Judging by the crowds, Pine Street Market is already a smash hit. The month-old, high-end downtown food court has been jammed since it opened, and should only get busier as summer tourists arrive.
(Related: Five Things to Try at Pine Street Market)
But what will it look like in October, when the novelty wears off?
Hopefully, a very different place. After making a half-dozen visits to the market and sampling food from the ramen shop, pizza shop, Israeli street-food shop, cocktail bar and the rest—everywhere except the abandoned and possibly haunted Barista coffee kiosk staffed by ghostly apparitions who wander about aimlessly, fidgeting with mugs—I'm excited not to come back for a while. It might have been a good idea, but Pine Street Market is plagued by logistical issues and overly ambitious menus.
Here's what it was like for me. Hopefully, your mileage varies.
It's like something that should be in Pioneer Place…
Did you know that Sara Lee now makes something called Artesano Bread? Well, it does—part of the Great Fauxartisanalification of American commerce. Pine Street Market is the Artesano Bread version of a mall food court (it's even playing the Eagles' "Take It Easy"), except that people are crammed onto little metal stools and standing in lines that bulge into every walkway and entrance. The line at Salt & Straw's soft-serve spot, Wiz Bang Bar, has to part every time workers carry out kitchen trash. There's no place on the block to park your bike, let alone an automobile. The whole operation would fit much better inside an actual shopping mall.
It's like using the restroom at an ill-kept gas station…
Pine Street is bright, busy and not open especially late, but in an apparent effort to thwart the downtown homeless population from brushing its teeth, the market has installed key-coded locks on its restroom doors. Personally, I feel that any establishment should either sell $2.50 bacon-wrapped dates and $4 cans of San Pellegrino or have locks on its restrooms. Oh well, hop back in line to ask for the code—and hope you're not behind WW projects editor Matthew Korfhage, who incorrectly guessed the code too many times and locked out everyone.
It's like a backyard cookout where the whole grill is being used to make some weird flatbread thing but you just want a burger or dog…
The menus at several Pine Street spots are overstuffed. John Gorham's Pollo Bravo focuses on roast chicken, but its massive menu has 25 other food items, everything from canned mussels ($21) to salt cod fritters ($10) to garlic soup with a sous vide egg ($7), organized in a way that makes it hard to discern how much food you'll be getting. It's especially unfortunate given that the chicken itself isn't dialed: On two of three visits, the skin was oversalted to the point that it tasted like grocery-store ham. Most of the sauces failed (the hot sauce is basically red-tinted liquid smoke), and a lump of flavorless, grease-saturated ciabatta prompted dining companions to spit it out. Meanwhile, there are excellent fancy hot dogs at the Olympia Provisions kiosk (see here), and a fabulous burger at Common Law (see here).
It's like being a server on your first shift…
Every eating spot's tablet offers you the chance to tip, and I always do. You should tip too, but do remember you'll be the one running across the room to fetch water, forks and napkins, then more napkins, and then a knife. And when someone neglects to give you the beer you ordered and tipped for? Well, you'll go back to the counter and wait in a long line to ask for it. Oh, and it'll be back to the line when you're done with your pizza—Trifecta Annex's whole pies are dramatically better than its single slices, as Ken Forkish's artisan crust fares poorly when reheated. "Did you buy a pizza?" asked the gentleman working the counter, eyeing us suspiciously. Why else would anyone want a pizza box? Are homeless people who are being thwarted by restroom security pooping in them?
It's like being a raccoon…
I'm happy to bus my own table at a taqueria or burger joint, but I'd rather not paw through a half-gnawed chicken carcass ($23 with sauces) and cheese flan ($7, size of a cat-food container, consistency of Greek yogurt, flavor of diabetic cheesecake), trying to discern whether dairy and bones are meant for the compost bin.
It's like a picnic planned by the Reed Philosophy Club…
Why do all the logistical problems persist? According to one insider I spoke with, it's tough to change anything at Pine Street given the structure, which requires a consensus of the various busy and powerful restaurateurs who operate under the same roof.
It's like watching a smart, shrimpy nerd trying to play linebacker…
John Gorham's two Pine Street establishments, Pollo Bravo and Shalom Y'all, earn my harshest criticism. The restaurateur behind two past WW Restaurant of the Year winners, and a third top-five finisher, seems to have taken on too much by opening several fast-casual spots at once.
For starters, the service is a mess—Gorham does small plates and relies on servers to manage the flow of food to tables. The system is broken here: Dishes come at random. Early on, runners interrupted your conversation each time they came by to ask if you had everything, but lately they've been abandoning the marker entirely.
The food and cocktails are similarly plagued.
Pollo Bravo would do well to strip down its menu to chicken and potatoes, and dial them in. The small $5 Bravas platter works very well, but the oversauced "Papas Grande Fiesta" is a mess of competing flavors. The spot could also use new sauces and a tighter drink menu, maybe without vermouth, sangria, sherry and a $48 sparkler. We tried four $11 cocktails and found each of them severely flawed.
Shalom Y'all—there's nothing even vaguely Southern, so the name is bewildering—fails in ways both big and small. Skip the hummus and shakshuka, priced as they are at Gorham's Mediterranean Exploration Company in the Pearl, but lacking the same refinement. Instead, proceed cautiously to the pita sandwiches.
The fresh-baked bread rounds are perfect, and the grilled chicken shawarma ($12) was well-seasoned and perfectly cooked. But mine was also poorly constructed, with a huge pile of onions on the bottom and all the chicken on top—unacceptable at this price point. Meanwhile, the lamb pita ($12) is sopped in heavy sauce, with a few thin pickles unable to balance it. One of my companions described it as "eating a block of cream cheese."
It's like arguing about whether Pete Carroll or Russell Wilson is to blame for that interception…
To me, it's clear that Gorham took on too much. Is that his fault, or the fault of Mike Thelin, the Feast Portland organizer who was charged with "curating" the collection of restaurants at Pine Street? Ask me again in October.
EAT: Pine Street Market, 126 SW 2nd St., 503-939-9449, pinestreetpdx.com.