Ask people who love barbecue, they'll say you don't go to a barbecue spot for the sides. I'm guessing none of those people have ever been to Bark City.
Three visits to Michael Keskin's new North Killingsworth BBQ cart have made me question every dessicated bean, mayo-drowned slaw and bland potato salad I've ever forgiven in the name of brisket. Not only do the pulled pork and ribs at Bark City rival some of the best in town, but each and every side is treated with equal care.
The beans are the smoky variety accented by Worcestershire, lightly touched by molasses without being oversweet. The slaw is a peace summit held by acids and fats. The Yukon Gold potato salad likewise hits just the right mix of mayo and mustard, comforting starch and crisp pickle—a balance rarely achieved by anyone who's not my mother.
But the slices of pickled avocado Keskin serves as a side to brisket or beer brat are unbridled BBQ genius—a cleansing wet-nap to a palette whelmed by beefy or porky goodness. It was an idea previously relegated to weird corners of the internet populated by Mormon mommies and alternative dieticians, but as part of a barbecue plate it's simple delicious utility.
None of this would matter, of course, if the 'cue weren't good. A Virginia native, barbecue obsessive and 18-year restaurant vet who also cooked at Podnah's Pit when it was the city's best barbecue, Keskin knows his meat. But note that there's no obeisance whatsoever to style: Regional purists will end up feeling like a shaken baby.
Still, in a town where pulled pork is often a weak spot, Bark City's version was the best item on the menu on some visits—barky, gently smokey shoulder set off with just the right edge of vinegar. It's great with Keskin's mustard sauce (use the darker yellow one) but even better piled up on a heaping $8 tray of house-baked nachos slathered in queso and augmented with beans, jalapenos, onions and those great pickled avocados.
The ribs are the other strong point on a menu that's strong overall. The $14 platter comes three deep: a St. Louis cut with tender meat, thick bark and an admirable ring, hugged tight to the bone without becoming too attached. Though Keskin first fell in love with barbecue at a street-side D.C. smoker that slathered its ribs in sauce, order them dry: They don't need distractions.
The 'cue menu is extremely broad—including an excellent but unorthodox German-style beer link, currently made with Ex Novo Mexican lager. Brisket, the most recent addition, is already good, if still a little stewy; it'll likely round out even better over time. The chopped chicken comes on unfortunately dry, though with an Alabama sauce that's a bit unbalanced toward mayo. The smoked turkey, a rarity in these parts, fares much better.
If you're traveling in a pair, hit all the strengths and share a rib-pulled pork-sausage-turkey Pitmaster Nap for $21 with potato salad, cornbread and pickled avocado, and still have room for nachos. It's already one of the best barbecue experiences in the city.
But whatever you do, each meal should come with a twist on a Carolina dessert classic: the banana pudding milkshake ($7), which Keskin will split in halves for you if you ask. The thick, generous cup at Bark City is perhaps the best milkshake I've had in the city of Portland—a rich and creamy well of pure banana flavor bolstered by crumbled Nilla Wafers and a moon-shaped slice of brûléed banana. It is heaven in a blender, and if no one told you it was dessert you'd think it was the main event.