Brunch is all about comfort.
If I'm going to get out of bed early on a weekend, it's not to stand in line. It's not to nurse a first cup of coffee beneath bright fluorescent lights. It's not to cut into an overcooked poached egg and watch yolk confetti fall out. I want waffles and scrambles prepared with love, and grease-slick hangover cures like the ones my friends and I whipped up in college.
La Luna Cafe opened last month in the former home of Simpatica, the Portland pop-up pioneer that closed its doors after an outstanding decadelong run in 2016. Serving brunch and lunch seven days a week, the spot is operated by the same team that made Simpatica a national sensation: executive chef Ben Shaw with chef-owners Ben Dyer, Jason Owens and David Kreifels, who also operate Laurelhurst Market, Ate-Oh-Ate, Reverend's BBQ and Big's Chicken.
Had Simpatica been reincarnated? I wouldn't know, I never ate there. Another, newer brunch destination always won the morning's eggy pilgrimage. But between its history and chicken-fried stories from friends and colleagues, I was determined to find out. Because brunch is not something I fuck around with.
Thankfully, La Luna Cafe gives you all the gravy and then some. With a diverse menu, good prices and a breezy atmosphere, the half-basement space is now light and open with hanging plants and blond-wood tones. It has twice the seating as Simpatica and a new entrance on Southeast Ash Street.
Among counter-service variants, La Luna does it with soul. Each visit, food arrived fast, and I never had to wait for a table, even on weekends. But I promise, this is going to change very, very soon.
The menu at La Luna runs deep, mixing Southern-tinged comfort foods with West Coast-style superfoods: creative fresh-squeeze juice blends, smoothies, espresso, breakfast cocktails. pastries, waffles, eggs Benedict, chicken-fried pork loin with sausage gravy, sandwiches featuring Laurelhurst Market meats, and vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free breakfast bowls.
The buttermilk biscuits ($4) are the beating heart of the menu. Paradoxically light yet heavy, the biscuits' layers levitate above buttery air pockets. It tasted as though the recipe hadn't changed for a decade—as indeed, it hasn't.
Courtesy of local veteran baker Amelia Lane, the baking is vital to La Luna's success. There's a pastry case full of things like bergamot-walnut crumb cake, matcha rice crispy snacks and lemon-lavender olive oil cupcakes. I can't think of a better $3.50 grab-and-go item in Portland right now than the ham-and-cheese "poptart," a flaky, Gruyere-encrusted pastry stuffed with Laurelhurst Market ham and more Gruyere.
Likewise, all three of La Luna's excellent, while diminutive, eggs Benedict ($10-$14) come atop housemade, whole wheat-emanating English muffins. And then there's the Fat Biscuit, a contender for Best New Breakfast Sandwich of 2018. Mine contained a lacy smoked-gouda scramble—practically liquid cheese, thanks to a bold egg-to-cheese ratio. Smoky ribbons of "frizzled" Irish bacon combined with maple aioli to a barbecuelike effect. Bread-and-butter-style zucchini pickles brought the requisite tang.
La Luna's crepes ($9), one of several Simpatica holdovers, were another must-order dish, as much for their technique as their contents: The crepes are pan-seared, stuffed and then baked. Thicker than usual, but no less delicate, they come wrapped around bacon, mushrooms, caramelized onion and ricotta, and persillade that lifted the entire dish higher with parsley-rosemary-thyme aromatics.
The menu wobbled with the new bowls. My favorite was the Panzanella Bowl ($8), which had all the components of a Greek salad—black olives, tomato, cucumber and red onion—with the addition of pumpkin seed pesto and roasted broccolini. The croutonlike bread cubes were slightly too crunchy (next time, I'd add burrata for $5). The grilled shrimp on the Baja Bowl ($10) was excellent, but the salad beneath was one-dimensional chopped Romaine.
Finally, the Simpatica-inspired burger demands attention. A Grand Central bun splits the difference between a soft, white burger bun and ciabatta. A patty of 100 percent Laurelhurst Market ground beef was so silky it adhered to the pickles, arugula, red onion and zucchini pickle garlic aioli, making the whole thing astonishingly compact and light.
While La Luna Cafe retains the essence and veteran team of Simpatica, the new smoothies and bowls show it can grow with the times. And whereas Simpatica was a trail blazer—an irreverent Portland supper club whose bold flavors helped inspire Toro Bravo and Laurelhurst Market—La Luna is more familiar. It could very well go on to be Portland's best new brunch of 2018.