It's a sunny Friday at Apex, one of the most famous beer bars in the country, and competition for patio seats is fierce. We're not here for the beer. Even though this bar doesn't have a kitchen, two days a week you can get some of the best new pizza in town, courtesy of a pop-up pizzeria called Ranch. Ranch's hefty grandma-style square pies are mysteriously delivered here on foot and only to a few beer bars in the neighborhood.
Next weekend, one of those bars, the Beermongers, will also play host to Jamaican Taste, a new pop-up serving fish cakes and beef patties made by a chef who's cooked for every reggae band touring the East Coast.
Something amazing is happening in Portland food.
The once-staid Portland pop-up trend has gotten…fun.
Pop-ups have been a fixture in Portland for three years. But most have been expensive and formal, like Nodoguro's Japanese dinners themed after fairy tales or Langbaan's region-hopping Thai. But those $100 umpty-course backroom dinners seem to indulge the chefs more than the diners. The mood at these staid supper clubs is often like a food church presided over by a chef with tweezers. And God help you if get sick, have to work late or are allergic to something on the fixed menu not announced in advance.
If the Portland pop-up of yesterday was a clubby banquet, this bold new wave of pop-ups feels fresh, exciting and democratic—a low-risk, casual way for chefs and bartenders to showcase the food they're passionate about. These days the scope, inventiveness and sheer amount of talent on display feel a lot like the birth of Portland's food-cart scene, back when top-tier chefs kicked out $8 sandwiches from inside a sun-baked aluminum box.
We spent the past month finding our favorites among the new crop of Portland pop-ups. Most will feed you for $25 or less. The other will stuff you for $42 and let you bring your own booze.
If it weren't for the guy who set his own butt on fire, there probably wouldn't be a Shipwreck.
Back in 2013, the kitchen manager at Pal's Shanty robbed his own restaurant and then torched the place to cover it up—accidentally setting himself on fire in the process.
Pal's never reopened, and Eric Nelson was sad. "I lost all the food I wanted to eat," says the Laurelhurst Market bartender, who at the time was mixing drinks at Naomi Pomeroy's colonial-hip cocktail spot Expatriate.
So the Alaska native figured he'd grab his chef buddy Jake Stevens from Beast and create a pop-up devoted to all the trashy seaside fare he loved from his childhood, from crab Louie to a fishwich to Ore-Ida fast-food fries. Pretty much every item on the menu is a memory from Oregon or Alaska, including the name: Shipwreck was the moniker of the bar side at Sea Galley, a family seafood spot he used to go to in Anchorage as a kid.
"At Gino's, it was steamer clams," he says. "Popeyes was popcorn shrimp. As for the fish sandwich—I just think there's a shortage in Portland."
But the most important thing, he says, is to keep Shipwreck simple, accessible, cheap, boozy and fun. No plate costs more than $14. Unsurprisingly, this was a popular decision. The first Shipwreck night had an hour-and-a-half wait almost from opening.
"We're not fermenting, we're not foraging, we're not taking reservations, it's not the churched-up, 12-course meal," Nelson laughs. "It's just a bartender party, an homage to bartenders."
But even on the cocktail menu, Nelson refuses to make you take your medicine, opting for the crazed, sugary, goofball palate of his Alaskan homeland.
"People in Alaska like sweet, fruity, neon-colored drinks," he says. "There's a lot of Midori. I like those things because they're fun and kitschy, and we can make them taste good."
His Green Eyes Midori drink is every bit as neon-green as he said—but that mix of overproof gin, lemon and egg white is threateningly chuggable and balanced, enough so it's already landed on the menu at Teardrop Lounge in the Pearl.
The party behind the bar is only getting bigger and dumber. "Emily Mistell, the former bar manager at Rum Club, is doing her take on a purple hooter," he says. Jet-setting former Woodsman Tavern bartender Evan Zimmerman will make "a little drink with blended Campari and OJ—without ice so it adds aeration—and then flat Champagne. He says it adds 'yeastiness.' It's called You're Doing It Wrong."
And, hell, Giuseppe González—inventor of the Trinidad sour and owner of the Suffolk Arms in New York—figured he'd fly out to pour drinks at Shipwreck, too.
"Giuseppe is the guy Jeffrey Morgenthaler looks to when he wants to know what to do next," Nelson says. "He's a hero."
But as with any good party, Nelson says he doesn't plan to keep anything too consistent—the chefs will rotate just as often as bartenders, just to keep it interesting.
"This is Jake's last one," Nelson says of the May Shipwreck. "Whoever wants to jump in, I'll invite them. I thought about getting the kitchen manager of Holman's to come cook at one. I like the idea of showing that anybody could throw a good party."
NEXT UP: The next Shipwreck is at Taqueria Nueve, 727 SE Washington St., on Monday, May 15. 5 pm-2 am. shipwreckpdx.com.
Portland has a proud history of mystery pizza.
If you're a veteran Portlander, you probably remember the mystique of Lonesome's. Before it was a window at Dante's downtown, Lonesome's worked from an unmarked kitchen, firing up late-night pies topped with edible glitter, with weird names that would change every few weeks.
The guys behind Ranch don't remember any of that, but they ended up doing something similar. Ranch pies are available only at the Beermongers, Apex and Baerlic Brewing. There's still some mystery about it—even my favorite bartender at the Beermongers blew me off when I asked for contact info. So I ended up calling during off-hours and getting the scoop on these pies, which are delivered on foot by a man who appears by the door of the bar with a big, heavy, pricey square pie that will serve five to six.
If you're in a smaller group, don't worry—Ranch makes for great leftovers. In fact, that was the plan from the beginning.
"Our first inspiration was actually leftover pizza," says Richard Corey, who runs Ranch with his buddy Eric Wood. "We love really good pizza that you reheat in a cast-iron pan or the oven, and it gets a little char on the bottom or a little crispy."
The best pies for that? Detroit-style, which also happens to be the hottest trend in the pizzaverse right now.
"We both love all types of pizza," Corey says. "The Sicilian-Detroit-grandma-style pizza has been popular recently, and we thought it was kinda underrepresented in Portland. It's something we really like, and we were having trouble finding a good one. So we just started experimenting with it. We actually spent three-ish months just experimenting on pizzas. We'd make a few pizzas a day, testing different dough consistencies, different ingredients."
The crust they ended up with is thick but also crushable. It's chewy in the middle and a little crispy on the bottom and sides. It's neither undercooked or burnt—a challenge.
Part of the secret is the sauce. They use a fresh, uncooked sauce, and they apply it twice.
"Because it's so thick, we have to bake the crust before we top it," Corey says. "We bake it with sauce initially so it doesn't dry out too much, and then we sauce it again."
That hefty crust can handle lots of toppings—I highly recommend the thick-cut pepperoni.
The only drawback? The Beermongers and Apex were already crowded on Friday nights, and adding some of the best new pizza in town has only exacerbated the situation. Get there early and guard your seat.
"Both the bar owners were really happy to get really good food, especially good food that could be delivered right there, so people wouldn't have to leave their bars to get it," Corey says.
NEXT UP: Ranch delivers at the Beermongers and Apex, on the corner of Southeast 12th Avenue and Division Street, and at Baerlic Brewing, 2235 SE 11th Ave. Order by phone at 503-477-6481. 5 pm-midnight Friday-Saturday, 3-10 pm Sunday. ranchpdx.com.
Robert Bryant likes to say he's not just a white guy, he's "like, the whitest guy."
"I get sunburnt from flash photography," he says. "I did a little bit of work on friends' Jamaican trucks. Once in a while, some Rasta would walk up, take one look at me and go, 'Oh, hell no.'"
Those food carts were in Boston, a city with a large Jamaican population. In Portland, Bryant has found a totally different reception for his Jamaican Taste pop-up, which serves the best fish cakes and beef patties we've had in this city.
"In Portland, it doesn't seem to matter. It's a town of foodies that are adventurous eaters," he says. "They don't care where the hell you came from—how's your food, how are your patties?"
The patties are good—they're actually pasties, here in a delicate dough wrapped around extra-beefy ground beef that's mildly seasoned with curry.
Bryant moved to Portland six months ago, and has been popping up a few times a month, mostly at beer bars and bottle shops, which turn out to be fertile new ground for pop-ups, given they typically don't serve food and are populated with customers primed to hunt for new and exotic consumables.
Bryant is hoping to open a food cart. Before he can do that, he needs to sell someone a car. Specifically, he needs to find a buyer for his '61 Nash Metropolitan. He'd take $9,900 for it—enough to buy himself a cart.
If that sounds like an odd twist for a chef who worked at Beard-awarded chef Chris Schlesinger's highly acclaimed East Coast Grill, it's just one of several.
Bryant started out in the real estate business.
"I loved the easy money from working in real estate for 30 years. It just came rolling in, you didn't have to do anything, but it wasn't satisfying," he says. "I was also doing some catering, and I started cooking for my friends who were reggae musicians, word of mouth spread, and next thing you know I was catering for pretty much every reggae act that rolled through Boston. It just became my thing, and I just got better and better at it."
In 2000, he put himself through culinary school. He ended up working for Schlesinger, the best-selling The Thrill of the Grill author who is a regular on Martha Stewart's show.
Portland was calling Bryant.
"I think it's the food city of America, and I really wanted to be part of this community," he says. "And I realized there isn't much in the way of Jamaican out here."
On that, he's right. There are a few Jamaican spots, but none that really stands out. It's a lot like Thai food was before Pok Pok's Andy Ricker opened his chicken shack. Bryant has corresponded with Ricker, who is his inspiration.
"He's my idol," Bryant says. "He's a ginger, just like me, but all you really have to have is knowledge and a will and you can make it happen."
Unlike Ricker, though, he's not obsessed with authenticity.
Take the fish cakes, which are gluten-free and heavy on the fish—the small, pale patties have a delightful lightness to them.
"Of all my dishes, my fish cakes are probably the least authentic, because when you get fish cakes in Jamaica, they use a lot of breading and not much fish, and I don't like that," he says. "I use a lot of fish and make it a bit more high-end, like crab cakes."
He uses a similar twist on the fried plantains—which have a dessert quality, with a molten center and a light, crisp shell.
"Jamaicans fry them when they're a bit greener, and it's more of a french fry. I let them get a little riper and it's more like a dessert," he says. "It's like nature's beignets."
The beef patties and the jerk chicken, on the other hand, are the thing those Rastas passing him by are really missing out on.
"I try to make my Jamaican better. Most people use the premade jerk sauce you get in a big tub. That stuff's salty as hell," he says. "I make mine from scratch, I pay more money, because I don't want to cut any corners."
NEXT UP: The next Jamaican Taste pop-up is at the Beermongers, 1125 SE Division St., on Friday, May 19. 5-8 pm.
Food of Guam
We're having a contest on who can eat the most ribs, but we're all losing. The piled-high, meaty mountain of pork laid out family style on the table is almost unholy tender, cooked sous vide for 3½ hours and caramelized on the grill out front—blessedly redolent of ginger, garlic and onion.
But we're four courses into our meal, having already downed a massive bowl of coconut-onion tuna ceviche so bright and rich it blends the senses into blank submission, fast-pickled papaya with a cheerful pepper kick, and a crab-and-coconut-milk soup floating with herbal oil that is the culinary equivalent of Reiki massage.
Most at the table—sated and a little tipsy from bottles of wine they've brought from home, with no need to pay for corkage—relent happily after three beautifully meaty spareribs. Then word travels: Some guy down the table has seven bones on his plate and refuses to stop eating.
At chef Ed Sablan's new Food of Guam pop-up, nobody leaves hungry. And nobody finishes the family plate.
"Family is a big part of the culture," says Sablan, whose wife and daughter also serve at the meal. "Our culture is centered around family, and eating is a big communal event to enjoy with everybody: family, strangers and friends."
Sablan grew up on Guam before coming to Portland for culinary school in 1993. "I learned cooking from parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents," he says. But for over a decade after cooking school, he was devoted to another tradition entirely—French food, both at the Heathman and at St. Honoré bakery.
"That's one thing that drew me to French culture, the food," he says. "Everything is very classic, but elevated."
That got him thinking: Why couldn't he do the same for the Chamorro cuisine of Guam, and its whirlwind of Latin and Asian influences? Though there were many Chamorro people all over the mainland, there were almost no restaurants.
"I think it might be because of how everybody grows up with the food," he says. "Sometimes the dishes may get oversimplified. You get in that mentality of thinking maybe something's not good enough. What I want to do is shift the thinking. The way they were conditioned, they think the food should be cheap. It shouldn't be cheap. We should be proud of this."
He started his PDX 671 cart seven years ago, serving up smoky, citric, spicy kelaguen mannok chicken and insanely good coconut flatbread. But balancing the cart with these pop-up meals, he feels he's finally accomplishing what he wanted. "I feel like with this pop-up, I'm leaning more toward fulfillment," he says.
Food of Guam is a riot of flavors and a wealth of food, leaving diners reeling as they finish off yet another baked wonder: a latiya shortbread leavened with cinnamon and hazelnut and coconut, topped with custard and chiffon cake. But while the $42 meal advertises five courses, it turned out there was a sixth. One by one as they left, each diner picked up a to-go box, and they departed with yet more of those tender ribs. No one leaves Sablan's kitchen hungry.
"What's a bloody mary?" our waiter asks, minutes before breaking into a dance to the tune of Mariah Carey's "Fantasy." Forgive him: He's still in elementary school.
JunJun (pronounced "June June") is a kind of place that serves champorado—warm chocolate rice porridge descended from the corn-based Mexican version, that the chef says kids eat while watching cartoons—while the son of the server helps take your order. He might have to ask Mom how to spell "pork belly," though.
The atmosphere at Jun Robles' Filipino-American brunch pop-up—$25 for four courses—is casual and familial, a half-dozen chefs horsing around behind the counter while diners eat a meal whose goal, Robles says, is "honoring traditional Filipino food and celebrating the Filipino-American experience."
Robles, a Portland native who cut his teeth at such spots as Le Pigeon and Oven and Shaker, brings gently elevated technique to traditional Filipino breakfast foods. "I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel or mess with anything too much," he says. "It's a nice, gentle ease into getting people accustomed to Filipino food."
Our meal is literally and figuratively sweet. The champorado is served alongside a paper bag of fried shrimp crackers flavored with a grip of garlic—although in the Philippines, we're informed, the porridge often comes with dried, cured fish as salty counterpoint. We moved on to taho—a small cup of multicolored tapioca pearls and silken tofu served in warm brown-sugar syrup. Taho street vendors, Robles says, walk through neighborhoods with two buckets hung on a stick across their shoulders—a lot like the ice-cream man. "Businessmen, kids, everybody comes running."
Later, we'll finish with bibingka, a springy rice cake baked in banana leaf and served with coconut shaved with cured duck egg. Alongside a bloody mary spiked with fish sauce, there was a three-deep mimosa menu, including lychee and mango.
But the star of the show is silog, a large bowl of garlic-fried rice, pickled papaya and vegetables, poached egg and your choice of meat—order the lumpia stuffed with Filipino longanisa sausage—served with sweet chili, soy and chili and garlic-vinegar sauces.
"As a kid, the sauces are always on the table," Robles says. "With Filipino cooks, it's not about their perspective or interpretation, it's about the person dining. Dump all the sauce you want on it. It's about you!"
That's Robles' approach in a nutshell.
"Sometimes you try too hard to tell a story through the food," he says, "or compose something that's so perfect that the idea in your mind is not on the plate. Some of that is a selfish endeavor. For me, there's a little bit of freedom to just make something fuckin' delicious. Don't stress on how someone's supposed to enjoy it."
NEXT UP: The next JunJun pop-up brunch is tentatively scheduled at the new Feastly space, 912 SE Hawthorne Blvd., on Saturday, May 27. Tickets and details at eatfeastly.com.