Gastro Mania is a lone herb-Parmesan swordfish swimming against the roaring current of Slabtown.
Last fall, after his food cart was shut down by developers, Bulgarian-born chef Alex Nenchev moved his Mediterranean kitchen into a tiny, spartan corner eatery and deli about the size of a cigar store. It's become a place unlike any other new spot in the neighborhood.
From Boke to Boxer to Grassa, every mini-chain concept in Portland has been moving into the blocks-wide construction zone to soak up incoming hordes of luxury apartment dwellers and old-school Nob Hillers left behind by the 2000s Portland food boom. McMenamins made a bottle shop. Casa del Matador threw up some barbecue.
But Gastro is a bare-bones, working-class Mediterranean eatery staffed by a classically trained European chef making humble dishes, and he's doing it all with money he earned the hard way. It's the dream of Portland, circa 2006. And if you're in the neighborhood, it's the very best place to eat lunch. I should know: I work in the neighborhood.
As the old Greek dominion over Portland bars and restaurants fades, Nenchev, once a fine-dining chef on the Continent, is making what are almost certainly the finest gyros in town. Lamb, salmon, chicken or albacore tuna steak are cooked to order for a mere $7—get the sandwich, not the plate—rolled with lettuce-tomato-onion veg into fresh pita bread, doused with bright balsamic on the fish and tzatziki spiked with jalapeño aioli on the meat.
But despite the lamb gyro being my favorite of its kind in Portland—with meat chopped into crisp-on-the-outside, tender-within herbal chunks—I only sometimes have cause to order it. For only $8.50, Nenchev makes a salad heaping with thick-armed octopus whose preparation betrays long years of mastery in cooking a cephalopod whose texture is tetchy for any chef. Each tendril is massaged into softness, with no hint of rubber, though its exterior is crusted to carbon with spice char. It is a lunchtime decadence unusual enough to be extraordinary.
But the menu is full of distractions. There is, for example, the generous plate of soft, stewed brisket, enriched with porcini sauce ($10.50) spilling over the tender meat and onto a slab of polenta beneath. Or the porchetta sandwich, whose title ingredient almost always—though not always—successfully toes the delicate tightrope between fat, char and savory marble that makes it both a dangerous and rewarding meat cut.
The first dish that caught our attention when Gastro Mania was a food cart was the foie gras burger, a recipe Nenchev learned from his Italian grandmother, made with pan-seared livers of Canada geese. It is a thing of ridiculous luxury, but at $12 it is still somehow only the price of a Dork burger at Dick's. It's also on the menu only sometimes, and it's sold out more often than not.
A caveat is, perhaps, in order. I'm a regular enough supporter of the place that I might end up getting slightly larger portions than somebody else would right off the street. But as far as I can tell, almost everyone who eats here is a regular. I am probably betraying them by making the place's finer qualities so public.
ORDER THIS: Gyros ($7), octopus salad ($8.50), brisket ($10.50), foie gras burger ($12).
EAT: Gastro Mania, 1986 NW Pettygrove St., 689-3794, gastromaniapdx.com. 11 am-6 pm Monday-Friday, 11 am-4 pm Saturday.