Sure, it's been 30 years since Oregon brewers won the right to sell onsite, and those decades have seen little effort to upgrade the usual lineup of unremarkable burgers and pizza. But I think it's time, and that the excellent new BTU Brasserie on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, a "traditional Chinese restaurant" with a seven-barrel brewing system, is the canary in the coal mine.
Why now? First, Portland has 50 smallish breweries trying to set themselves apart. It's no coincidence that Ecliptic, the only brewery to open within city limits last year made food a focus, hiring a chef from downtown's Pazzo Ristorante to make pan-fried rockfish and ice cream. It's also true that new restaurants and bars are already blurring together (see Expatriate and Stammtisch) and that other West Coast cities already have beer bars with great food, such as San Diego's OB Noodle House, a late-night pho shop with a 36-deep tap list that rivals Bailey's Taproom in quality.
Mostly, though, I'm hanging this prediction on BTU, which follows Ex Novo and Baerlic as the third new brewery in Portland this year. It's the sort of place that's destined to inspire an uptick in ambition citywide.
Sitting on a gritty stretch of Sandy, where neighboring businesses sell truck-bed shells and buy gold, the restaurant doesn't look like much from the outside. Inside, it's got concrete floors, dim lamps, a few paintings and dark wood tables not unlike what you'd find at Ashley Furniture.
There are some problems. The beer, to start. The first in-house offering, Out for a Rip IPA, was finally tapped last week. It gets a rip: It was far too sweet and tasted a bit like the juice from canned corn. This isn't anything to worry about yet—most new breweries make a few bad batches before their system is dialed in.
More of a concern is the absurd mildness of the Szechuan dishes. On the last of my four visits, I pleaded for heat in the Sichuan chicken, dan dan noodles and mapo tofu (all $13) and was told I'd get it. Each would pass for mild at Lucky Strike or Szechuan Chef, and are likely to disappoint pepper heads.
But about those chicken and noodles: The chefs otherwise have a wonderful touch with the dishes. The chicken has an airy crispness, as does the fried seitan in Buddah's beef ($13) with wonderfully tangy housemade kung pao sauce, the gooey-sweet and yet somehow savory tempura-battered walnuts ($7), and the fried shiitakes in the "mock eel" ($7). Along with the wok-fried green beans ($7), which get little bits of pork, warming fermented black beans and a few pieces of crisp cabbage, those dishes are all dripping in rich oil flavor without actually dripping grease.
The noodle dishes ($11) are all spot-on in chewiness, with sauces that stop short of overwhelming the other ingredients. Ants Climbing a Tree is a particular favorite—a big bowl of slightly sticky cellophane noodles that delivers a huge umami punch thanks to ground pork, tree ear mushrooms and a roasty soybean sauce.
And there are some boundaries being pushed here, too, such as with the barbecue platter ($6), three small portions of meat served cold. In addition to a cold chicken breast in ginger-scallion oil, those meats include a thin-shaved beef tendon in a numbing mala peppercorn sauce that crunches and tastes a bit like an unripened cabbage. It wasn't entirely pleasant, but it's certainly the most adventurous thing I've eaten in a Portland brewpub—for now, at least.
- Order this: Sichuan chicken, Buddahâs beef, Ants Climbing a Tree.
- Best deal: Sweet and pungent walnuts ($7), mock eel ($7).
- Iâll pass: House-brewed beer (for now).
SEE IT: BTU Brasserie, 5846 NE Sandy Blvd., 971-407-3429, btupdx.com. Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Sunday.