The most fun cheese bread in the world is Georgian acharuli khachapuri. Almost like fondue in a bread bowl, it's an opened-face bread boat filled with sulguni cheese and topped with an egg sunny-side up and a big slab of butter.
Khachapuri cheese breads have been trending across America for several years, but they hit Portland back in 2013 via the Kargi Gogo food cart. Owners Sean Fredericks and McKinze Cook closed the cart three years ago, and now they're back with a bright counter-service brick-and-mortar on Northeast Alberta.
Walking into Kargi Gogo, the casual cafe atmosphere and setup are similar to that of the former occupant, the Big Egg—three two-tops, one four-top and several counter seats along the front windows. It's a good place to stop in for a quick bite, but welcoming enough to linger—hopefully you enjoy '90s and '00s pop, though, because the soundtrack is relentless.
The new Kargi Gogo adds something that should serve as wine-geek catnip: a wine list dedicated to the country of Georgia. There are around eight wines by the glass for $8 to $13, plus a larger bottle selection offered to go. But it's the latter you'll want to focus on until Kargi Gogo upgrades its wine glasses from the current Mason jar tumblers.
Given that the most successful meals focus on the cheese breads, it's difficult to cobble together a balanced meal at Kargi Gogo. The pkhali was a highlight among the seasonal vegetable dishes. Pkhali is a sort of salad or dip combining pulverized vegetables and walnuts, and the restaurant offers three versions—spinach, leek and beet, plus a sampler trio, all for $7. The leek and spinach pkhali were the best, the former sweet and oniony, the latter delivering an addictive bitterness balanced by the flatbread's sweetness. Both were hefty, almost like extra-vegetal, extra-nutty pesto, and packed with the junipery kick of blue fenugreek.
Though I tried, I wasn't able to find the light vegetable dishes I wanted. The Summer Salad ($7) looked like a refreshing Greek salad, with tomatoes, cucumber and onion, but the tomatoes were watery and bland. The beet pkhali had an aggressive smokiness that lingered long after the bite was gone. Likewise, the eggplant in the badrijani eggplant rolls ($7) was overly charred—and dry as a result, with the walnut filling compounding the dryness.
Having officially abandoned attempts at a balanced meal, I dove into the khinkali dumplings. Kargi Gogo's bulky khinkali arrive three to an order, and they have earned a following for their soupy insides. The beef and pork khinkali ($8) didn't reach their usual heights. The wrapper was heavy, and the broth lacked depth. The beef and pork were under-seasoned and tough, tasting like bland boiled meat with caraway seed.
But the seasonal dumplings ($9) were exceptional: potato, cheese and leek khinkali topped with caramelized onion. There's no broth, but the dish was as warming as potato leek soup.
In total, Kargi Gogo makes five stuffed breads, and the three cheese-stuffed versions deserve all the attention. The imeruli khachapuri ($8) hides its sulguni cheese within a buttery bread pastry. The slightly tangy cheese was melty on the outside with a ricotta creaminess on the inside. A variant ($11) adds spinach and herbs to the mix and was slightly lighter, reminiscent of spanikopita. Tack on the housemade adjika condiments for just $1 each.
Two additional stuffed breads take out the cheese. One features blue fenugreek-loaded beef and pork ($11), and the other, intensely smoky slow-cooked beans ($8). Both lacked the decadence of the cheese breads while being just as heavy. For the weight, I'll take cheese.
On each visit, the acharuli khachapuri ($12) arrived like a cheesy, yolky, buttery apparition. Rip off a piece of bread and drag it through the liquid cheese—the pillowy texture perfectly captured the incredibly creamy cheese, full of richness and tang. It's like pizza and fondue had a baby.
Kargi Gogo gives a glimpse of Georgian cuisine, and it will leave you wanting more. But cheeseheads must come to worship at the altar of acharuli khachapuri.
EAT: Kargi Gogo, 3039 NE Alberta St., 503-764-9552, kargigogo.com. 11 am-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.