”
Pink’s is sleek, narrow and gleaming. Its looks are an obvious part of its appeal. Nothing remains from the days when it was the Cafe Cabana, a sanctuary done up in peaches and browns for Portland’s more eccentric creatures. Pink’s is of an entirely different cast. It is all black, silver and—what else?—pink, with chrome stools upholstered in pink naugahyde; shiny black tabletops; a massive glass-brick, black-topped counter; and mirrors along both walls. Speckled black-and-white china plates are all tasteful homages to a former way of life.
The establishment’s principal distinction is its jukebox, a veritable catalogue of soul and rock-and-roll, including a number of hard-to-find or out-of-print recordings. Many of these tunes, which run from the 1957 Barrio classic, Guided Missiles, by the Cuff Links, to Don and Juan’s What’s Your Name?, were used on the soundtrack of Gronquist’s first film, Rockaday Ritchie and the Queen of Hop. Written by Gronquist and co-produced with Macheesmo Mouse owner Tiger Warren, this somewhat fictionalized account of the gruesome escapades of Charles Starkweather was set in Portland. The film was what you might call an unhappy Happy Days. (Paramount was close to picking it up, but dropped the idea when Badlands, also based on the Starkweather story, was released during negotiations. Those who frequent the drive-in circuit can now catch Gronquist’s film under its new name, Stark Raving Mad).
The food at Pink’s is as much a period piece as are the decor and the musical selections. The meatloaf with home-style gravy, the squares of dry cornbread, the crusty roadhouse potatoes—these are the foods that mirror our country’s soul and celebrate its character. These are the foods that Gronquist knows and loves best.
Like the places that influenced it—from Pink’s in Los Angeles, a greasy spoon whose specialty is pork chili and colas, to East Oakland’s Royal Café, a vegetarian joint whose sole concession to carnivores is Spam made 10 different ways—at Pink’s Grill the food is ancillary to the action. The vibes. The brooding and romantic air of melancholy. The crowd that seems to be right out of Central Casting. These are the elements that make it worthwhile.
Pink’s limited menu essays breakfast fare, burgers, grilled sandwiches, chef’s salads, and a few specialties of the house. On the whole, the food is average, with several things straying a few cuts above or below the norm. The most curious selection is billed as “Portland’s best apple pie,” a dessert that, according to one of the waitresses, is not yet available because, “We’re still working on the recipe.” Now that’s what I call confidence.
Not surprisingly, there is nothing even remotely esoteric about the offerings. Early risers come to Pink’s for basic breakfasts. They come for coffee—lots of it—strong and diesel dark, with a nasty afterkick. For eggs, with a choice of ham, bacon or sausage, home fries, fruit garnishes, and toast ($3.50). For folded, slightly overbrowned omelettes, filled with good Cheddar cheese, chili, ham, or vegetables ($3.75). Or for spam and eggs ($2.75), one of the hottest-selling dishes of the house. Or for thick rounds of French toast that would be better with an eggier coating and some vanilla and cinnamon.
For lunch, you are best off with Pink’s authentic, bean-free chili ($2.75), served with a side of cornbread and sliced avocados. This is Gronquist’s pride and joy, a recipe that was apparently years in the making and incorporates some 33 seasonings and eight kinds of chili peppers. I’ve had hotter in the kitchens of fellow fire-eaters, and better tasting in chili parlors. But many an afternoon, when I’ve worked up a chili craving, I’m grateful that Gronquist has made it one of his goals in life to provide downtown Portland with decent chili.
Another good bet is the homey slabs of meatloaf ($3.25), a stout mixture of beef and pork laid out on triangles of white bread. Other options can be either risky or disappointing. Cheeseburgers can be raw, soggy, tasteless or all three. The avocado-and-bacon salad ($3.25) is mostly red-leaf lettuce, and I’ve had better Monte Cristo sandwiches in my day. The real travesties, though, are the enormous French fries, which, if hurled across the room, could do a terrific imitation of a boomerang.
Good, friendly service by a young crew outfitted in pink and black bowling shirts that thrift-store shoppers would kill for make this diner. Anarchists, lawyers, senior citizens and punkers in hair the color of alloys not yet invented all eat here, elbow to elbow. Pink’s is definitely worth a visit.