Call it the law of unintended consequences. Going into a new building can be a nightmare for restaurateurs, who are often tasked with building an audience and conjuring ambience in a place where none existed before. But it can also make for unexpected opportunities.
In 2018, Kachka—Bonnie and Israel Morales' all-world love letter to 20th century Soviet cuisine, widely hailed as one of the best Russian restaurants in America—moved from its original home on Southeast Grand Avenue to the Goat Blocks development on Southeast 11th Avenue between Belmont and Taylor Streets. Their new home directly abutted a sprawling, inaccessible parking lot—a vacant asphalt canvas chef Bonnie Morales describes as "chronically underused."
Then the coronavirus hit, transforming every restaurant owner and chef in America into a Macgyver-esque problem solver. The Moraleses were able to lean on their newly opened deli concept, Kachka Lavka, to keep diners happy through spring, offering deli meats and pickles, Russian pantry staples, frozen pelmeni dumplings, and even a loving takeaway Passover Seder dinner delivery. But behind the scenes, a plot had been hatched.
"I kept reading studies about the relative safety of being outdoors," says Bonnie Morales, "and more and more, it seemed like we were a long ways away from anyone being comfortable inside."
A deal was struck with the owners of the lot, offering Kachka a new template for dinner service in the time of COVID-19. Now in its second full week of service, Kachka Alfresca is a pop-up in the truest sense of the term, created in a time of great pressure and adaptation, built for the strange reality of summer 2020. It may have been largely improvised, but that makes it so utterly of its time and place in this shared moment that it feels like a vital addition to the food landscape.
It is outdoors only, with 20-some cabana-styled tables sprawled across a parking lot rooftop above Southeast Portland. Social distance is maintained at all times: Customers bus their own tables; food is ordered food by phone, either online or by dialing a hotline; and the restroom key is affixed to a bottle of hand sanitizer. Every detail has been thought through for minimal contact and maximum distance, while still allowing patrons to enjoy a modicum of the traditional restaurant experience.
It's pretty weird at first, ordering and paying by phone at a restaurant. It's almost like an extension of our bleak new all-Postmates-everything reality. But by the time you place the order for your second round of drinks, it begins to feel surprisingly natural. And when the drinks and food are this good, it's worth enduring a bit of dystopia to be part of it.
If you know and love Kachka, there are many old favorites on offer at Kachka Alfresca. Yes, you can drink the restaurant's famous horseradish vodka. Yes, you can order a bowl of pelmeni ($14) with Russian sour cream and thinly diced herbs. But the pop-up has allowed Bonnie Morales to dive into another vein of nostalgia, one informed by her childhood watching her Soviet émigré parents run a 1990s bistro in the Chicago suburbs.
"I felt like it would be weird to literally just take Kachka and put it outside in this service model," she says. "This was a good opportunity to do something totally different and wacky."
Which is how you arrive at dishes like a Jalapeno Popper Chicken Kiev ($20), or a bowl of vareniki dumplings resembling Totino's Pizza Rolls ($14), or panko bread crumb crab cakes ($12) that look straight out of a rerun of Friends. There are smoked potato skins dressed up like a Reuben sandwich ($10). There is a Soviet Cobb salad in a lavash shell bowl ($12), which shows up looking like an executive boardroom taco salad got lost behind the Iron Curtain.
And there are glorious holiday drinks to go with it all: Moscow mule slushies, guava-tinis, Baltic mai tais, and a glowing blue Hawaii riff that evokes radioactive societal collapse, but in a delicious way ($9-$12).
It doesn't all necessarily make sense, for the record—the Sex on Beaches and Cobb salads and pulsing Russo-disco soundtrack combine to form a sort of trans-Siberian TGI Friday's—but it is damn fun, and makes for an utterly satisfying night out that is both socially distanced and epidemiologically sound.
"Right now, there is this feeling of free fall and unknown," Bonnie Morales says, "and we want to provide a place of comfort. It's a bad idea to always forget what's going on around us, but once in a while you need to take a break and have comfort. Hopefully, we can have something like that."
The best dish on the new menu—and the most deeply, intrinsically comforting—is Morales' riff on the Georgian khachapuri ($17). This dish is fundamental to the cuisine of Georgia, the food-and-drink wonderland whose contested border flanks modern Russia to the southwest. Essentially, it's a bread bowl, traditionally filled with feta and sulguni, a kind of Georgian cheese.
At Kachka Alfresca, she's mashing up the khachapuri with a totally different tradition: American spinach and artichoke dip, à la Ruby Tuesday's. The end result is dippable, dunkable and tearable, and also visually stunning—it's a must-order.
Morales learned the craft of khachapuri-making during a 2019 sojourn to the nation of Georgia. "It's water and flour and yeast and dairy," she says, "but really it's about the method. The shaping is really special, that eye shape you get in the end result is all about technique." The end result is soft, pliable, and easily pulled apart, yet capable of holding its own shape and form, almost like a calzone. To finish, Morales brushes the khachapuri with Calabrian chile oil. "It's not very authentic, but it gives a nice amount of heat," she says.
It's a riff on the spinach and artichoke dip your mom would know and love, made with cream cheese, sulguni, frozen spinach and prepared artichoke. "Normally, I would never work with a product like frozen spinach," Morales says, "not that there's anything inherently wrong with it. For chefs, it's more like an ego thing." To build a dip inspired by the Sysco trucks of '90s bistro yore, Morales is leaning on suburban tradition, albeit fused with fresh, handmade dough by way of Tbilisi. "It's time to set ego aside," she says, "and find a happy balance."
A single, gorgeous fried egg tops the khachapuri, and upon delivery you will be instructed to mix it with your fork into the spinach dip. From there, rip off a little piece of the outer bread ring, dip into the middle, sip your drink—maybe a Russian lager or some bison grass vodka—and nod your head to the '80s Moscow club beats. Joyously repeat.
GO: Kachka Alfresca, 960 SE 11th Ave., 503-235 0059, kachkapdx.com/alfresca. 3-10 pm daily.