Chef Johnny Leach has an impeccable résumé.
Before moving back to Portland in 2014, Leach cut his teeth in New York, ascending the ranks of David Chang's Momofuku empire and eventually capping out as chef de cuisine at Ma Peche. After partnering with Han Oak's Peter Cho for a popular hot dog pop-up, Leach eventually set his sights on farm-to-table Mexican fare, first with the defunct Fremont Street tostaderia Chalino, and now La Neta, Joshua McFadden's latest project located inside the new Hoxton Hotel.
A few weeks ago, I left the much-hyped La Neta wondering where such an accomplished chef is hiding all the flavor. Turns out, the answer is right beneath the floorboards.
Located behind a door with a sign that reads, "Knock knock knock," the Hoxton's Basement Bar (15 NW 4th Ave., 503-770-0500) is a diminutive cocktail lounge that could easily pass as the kind of Lower Manhattan industry hang where chefs like Leach would kick back with a cocktail and salty, hearty snacks after a grueling shift in a bustling kitchen. Ambience is provided by dim overhead bulbs and lamps at each table, and a soundtrack from the likes of Kendrick Lamar and Pusha T played below conversation level. It creates something of an aesthetic vacuum where you're likely to ignore pleasant yet understated touches like the embossed wallpaper or the mismatched pillows that line the couches. But it's no detraction from the overall experience, which ends up being a casual speakeasy vibe with a focus on a handful of incredibly flavorful Chinese dishes.
The chops Leach acquired while working for Chang come through on items small and large. The black vinegar cashews balance the astringent taste of vinegar with the warmth of cumin, coriander and Szechuan peppercorn ($4). A juicy bowl of chicken chow mein ($14) is a perfect accompaniment to your third or fourth beverage of the evening. The real knockout is the sweet and sour ribs ($12), which boast meat so sweet and tender it melts right off the bone.
The cocktail list is hit or miss, but drinks like the Up to Date ($14), which fortifies rye and Grand Marnier with a proprietary sherry blend that adds just the right amount of aged smoke to the finish, show the program is headed in the right direction. Skip fruity drinks like the mai tai or the whiskey sour and opt for the expertise of the bar staff, which included a Multnomah Whiskey Library alum on a recent visit who was more than happy to wing it with just a few words on ingredient preferences.
Time will tell if Leach expends greater effort in making Basement Bar a destination unto itself. But the food and drink programs, though small, are already well up to the standard you'd expect.