High Noon: Restaurant Review

Frybread, mezcal and the ghost of John Wayne

High Noon is like its namesake—a standoff in which no side quite wins.

It's too bad, because there is much to like about this fast-casual eatery and bar, which opened its cavernous downtown space in September. But the ingredients don't yet jell, and the layout doesn't play up the place's true strengths.

As a business-district bar, it could possibly be a favorite. The service is downright terrific, and the mezcal selection is easily one of the best in town, with four-deep flights of agave-based spirits, plus a cocktail menu throwing Western flair into boozy classics, as with an Old Fashioned spiced up with ancho chili. At happy hour from 3 to 6 pm, a can of Tecate comes paired with a baby margarita for $6.

But the many-tabled box of a space is not a bar, although the owners are adding couches—and possibly some bar-height tables—to make the place more loungelike. This will be a welcome change. Despite beautiful details, the mood is closer to upscale Southwest-themed cafeteria, and the crowds so far have been for lunch.

The restaurant has billed itself as Portland's first spot dedicated to frybread ($7 for two), an often delicious elephant-ear-like carb-and-fat bomb with a tragic history. It was invented by Native American tribes left to subsist on U.S. government rations of flour, lard and milk. It stands for many as a symbol of survival—which meant an early mural depicting John Wayne was boarded over after complaints.

In Southwestern style, the frybread is served similar to tacos, with a choice of beef, pork, chicken or veggie toppings along with beans, onions and cabbage. But the two salsas are made indistinguishable by extreme mildness—additional sauces are in the works. The brisket is of the stewy variety, the pork simple in sweetness, the chicken preferable for its light achiote piquancy.

Everywhere, the restaurant aims at accessibility, with mixed results. The frybread is denoted on the menu as a "scone," which is a bit like Alec Baldwin on 30 Rock saying hush puppies might be better known to New Yorkers as "a knish or a beignet." And the bread has been made lighter at the expense of flavor and texture. Enchiladas ($8), meanwhile, eschew the classic sweet sauce for a fresh tomato sauce that amounts to an overacidic, Latin-spiced peppery marinara; a similar acidity mars the tortilla soup.

Skip the restaurant at busy lunch hour, and treat the place as your own private bar. Get nachos or a salad instead of frybread or arepas, sit at the bar with an excellent discounted cocktail, and remember to ask for some hot sauce. You'll need it. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.

EAT: High Noon, 822 SW 2nd Ave., 841-6411, highnoonpdx.com. 11 am-midnight Monday-Thursday, 11 am-2 am Friday, 3 pm-2 am Saturday.

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