The Coop has a setup any new-school barbecue joint would envy. It serves along busy Interstate Avenue, but the back patio is a little oasis, shaded by a big, leafy maple and giving way to neatly manicured patches of crisp, green grass. There's even a ladder-ball set—you know, for kids. They mostly play Motown. Slow-cooked beef and pork are stacked high on cafeteria trays. Cocktails are $7, and they make a mean plate of greens with crispy bacon bits.
The one thing the Coop doesn't have? Smoke.
Now, I know, it's obviously unfair to judge the Coop as a barbecue joint, because it's not. They do rotisserie-roasted versions of brisket, pork butt and chicken. Those meats are generously portioned. It's not owner Solomon Florea's fault that I've been conditioned to start salivating for smoke when I see a big pile of brisket and ribs. There are, obviously, many valid ways to slow-cook slabs of meat.
But in my visits, the Coop is missing the flavors—heat, sweet, smoke, maybe all three—that make a huge hunk of meat desirable. This is the type of food Southerners think Yankees eat when they're complaining about Yankees. It's like all the strong flavors were applied by a picky child or an Englishman—which is probably why it's attracting big family crowds.
Let's start with that brisket, which comes on a single-serving platter for $12, or as part of a meat sampler that will serve two hungry diners for $28. It's plenty tender, like pot roast, and if you douse it in the house's sweet, acidic, salsa-ish "cock sauce," it'd pass for mediocre 'cue. Same with the pulled pork—the flavors in three sliders on the lunch plate were undetectable. They promised a jalapeño honey sauce, but no one at my table detected it. We just got…meat. Then, some lightly dressed slaw and more meat. I shook on some Frank's RedHot, and ended up happy enough.
The same problem plagued a side of root vegetables. The beets were beautiful shades of purple and fiery orange. But there's just no seasoning on them—no discernible salt, let alone the sort of subtle spice blend that would really elevate them. Florea points out that it's easy to add spices and pretty much impossible to remove them, and he's right, but the best cooks manage to find that happy medium.
The fried-chicken plate ($12), on the other hand, was simply overthought. Three pieces of dark meat were covered in an airy, tempura-style batter. It falls off at the first bite. The golden flakiness wasn't entirely unpleasant, but it lacked the buttery, almost nutty note that I look for.
A brisket sandwich made into a Philly cheesesteak ($11) worked better. The stewy meat benefited greatly from grilled onions and peppers, plus fontina cheese. Get it with a side of sauteed kale—this is the Coop's version of greens—with a generous sprinkle of crispy bacon.
And get a cocktail. The Coop serves admirably stiff and restrained drinks for $7 to $8. They're not mixologist quality, but in a town where too many restaurants are charging $11 for cocktails made by waitresses with no training as bartenders simply referencing the ingredient list, they're a nice change of pace.
In health-conscious Portland, there's probably a large market for diners who prefer kale to collards, and who don't want to subject their colon to smoked meat. Well, Coop it up. However, if you're one of those people who carry hot sauce in your bag—like Hillary Clinton or Beyoncé—this is not your spot.
EAT: The Coop, 6214 N Interstate Ave., 503-208-3046, thecooppdx.com. Noon-9 pm Tuesday-Thursday, noon-10 pm Friday, 10 am-10 pm Saturday, 10 am-8 pm Sunday.