Joe Brown’s Lounge—the Brand Behind the Famous Lloyd Center Popcorn—Is a Welcome Addition to a Former Hub for Portland’s Black Community.

The bar eschews the carnivalesque vibe of its neighbor in favor of a concise, new-jack-swing energy and ‘90s black-and-white minimalism.

Geneva’s Shear Perfection was a Northeast Portland landmark and cultural crossroads for Black Portland. When the barbershop and beauty salon closed in May 2020 as a result of COVID restrictions, it left an obvious vacuum in the neighborhood. Joe Brown’s Lounge aims to fill it.

Earlier this year, the small two-storefront building on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard near Jessup Street that for 30 years housed Geneva and Paul Knauls Sr.’s iconic business got two new occupants: Joe Brown’s Carmel Corn and Joe Brown’s Lounge. (Yes, we’re talking about the same Joe Brown’s that pioneered “Oregon-Style” popcorn—coated in caramel and yellow cheese—inside a novelty snack shop at Lloyd Center.

In bringing Joe Brown’s to MLK, owner David Ferguson posits the lounge could fill the void left by Geneva’s while bringing Black entrepreneurship back to historic Old Albina. Eager both to inspect what had become of the familiar neighborhood spot and support a new Black-owned biz, we visited Joe Brown’s Lounge to sample cocktails, small plates, burgers and po’boys, all served with a heaping side of reverse gentrification. Yum.

The red-, white- and blue-striped branding used by the long-standing popcorn shop does not spill over into Joe Brown’ Lounge. In fact, the 30ish-seat bar eschews the carnivalesque vibe of its neighbor in favor of a concise, new-jack-swing energy and ‘90s black-and-white minimalism. It’s not quite like walking into a Jodeci video, but the intention is there.

The cocktail menu is straightforward, with minimum mixological bluster and maximum “naming a drink for the regular who always orders it” spirit, which is to say, rather than serving high-concept cocktails, Joe Brown’s specializes in two- or three-component bevvies like NeNe’s Colada Sunrise (Bacardi and mango juice, $12) or Deon’s Bourbon Brûlée (bourbon with orange, $14). Both a mango margarita and vodka lemonade ordered at the bartender’s suggestion were made with a heavy pour, so prepare accordingly. Taps were on the fritz during both of my visits, but available bottled beers included a few domestics and familiar imports.

The bar’s food menu, conceived and executed by head chef Marcell Goss is a homey mashup of classic soul food, Asian fusion and Cajun seafood. Standouts included all four flavors of fried chicken wings ($12)—which, if you’ve ever been disappointed by, ahem, some wing restaurants, these are the fully rendered, fall-off-the-bone supple, sauced or dry-rubbed wings you may have been questing after; thick, super-dense fried ribs ($12)—pork ribs marinated for 48 hours in a savory-sweet, Asian-inspired brine, dredged in seasoned flour and deep fried; old-school hush puppies ($6); and a po’boy (known here as a “Jo’boy”) exploding with peppery, crispy, cornmeal- and flour-crusted catfish ($17).

Build-your-own-burgers dominate Joe Brown’s menu, so obviously we had to eat at least one. The proteins include ground beef ($14), chicken breast ($15), housemade shrimp ($16) and salmon ($18) patties. Patrons then get their choice of bun: brioche, pub-style, double sliders, or even a lettuce wrap in lieu of bread. A few cheeses, sauces and standard accoutrements round out the options.

Rather than basic beef or chicken, we opted for the salmon patty, and when the chef received the order, he excused himself from the kitchen and came out to the dining room to ask me to reconsider my dressing choice. I’d selected the house sauce, but he suggested his lemon aioli would be a better match for the hand-formed salmon patties. He was right. Even at its nearly $20 price, the salmon burger slathered in aioli perched atop a fluffy brioche bun was well worth the ducats.

At first blush, the atmosphere at Joe Brown’s Lounge comes off as a bit stark; however, its white walls, grayscale art and ashy hardwood floors convey the conviviality of this strip mall cocktail bar. By most measures, the joint is small and relatively simple, but the collision of cultural sanctuary and culinary finesse has created something far more complex and valuable than it appears. From my perspective, Joe Brown’s Lounge has the potential to be the boozy, contemporary new-jack, Black-owned and -operated community center this neighborhood not only needs but, frankly, deserves.

EAT: Joe Brown’s Lounge, 5601 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., 503-206-5308, 1-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday and Sunday, 1 pm to midnight Friday-Saturday.

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