January 22nd, 2013 | Martin Cizmar Food & Drink |

Bar-B-Confusion

The Oregonian savages Southland Whiskey Kitchen as the Portland Mercury praises it: So who’s right?

southland1Southland Whiskey Kitchen: The restaurant everyone wants to talk about.

Southland Whiskey Kitchen (1422 NW 23rd Ave, 224-2668) is somehow the most controversial restaurant in town right now.

The newish joint on Northwest 23rd Avenue is a big and fancy outlet for meat and whiskey from the people who own the Casa del Matador chain. It’s right around the corner from the WW office but, honestly, I didn’t expect it to be reviewed at all, let alone get big-time treatment in two publications in the same week. Yet the Oregonian and Mercury both dropped full feature reviews of Southland last week.
 
More oddly, the writers of those reviews agreed on nothing beyond the attractiveness of the woody room. The Oregonian slammed the BBQ joint with a “D” grade—we can't remember the last time such a low grade was given from the normally charitable daily—just as the Mercury’s Chris Onstad called it “a reliable source of fairly priced, accessible, archetypal Southern fare that satisfies.”
 
So who’s right? The solemn task of officiating a rubber match fell to me. Here are the answers to any question you might have about Southland.
 
So, first off, why didn’t WW review this place?
 
Well, it’s right around the corner from our office—its smoke once caused an editor to worry our office was on fire—so of course we tried it at a staff meeting a few weeks after it opened. Our low expectations were met; no one has spoken of it since. Southland seems to be aimed at the West Hills people who venture down to the nearest commercial strip to buy expensive things on weekends. This is not our primary readership demographic.
 
Don’t food critics disagree about things all the time?
 
Yeah, but not like this. Critics do hit the same restaurants right around the same time, and they like different things, but it’s pretty rare for two professional critics to disagree so extremely. For example, the O’s David Sarasohn somehow enjoyed Imperial’s disgusting country-fried rabbit thing (“How can you not be seduced by barrel-aged hot sauce? You can get carried away just imagining the barrel.”) a dish that reminded me of something Granny Clampett would cook up, but overall consensus seemed to be that Imperial’s menu is serviceable but a little confused. That's usually how it goes.

Maybe you're just not into barbecue?

 
So what’s the deal with the Mercury reviewer?
 
Chris Onstad, the Mercury’s food critic of about a year, enjoys almost all food. He is a comic artist by trade whose reviews are distinguished by their dialogue and his overall niceness. He is generally opposed to writing mean things, even when directly prompted to do so. (Except for sports bars—the dude'll disembowel a sports bar that dares leave the sour cream off his nachos.)
 
And when he says it’s “fairly priced...”
 
A brisket sandwich with a side of potato chips costs $11. The fried chicken and waffle is $14 and comes with a waffle, a drumstick and wing. None of it was very good.
 
So who’s Michael Russell?
 
The Oregonian’s everyman food critic. His past work includes a controversial takedown of Boxer Sushi (be sure to catch the comment from Beast owner Naomi Pomeroy) and feuds with Seattle Weekly’s prickly Hanna Raskin and local foodie Michael C. Zusman. He also took a lot of heat for re-reviewing Luce more favorably after a national writer said he liked it. (Note: Onstad did basically the same thing.) 
 
Do you know either of these gents?

I’ve met Russell a few times—nice guy. I have never talked in person to any member of the Mercury staff, though Wizard World is only a few short weeks away.
 
So who’s right about Southland?
 
Michael Russell. Though I’m annoyed by his quibbles about service (not only do I not mind when a server lapses into industry speak by asking "What can I put in for you?," I occasionally ask a server to put something in for me) he nailed the problems with the place, which include the clumpiness of the orange goop in the mac ‘n’ cheese and the sogginess of a terrible many things.
 
So you went back recently?
 
Yes, on Friday. I’m not prepared to give a proper review, but the two lunches I’ve had there were really, really bad. The Smokestack sandwich was topped with dry brisket that had only a hint of smoke, large chunks of sauceless pulled pork and a pretty decent jalapeno sausage. The buttery toasted bun was very nice but the horseradish slaw had no kick at all and the potato chips on the side had as much flavor as stale rice cakes. The fried chicken and waffle, on the other hand, pairs moist chicken in bland breading with a doughy half-baked waffle that tasted more like angel food cake. Also, the five on-table sauces are terrible: the hot sauce tastes like ketchup with two shakes of Tabasco and the white sauce smells like rancid milk. The atmosphere also lacks something which could be gained by playing fewer Miike Snow remixes.
 
Was there any chance the place would be good?
 
Actually, no. Anyone who knows anything about barbecue knows better than to expect passable stuff from someplace selling a $48 filet mignon. Barbecue and steaks are on opposite ends of the meat preparation spectrum: one is made from cheap cuts of meat cooked low and slow, the other involves pricey pieces of flesh seared and served. It’s impossible for any kitchen to do both right on a consistent basis.
 
And what of the “Kickin’ Shrimp” which Russell actually liked, despite mocking the name as a product of “the Guy Fieri school of naming conventions?”
 
I did not try it, as I’m allergic to shellfish.
 
So you review restaurants despite being allergic to shellfish?
 
Yes, and I’d thank you to curb your ableism.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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