You are where you eat
It's time to come up for air from the technical tax stuff I've been slaving over and write about something much more important: restaurants in Portland.
It came as quite a surprise when the owners abruptly pulled the plug on the groovy Cafe Azul down in the Pearl District a couple of weeks ago. This was a hap'nin' place that served up fine "Mexican" food that reflected a lot more than the usual burrito/taco sensibility. At one point Gourmet magazine had it in its top 50 restaurants in the country.
I ate there a couple of times, on business. I was impressed.
So why shut the doors? The owners were pretty vague. But the sorry state of the economy around here couldn't have been helping business much. The same Oregonian story that told of Azul's demise also pointed out that Cafe des Amis, Couvron and Tapeo -- three other high-end eateries, two in Northwest Portland and one in Goose Hollow -- have bitten the dust recently as well.
I had a couple of nice meals at Cafe des Amis, again on business. And the Mrs. and I actually treated ourselves to dinner at Couvron on our own dime one time. It was very good, but ouch! The bill!
It's ironic to me that while the restaurant scene reflects the relative lack of big bankrolls in our community, we keep subsidizing the construction of high-rise "luxury ghettoes." Who's living in these things? They look half-empty to me. And who's going to live in the new ones now being built? Not only are these beasts ugly, but they don't appear to be very timely. More of the wretched civic failure of Stumptown?
Meanwhile, over here on the Idaho side of the river, a new burrito joint has risen from the ashes of the old Skipper's restaurant at NE Weidler and Seventh. The demolition of the Skipper's building was sad for me, because I always enjoyed driving by it and noting that it was the scariest-looking place of public accommodation still left standing in town.
But the new place is o.k. It's called Chipotle, and it's the first Pacific Northwest entry for a glitzy chain. They've got a disarmingly stark, basic burrito menu, and the first one I had, yesterday, was pretty good. The tortilla was slightly rubbery, just as I like it, and the fajita chicken and rice stuffed inside was pretty nice. The medium salsa had plenty of zip.
On the downside, the price was high -- $6.25 for a burrito and a small Sprite -- and the geography of the place is odd. You order on one side of the building, and eat on the other, completely out of the view of the restaurant crew. That seems like a recipe for trouble, particularly when their beer/wine license comes through, but it's what they decided to do with a very skinny building on a small lot.
The other drawback is the noise. The decor is wood, metal and glass -- reminiscent of an old Macheesmo Mouse or Pollo Rey outlet -- and the salsa music on the stereo is just a notch too loud. Even at a slow time in late afternoon, the workers (bright and friendly enough) were shouting at each other over the din, and it was hard to hear yourself think.
It ain't Cafe Azul, but it will do for a workday.
Finally on the culinary scene, the hippies down in southeast Portland are marching around with protest signs in front of the Starbucks that's being built at SE 21st and Division. I think they're being a little silly. I agree with them that big corporate chains are essentially evil, and that it would have been nice to have a locally owned, organic enterprise move into that space. But here in America, money talks, and in all the years that corner has stood as a bombed-out, abandoned meat packing facility, no viable local business appears to have knocked on the landlord's door. So a Starbucks it is going to be.
It could be a lot worse. The neighbors could have awoken one morning (as we did several years ago in our old southeast neighborhood) to discover that a locally owned private company had very, very quietly moved in a methadone clinic over the holidays, and that there were now 300-plus "recovering" (most of them were) heroin addicts showing up between 5 and 11 a.m. six mornings a week to chug the synthetic opiate that theoretically kept them off smack. Some of the "patients" would come staggering out of that place, jump into their cars, and weave off into the rush hour traffic. A few others would stroll right over to the convenience store for a 40-ounce malt liquor to wash the joy juice down with. One guy even started camping out on neighbors' front steps after he got his dose -- 'til it kicked in, I guess. All of this was installed two blocks from our house, with absolutely no notice or process for the neighbors. We all felt bad for the patients, but we never got over our anger at the local owners.
A group of us picketed for around six months, but then I moved away from there. I'll never forget the mornings we stood outside the place with our protest signs, in the dark and the rain. More than once we said to each other: "Why couldn't Bill Bitar (the landlord) have leased this space out to a Starbucks?"
Many people villified us for protesting. We were even named "Rogue of the Week" in Willamette Week. I was quoted there as the head rogue. The reporter talked to me for 45 minutes, then printed one sentence from me out of context to make me look bad. I hope there's a special level of the inferno for people like her.
In contrast, the people parading around in front of the Starbucks site now will probably pass for heroes in some of our local press.
Ah, well. That's Portland.