Pollo Bravo in 2022 feels like an especially happy ending to two not especially happy Portland dining stories.
One was the pandemic and its effect on the entire restaurant business. The second was the dissolution of John Gorham’s Toro Bravo restaurant group in 2020, although on that front, Pollo Bravo was actually unaffected. While the rotisserie chicken spot was started by Gorham and longtime Toro Bravo chef Josh Scofield in the spring of 2016, it became independently owned by Scofield and his wife, Sarah (who’d managed Toro Bravo), at the end of that same year.
In terms of the pandemic, Pollo Bravo stuck it out for a while with takeout and delivery out of Pine Street Market, with the downtown food hall—built on crowds and conviviality, to say nothing of tourists and office workers—largely emptied out. Now, after a 10-month hiatus, it’s a stand-alone restaurant in North Portland, taking over the former Garagiste Wine Bar space on the same stretch of North Killingsworth Street as Haymaker and Up North Surf Club. The signature chicken and stalwart sides (radicchio salad, patatas bravas, sauces) are back, and so are select tapas and Toro Bravo favorites, including padrón peppers, chicken-and-ham croquettes, and a rebooted Bravo burger.
Pollo had its roots in a research trip to Spain that Gorham and Scofield took in 2013. In search of Toro inspiration, they were struck by the ubiquity and simplicity of the country’s rotisserie chicken, spiced with pimentón de la vera, and thought Portland could use more of that sort of thing—an observation that proved to be correct. Pollo Bravo opened two years after the original location of the Mexican-inspired Pollo Norte, and around the same time as Providore’s Arrosto, but preceded Big’s Chicken and more recent spots like Mama Bird and Rotigo (there’s also El Inka Peruvian Cuisine, a Portland rebirth of the longtime Gresham restaurant Pollos à la Brasa el Inka).
Experientially, the new location takes Pollo almost full circle, back to its short-lived second location at Southwest Alder Street (at what is now called Yalla, and had been Shalom Y’all). It’s a perfectly casual little counter-service space with an open kitchen, indoor and outdoor seating and a mere nine items on the food menu, plus three cocktails, six beer and wine choices, eight wines by the glass or bottle, and extensive non-alcoholic options (kombucha, ginger beer, CBD, Italian and New York Seltzer sodas). You can also order drinks from Up North Surf Club.
In its Toro Bravo incarnation, the Bravo burger was one of Portland’s OG fancy burgers, with appearances on numerous “best” lists, in addition to taking first in the bistro category of WW’s 2017 “Burger Madness” bracket. Briefly available in Pollo’s early days (before Bless Your Heart became the Pine Street burger option at the time), it comes with manchego and romesco sauce, as always, but instead of bacon, a more delicate slice of speck, and instead of bread-and-butter-style zucchini pickles, a pile of zesty pickled padrón peppers ($12). In some ways it is a burger that is all about the toppings, but with a very strong foundation: fresh-ground Angus chuck cooked on the rare side of medium rare, and an excellent Dos Hermanos sesame-seed bun.
Pine Street Pollo Bravo fans will also be glad to hear the rotisserie pork loin sandwich with griddled manchego, caramelized onion, and romesco ($10) is also back. For additional vegetables, there’s broccolini a la plancha ($10) and rotisserie cauliflower ($10).
Of course, in the end, you’re going to get some chicken. The heirloom bird (sourced from Cooks Venture, which Sarah Scofield says is a “leader in sustainable regenerative farm practices”) is available in multiple configurations, from the whole-chicken Familia Dinner, with a large salad, patatas bravas and two sauces ($49), to the Winner Winner Chicken Dinner ($15), which is a quarter chicken with a small salad and one sauce. You can also get it à la carte (quarter $9, half $16, full $30).
Flavorful but not aggressively spicy, the chicken is cooked on a Rotisol rotisserie and gets its juicy tenderness from an overnight rub/marinade using both the restaurant’s house-fermented hot sauce paste (made from chiles, onions, carrots and spices) as well as brine from fermented padróns. Both the chicken and the radicchio salad—a longtime Toro/Tasty favorite—travel well if you’re getting takeout or delivery (the latter is only just about to be available again), though the patatas bravas might need some re-crisping.
And here’s the real secret to Pollo Bravo: the sauces, which include the aforementioned hot sauce, decadent aioli, creamy green goddess and romesco, as well as bone broth and brava sauce. Nearly everything on the menu is ready to be dipped. In fact, most dishes are more or less condiment-delivery vehicles.
“Some might say it’s all about the sauces,” Josh Scofield acknowledges.
EAT: Pollo Bravo, 1225 N Killingsworth St., 503-477-8999, pollobravopdx.com. 11:30 am-9 pm daily.