It didn't take long for Kachka to outgrow its hole in the wall.
Upon opening on Southeast Grand in 2014, the regional Russian restaurant was the talk of Portland's food scene. It was WW's Restaurant of the Year, and last year, we went ahead and declared it the best of its kind in America.
In July, Kachka finally moved into a much larger, more refined venue several blocks away. But the owners didn't just abandon their smaller digs: At the same time, Kachka's new sister restaurant, Kachinka, took over the old space next to Dig A Pony. Here, the Russian pop is loud, the doors stay open until midnight every day, and you can order several of Kachka's best dishes at happy-hour prices all night long.
Naturally, Kachinka is loaded with vodka. Potent Moscow mules ($6) cost $3 less than at Kachka, and the Dacha Martini ($9), seasoned with savory celery bitters and cucumber brine, will make you hungry. Shot-and-beer combos pair house-infused vodkas with Eastern European beers for $8 to $10. Roughly 40 vodkas are served by the gram—30 grams roughly equals a 1-ounce shot.
The food menu spans drinking snacks for $2 to $6, caviar and roe for $14 to $55, and a handful of large plates—many brand new—for $9 to $15. To be sure, Kachinka offers only a glimpse of the regional Russian dishes chef-owner Bonnie Morales is known for. While several drinking snacks were too precious—toasted semichki sunflower seeds ($2) that are too small to shell and too fibrous to eat whole—the larger plates were reliably transportive.
Siberian pelmeni ($9) in fancy broth ($2) remain a must-order. Filled with beef, pork and veal, the handmade dumplings are warming and delicate, the meaty broth luscious and laced with sour cream. At $4 less than at Kachka, they're a solid bargain, too. The new meatball sub ($10), slickly named Red October, adds cabbage and warming spices to lamb, beef and pork meatballs, making the dish achingly succulent.
Kachinka hasn't been overrun—yet—but expect short waits during peak hours on weekends.
At the new Kachka, meanwhile, the biggest change is the square footage. With a wide-open main dining room, Kachka is a real-deal restaurant. The Eastern Bloc vibes are otherwise the same, with Soviet-era wallpaper, lacy white curtains and a humongous rug covering most of one wall. Further inside, the "private" 40-seat dining room welcomes guests unless it's rented out. It's like stepping into Kachka's den, with two chandeliers and big oil paintings depicting Dostoevsky-esque scenes.
But Kachka's third setting, the lounge area, lacks the atmosphere of the other two. A stairway leading up to an unused mezzanine detracts from the otherwise immersive experience, like seeing backstage during a performance, and the signature Russian soundtrack gets lost in mile-high ceilings. Unfortunately, it's the only place to try Kachka's excellent new happy hour—I'd choose Kachinka any day for the value plus setting.
Aside from that, the new Kachka is already firing on all cylinders, even with a much-expanded kitchen and dining room. At times, I find it unimaginable that any other chef could have done for Soviet-era food what Morales has achieved—her deft hand so often creates mystifying flavors that melt into silk right before disappearing.
Kachka's new lunch is the only time to try the complete lineup of blini, yeasty Russian crepes made to order. The Caesar blin ($9) isn't a full meal, but it is one of my favorite new dishes. It is simply salad inside a crepe, but it was somehow gutsy, with punchy aged Parmesan and a super-garlicky anchovy sauce drizzle.
A permanent charcoal grill marks another new section of the menu: shashliki, or skewers, served for both lunch and dinner. Start with the lamb lyulya kebab ($14), a hulking finger of coriander-spiked ground lamb served with a bright, chimichurri-like sauce loaded with dill.
While Kachka's standbys remain—those pelmeni, herring under a fur coat ($9), rabbit in a clay pot ($29), the Ruskie Zakuski Experience ($30)—the new dishes are worth exploring. The lamb tartare ($11) tasted fresh and clean, tart barberries and pickled garlic scapes playing against dollops of rich and savory cured yolk sauce. If you want to act a gluttonous czar, order the potato vareniki ($35), dumplings filled with fluffy mashed potato topped with caviar beurre blanc.
Desserts have mostly been an afterthought at Kachka, but not with new pastry chef Julie Cogley. For something more novel, the buckwheat custard ($9) provided a sweet, nutty and creamy platform for seasonal figs, blackberries and plums.
While Kachinka continues Kachka's rowdiest tendencies, Kachka has evolved into a more refined restaurant. It's a significant upgrade, with reservations and a more fluid space—one Kachka clearly needed.
Still, it's somehow not big enough. One recent Wednesday, I arrived solo, hoping to snag a seat at the bar. No luck, said the waitress. The wait for one of the most exciting Russian restaurants in the country would be at least an hour.