Top Five Restaurants of 2014: Number 4, American Local

Road-tripping from Wisconsin to Japan.

The American Local was made on the road—in a cheese-logged Wisconsin bar called the Old Fashioned, and amid the cream and sugar of Iowa’s Waffle Stop Grill. It was made in the piled, loose meats of Midwestern chain Maid-Rite, as franchised by a friend’s mother.

"It was kind of inspiring," says American Local co-owner Jenny Nickolaus about Maid-Rite's signature sandwich, "even though it was basically a sloppy joe. It was about that sense of place. It was right for the right reasons." Nickolaus and her partner, chef Chris Whaley, had road-tripped across America after becoming disillusioned working in the opulent restaurants of San Francisco.

They had always been drawn to the flavors of Japanese food, but it was in the little Midwestern and Southern towns that they realized what they wanted to do: create an all-American izakaya, a drinking restaurant focused on that pervasive sense of place they found in those roadside pancake houses—a place where the bar and the kitchen work in perfect concert and all the flavors are bold.

The American Local's America is everywhere and nowhere at once, the stacked-up mishmash of cultures that has come to define us as a people. Their herb-and-sheep's-milk frybread draws on the countrysides of Scotland, France and Arizona. The double-stacked, secret-sauced hamburger was inspired loosely by the In-N-Out Double-Double. The restaurant's staple Brussels sprouts—which just rejoined the menu at the end of September—are a Euro-Asian-Mexican traffic jam spiced up with miso aioli and pickled jalapeño. 

The restaurant manages to create a menu and an experience that is both accessible and surprising at once. The food's ebullient greeting is bolstered by sterling cocktails, by-the-ounce sake and an almost small-town version of chatty, amiable service. Everyone's new in town and everyone's welcome. When a friend got married, it was the first place I thought to go for a large-group celebratory meal because, quite simply, I found it hard to imagine someone not liking the place. 

"We put a lot effort," says Nickolaus, "into being casual while serving food that's not that casual. We want it to be a mom-and-pop place, but people aren't expecting these big flavors. We have a melon dish with delicious melons from Viridian Farms, Benton's country ham, Calabrian chilies. The combo of flavors is so intricate. It's really simple, but people are blown away. I know melons, I know ham, I know chilies. But you get them all together.” 

The American Local, 3003 SE Division St., 954-2687, 5-10 pm Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 5-9 pm Sunday. $$.

 The Directory: Our 100 Favorite Restaurants in Portland

By Neighborhood: Southeast | North/Northeast | Westside | Suburbs 

 2014 Restaurant of the Year: Kachka 

Top Five: Old SaltAtaulaAmerican LocalExpatriate

Counter Service Picks: Latin | Asian | Italian | Sandwiches | Burgers 

Wine Bars | Beer Lists | Veg-Friendly | Gluten-free | Elsewhere in Oregon 

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