Whatever mouthwatering mental imagery Southern food may conjure up for you, Maya Lovelace has always sought to exceed those expectations.
Anyone who has paid a visit to her beloved pop-up Mae will certainly hear "Southern food" and think fried chicken—visions she's polished to a shine with the rendered fat famously used to coat the poultry. Attending one family-style dinner hosted by the North Carolina native, complete with heaping bowls of pimento mac and cheese, surely inspires dreams in shades of electric orange.
The dishes highlighted in Mae's itinerant series of suppers—first held in the back of the Cully butchery Old Salt and then at Dame on Northeast Killingsworth Street when the original location closed—now have a permanent home. Yonder brings Lovelace back to the neighborhood where the pop-ups began, and its arrival in the former Delphine's Bakery building has long been anticipated.
Related: Restaurant Guide 2018: Mae.
You'll find Mae's greatest hits on the menu at Yonder—some of the recipes originated with Lovelace's late grandmother, whose apron strings she stood by as a child while learning to cook, and the business was named in her honor. Not having to share space with another restaurant, however, allows room for some new Appalachian comfort food to make a debut.
Now before you start to fret that Lovelace has gone and tinkered with the chicken, take a deep, calming breath and have a seat…because she tinkered with the chicken. All that means is you now have a difficult decision to make when ordering. In addition to the various cuts ($8-$30) buttermilk brined and varnished in three fats before being powdered in a spice blend, the bird now also comes dipped in a vinegar-based, North Carolina-style mixture and gets the Nashville hot take on finishing chicken parts.
You can't talk about tongue-torturing meat without referencing Prince's, Nashville's pioneering chicken shack devoted to flavor that makes you sweat. On its hotness scale, Yonder's version would rank as "medium." Though that came as a relief to my tender palate, the paprika-speckled side of Comeback Sauce had a little more get-up-and-go to it. While a dunked wing in the North Carolina concoction zipped from sweet to sour and left a sheen on my lips, I found myself returning again and again to the classic, dusted, baseball-sized breast. The deep brown crust that encases the flesh is, after all, what made all Portlanders in the fried chicken game re-evaluate their technique when Lovelace arrived, and it's one of the rare times I tear into food and it doesn't even dawn on me how boorish I must look until every morsel is gone.
Not every old favorite hit the mark. The pimento mac ($7) wasn't quite as vibrant here. The potato chip crust seemed to have given up and wilted, and the lava of cheese was drier than it should've been. But that pasta erupted back to life in between two thick-cut slices of milk bread as a gooey, gut-busting sandwich ($9). You can make that stack a little higher by getting it stuffed with braised collard greens ($12)—Lovelace's are so rich and meaty you just might want to ask for the potlikker as a chaser.
Without Lovelace setting the pace of a meal at Yonder or picking out the order of the dishes, it's easy to go overboard on rich foods, then spend the rest of the day with a bloated belly and head full of regret. I discovered a few ways to lighten it up and restore some equilibrium. First, the seemingly humble iceberg lettuce salad ($6, $11) tossed with pickled red onions is crisp and refreshing. I'd eat the weeds picked from a neighbor's backyard if they were doused in the peppery buttermilk vinaigrette—basically a classed-up ranch dressing.
Then there's the Comeback Slaw ($5). Forget for a minute that it's all held together by Duke's Mayo and sour cream—it provides a powerful jolt courtesy of paprika and an earthy confetti of vegetables chopped so finely they look as if they've gone through a paper shredder.
You'll cool down quickest, though, with a cocktail. The Roadside Farmstand ($12) is precisely like a sweet little wellspring of freshness you might find on a drive through the country. The revitalizing flavor of ginger hits first as mint tickles your nose, then a big fat burst of peach crashes the party. Nibble on the scoop of cucumber sorbet plopped on top of the drink as you gaze at the sternwheelers chugging along the glass. It's almost possible to imagine you're on one, a slight breeze picking up as you cross the Mississippi and the frozen treat dissolves in your mouth.
But as nice as it is not to worry about watching for an email alert to snag reservations at Mae, the counter-service model—particularly with Yonder's menu and dining room setup—leaves much to be desired. The diminutive space, though filled with natural lighting and a mural of puffy clouds racing across a sapphire sky, doesn't give customers much room to line up and select items, which are all accompanied by multiple questions to complete the request. ("What kind of bread would you like?" "White meat or dark?") On busy nights, it's easy to imagine the pileup of people snaking out the door acting as a roadblock to waitstaff trying to bring food out of the kitchen.
But what I miss most about Mae is Lovelace's gifted storytelling. At the pop-up, which will eventually return in the same building, the chef hand-delivers each plate and shares a compellingly charming story about the origin of the recipe or describe how it's connected to her upbringing.
I enjoy learning about what I'm about to eat. I want to know why her cornbread looks different from the cornbread I grew up with. I want to know why North Carolinians prefer a particular kind of sauce. And please, for goodness's sake, tell me how you discovered that the abomination of soft drinks, Mountain Dew, would actually make pound cake taste even more amazing. Those descriptions were what made it possible for a table of strangers to come together like we were family for at least a few hours. So you better believe I'm keeping track of incoming email, hand on the mouse, and ready to pounce on a seat at Mae as soon as it opens up.
EAT: Yonder, 4636 NE 42nd Ave., Suite A, 503-444-7947, yonderpdx.com. 11 am-9 pm Wednesday-Sunday.