"Comfort food" is a loaded term.
It means different things to many people. At one extreme is the lardified world of Paula Deen, the crestfallen caricature of Southern comfort who would gleefully inject butter into a fried chicken if she could only figure out how. Then there's the Gwyneth Paltrow interpretation that insists no modern kitchen is complete without a jar of vegan mayonnaise at the ready. It's hard to imagine the two agreeing on much of anything.
Mama Bird, however, might be their common ground.
Head chef Gabriel Pascuzzi certainly knows a thing or two about decadence. At his sandwich shop Stacked, the former fine-dining phenom earned a feverish cult following with plump hoagies balancing fatty proteins like oxtail and polpette with a focus on seasonal veggies. But a steady diet of hefty sandwiches took a toll on him, so he set out to create something he and his non-Crocs-clad brethren could enjoy without trading guilt for flavor.
The solution is his shiny new Slabtown counter-service spot, which brokers in wood-fired chicken and a clutch of "allergy-friendly" sides and fixings. Inside the glistening Etsy-chic space, a crackling fire provides ambience and heat, with one side devoted to pineapple-brined birds, while fresh vegetables and potatoes are grilled on the other. A massive kitchen hood roars as stray ash is sucked skyward. You're guaranteed to leave smelling like a campfire—an issue that forced Pascuzzi to briefly shutter the restaurant shortly after opening last fall, following complaints about the smoke from his neighbors.
With chicken this juicy and charred to perfection, though, the smoky interior is easy to forgive. The brine gives the birds all the flavor they need to stand up on their own, but each of the six sauces on offer transforms the chicken from above average to downright addictive. The Thai sauce adds a pungent sweetness that's all the rage in Portland right now, while the aji verde balances a creeping chile spice with a smooth and creamy finish essential for dressing proteins and veggies at any proper ceviche joint. Nine dollars nabs you a half-breast, -leg and -wing and one sauce, which is enough for anyone in search of a weekday lunch that won't leave you in a food coma. The portions scale up from there, capping out at a whole bird with four sauces for $32.
Veggies come in personal or shareable portions, and while the former is almost enough to satiate the average diner, it's hard not to overdo the combination of sauces and sides. Our pick is the charred sweet potatoes in vadouvan curry yogurt ($5 or $11). And though it's too viscous to pair well with the chicken, the chimichurri works wonders with any of the starchy sides. The polenta is an odd mix of crispy cheese and a mealy, mostly bland masa blend, which is a fine alternative for a bougie toddler, but you're better off sticking with the potatoes.
The portions may be somewhat undersized, but an argument can be made that Pascuzzi just wants you to save room for dessert. The DIY tableside s'mores kit—which arrives complete with nearly spent coals—is equal parts messy, fun and dangerous, and a surefire hit among the kiddos. Parents in the room, though, will love the skillet brownie ($12). The lack of gluten is offset by enough caramel and whipped cream to shock the insulin levels of even the healthiest adults. It takes at least three to finish the thing, which more than justifies the price.
Whether you're atoning for the damage the holidays did to your body, turning over a new dietary leaf altogether, or simply avoiding fried food for a change, Mama Bird has a lot to offer on all fronts. It's an unapologetically New Portland alternative to a wildly popular foodstuff that's hotter than ever right now, but even the most gluttonous curmudgeon can stand to forgo the fryer every now and then.
EAT: Mama Bird, 2145 NW Raleigh St., 503-384-2064, mamabirdpdx.com. 11 am-10 pm daily.