For many in the restaurant industry, the food hall concept has been a lifeline during the pandemic.
A couple of street barricades and tables placed 6 feet apart on a carless road surrounded by pubs, pizzerias and sushi shops created an open-air cafeteria in at least one neighborhood last year. Pushing the boundaries of the model even further, the ChefStable restaurant group launched a virtual iteration, giving customers the ability to order a variety of cuisines from the same outlet all at once.
Now, Portland's Beaumont-Wilshire neighborhood is home to a micro version. After sitting empty since 2018, when Alameda Brewing called it quits, three different businesses have revived the old bar at 4765 NE Fremont St.: Blind Ox Taphouse, Mix 'n' Match Creamery, and Nacheaux. The latter two are former food carts graduating from their pods to a brick-and-mortar, while all three are housed under the Blind Ox name—a nod to Prohibition-era speakeasies, which were referred to as "blind pigs" and "blind tigers." It's an arrangement that would not have been possible without COVID-19.
"Originally, the landlords had wanted to rent the whole building," says Eric West, co-owner of Blind Ox and Mix 'n' Match. "The pandemic provided an opportunity to work out a creative lease. We were able to come to them and say, 'Hey, we just want to rent a portion of this space.' And that's what allowed it to turn into a food hall."
Divvying up the building means that Blind Ox has a unique array of painkillers almost anyone could appreciate following a tense year. Need to lick your way into a sweet, blissful oblivion? There's whipped-to-order ice cream blasted with liquid nitrogen. Want to spend the afternoon knocked out on the couch? One of Nacheaux's fried-and-smothered odes to both Mexican and Cajun cooking will induce a nap. And if you simply need a beer to take the edge off, there is also a well-curated, 20-deep tap list.
For West, moving to the taphouse last November meant he could finally start selling his boozed-spiked ice cream—his intention from the get-go after opening as a cart in 2012. The buzz you might catch from a scoop of mint chocolate chip sounds pretty enthralling, but that's really only half the fun. West is one of two Portland-area vendors using liquid nitrogen to mold ingredients into a solid, edible ball.
The gas liquefies when cooled to extremely low temperatures—at Blind Ox, that's 321 degrees below zero. So when a shot of nitrogen is applied to the metal bowl containing the fixings for an item like the Blind Unicorn (cream, vodka, cupcake syrup and rainbow sprinkles), the mixture flash freezes. The result is a velvety Funfetti ice cream layer cake with a squeeze of strawberry.
The texture is what matters most to West.
"It doesn't have an opportunity to develop large ice crystals, so it makes a super-smooth, creamy ice cream because it's not fluffed up with air," he says. "And that's about as fresh as you can get—ice cream made right in front of you."
The process also means that West doesn't need to add any emulsifiers, such as egg, to hold the ice cream together. And while mouthfeel and a streamlined ingredient list are both beneficial, as with all things related to molecular gastronomy, the presentation is what's really meant to wow.
Sitting in front of shelves of flavored syrups and bins of crumbled cookies and candy bars is a cryogenic canister, which looks as if it would be more at home in a lab than an ice cream parlor. A spigot extending from the container releases the liquid nitrogen, and once that happens, smoke begins to billow, completely obscuring the bowl at first. Then, when West starts churning, white vapor continues to pour over the rim and across the bar. For a moment, you might imagine you're in a Cold Stone that's experimenting with dry ice for special effect. But just as quickly as the cloud appeared, the tendrils are gone. All that remains is a perfectly formed sphere, ready to pop into a dish or atop a cone.
Think of it as the classic baking soda volcano science experiment, only you can eat the eruption.
Devouring a hyper-cold dessert in Portland's typically chilly spring temperatures might be a tough sell, especially if you're sticking to patio seating. That's where Nacheaux comes in. From its corner of the taproom, now painted a vibrant teal to match the signature cart, chef Anthony Brown is catapulting your typical burrito, quesadilla and taco over the top by stuffing them with Cajun staples, including fried chicken, catfish and shrimp battered in cornmeal.
On a recent weekend visit, the carnitas chilaquiles were the standout: some red beans here, shreds of bright purple cabbage there, and soft scrambled eggs acting as a midmorning mood boost. Blind Ox also has a simple slate of paninis. The hefty slabs of Olympia Provisions pork that arrive ensnared in provolone in one version look as if they've been shaved off of a giant holiday ham. But whatever you end up ordering, it's likely to comfort.
"I think everyone's craving a sense of normalcy again," West says, "and foods that make you feel good—beer, ice cream—you know, things that make you feel better."
Number of tables: Five
Distance between tables: 6 feet
Safety measures: Floor markers inside indicate 6 feet of distance; hand sanitizer pumps at the bar; mask wearing is enforced; large open windows and doors promote air circulation, weather permitting.
Peak hours: 5-7 pm
GO: Blind Ox Taphouse, 4765 NE Fremont St., 503-841-5092, blindoxpdx.com. Noon-9 pm Monday-Thursday, noon-10 pm Friday, 10 am-10 pm Saturday, 10 am-9 pm Sunday.