Old Salt: 2014 Restaurant of the Year Runner-Up

Setting a new standard for sustainable comfort food.


Skin is the new wing. Of that, Old Salt's Ben Meyer is sure.

"Go to New Seasons and look at the deli case, and you'll see their biggest seller is boneless, skinless chicken breast," he says. "Well, where does that skin go? Cat food, dog food, chicken sausage…but the skin is one of the best parts. It's full of flavor. Chefs see that."

Meyer, the kitchen-focused piece of the trio behind Old Salt, always has an eye out for value—in the up-and-coming Cully neighborhood, in pig feed made into pasta salad, and in cuts of beef unheralded by others.

That's central to the ethos at our Restaurant of the Year runner-up. Even in Portland's DIY food scene, where everything is house-pickled and many chefs spend their morning foraging ramps or mushrooms for dinner, Old Salt takes sourcing and sustainability to otherwise-unseen extremes. Yes, it's nice to get four different flavor-dripping cuts of roast pork on a plate—but there's arguably something even more important happening.

Other Portland restaurants have in-house butchery, of course, but Old Salt is the only one that relies exclusively on whole-animal butchery, slicing every steak, sausage and jerky stick sold from a weekly delivery of two cows and three to four pigs purchased directly from ranchers. There are no reinforcements when Old Salt sells out of pork chops—they chop the chops, and then cook something else. In so doing, they force themselves to use the entire animal, including 18 pounds of skin per pig turned into a mountain of pork rinds.

Such chef-led sustainability efforts are gaining traction nationwide, thanks partly to Dan Barber, who's won several James Beard Awards at his New York restaurant Blue Hill, and is the author of a new book, The Third Plate, about the future of food. Barber's challenge is for chefs to move past the filet mignon and organic tomatoes (which Barber calls "the Hummer of the vegetable world”) to create a waste-free food system by making incredible meals from every byproduct, including offal and modest nitrogen-fixing greens. 

Meyer and partners Marcus Hoover and Alex Ganum worked toward that with their first restaurant, the bustling Grain & Gristle, but hit another level with Old Salt, which has a butcher counter on one side and a woody dining room recalling an old-time saloon on the other.

Our best of many wonderful experiences there came with the restaurant's newish omakase option, Americanized to "Let us cook for you." You name a price, they bring you food. For $33.33 per head, our table of three got browned butter with raw turnips, beef tartare with crispy potato chips, a cassolette of various pickled fruits and vegetables, zucchini fritters, tomato salad, grilled marrow bones, a bright sesame kale salad, and plates of rare roast beef and grilled albacore, the latter with thinly sliced jalapeños.

Most striking is how this restaurant built off butchery manages to do such wonderful things with pickled blueberries and grilled black onion bulbs.

"We assume that because we have the best meat in the state, that it's going to be fine," Meyer says. “So it’s really the vegetables that drive the menu.” 

Thrift and happenstance are also factors. Ganum, who also owns Upright Brewing, calls this a return to "the more normal way" of doing things. It's a lesson he learned with Upright's now-flagship Engelberg Pilsner, which came about when the brewery got a really nice batch of Hallertau hops and with Upright's new fruit beers, which are stored in second-use barrels that he previously discarded.

"It seemed a waste to break [the barrels] down and give them away, so we tried putting a second batch in and it turned out even better than the first," Ganum says. "People talk about what farmhouse brewing is, and to me that's farmhouse-style. Just being resourceful, having shit make sense."

Among Old Salt's other boasts are making pasta from triticale—a wheat-rye hybrid the restaurant's pig rancher grows as feed—and selling burger patties made with meat from a single grass-fed cow, for $5 a pound.

"One cow, guaranteed!" Ganum says. "We have to be the only place in the city where that's true."

You wouldn't know that unless you ask. Meyer and Ganum say they're fatigued by polished Portland restaurant concepts and hearing "farm-to-table" used more as a sales pitch than a business practice, with restaurants erecting billboard-sized chalkboards to advertise ties to farmers they haven't bought green beans from in a year.

"I hate when restaurants sprinkle farm names all over the menu—it's a sales point in Portland, but a lot of it is smoke and mirrors," Meyer says. "Like Carlton pork—a lot of those are Canadian pigs brought down to Carlton, Oregon. And Draper Valley chicken, which is owned by Perdue, the world's largest poultry manufacturer."

Meyer, especially, is a value hunter going back to his days as a line cook at Toro Bravo. He says he was in the room when chef John Gorham discovered an undervalued cut called "chuck eye"—what you might know as Toro Bravo's famous house-smoked coppa steak.

"The cuts he was looking at originally were too expensive, but the chuck eye was perfect," Meyer says. "John renamed it 'coppa,' which is a cut of pork from roughly the same place."

At Meyer's former restaurant, Ned Ludd—he has its ax logo tattooed on his right forearm—an aesthetic and menu were built around the oven that came with the space. "We didn't go there and think, 'We're going to create a wood-fired system,'" he says. "We got the space and it had the oven, so we used it."

Another classic Portland value Old Salt's owners are passionate about is workers' benefits. Meyer, Hoover and Ganum began their careers washing dishes without benefits at big chains, so they give employees health insurance, maternity and paternity leave, a free pair of Dansko clogs and a yearly free keg of beer. ("I don't really spread that around, but if anyone asks for a keg for their birthday, I hook them up," Ganum says.)

What they don't give their employees is the chance to brag.

"What we're doing is just making supper," Meyer says. "I tell the guys, 'Grandma did it every day and no one ever wrote a magazine article about her.’” 

5027 NE 42nd Ave., 971-255-0167, oldsaltpdx.com5 pm-midnight daily, 9 am-3 pm brunch weekends. $$.

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