Long before Paley, Pomeroy, Ricker, and Rucker, Caprial Pence cooked up Portland’s idea of a “celebrity chef.” Founded in 1992, the Westmoreland eatery Caprial’s Bistro twisted French home cooking, Northwest devotion, Asian flavors, and help-yourself wine bottles into a new definition of neighborhood destination, elevating Pence and husband John to cookbook deals and their own PBS cooking program. The duo even lured West Hills diners over the bridge.
Restaurant-free for three years and out of the limelight for longer than that, Pence is back, but in an unlikely venue: a 600-square-foot Korean fried chicken “shack” in a quirky Northeast food hub dubbed the Ocean. Just be careful what you call it: “It’s not a food court! I hate when they call it that,” says Pence, her hands clenched like a proud chef throttling an invisible foodie blogger. “It’s a lot cooler than that.”
A fast-food venture is a surprising turn for 1991’s James Beard Award–winning chef (a Northwest first, from her star turn in Seattle). But with Basa Basa, the Pences join three other veteran chefs in a new microrestaurant model that has little in common with Sbarro. At the Ocean, mall-food grazing gets a Stumptown makeover, with fresh ingredients and handmade love bursting from a quartet of cheerful dining rooms. In this moveable feast, diners devour mix-and-match meals of spicy wings, meatballs, burgers, beer-battered onion rings, and 21 taco spins, strategizing courses between swigs of microbrews.
Developer Kevin Cavenaugh rehabbed an old Timberline Dodge auto shop on NE Sandy Boulevard last summer to provide food cart–style start-ups with indoor amenities. But he also pitched his low-cost, low-risk brainstorm to experienced restaurateurs excited to play around with comfort food without dropping their nest eggs on big kitchens and waitstaffs. It’s not perfect: a micromenu, it turns out, doesn’t guarantee consistency or quick service. But with big flavors rarely topping $10 a plate, the Ocean boasts more no-nonsense deliciousness per square foot than any other brick-and-mortar in town.
Microrestaurants are increasingly viable options for Portland food pros. Micah Camden flipped the idea into a mini-empire of petite Little Big Burger annexes. Last fall, ChefStable honcho Kurt Huffman and chef Trent Pierce parlayed the formula into one of the hottest tables in Portland: the high-end seafood destination Roe, hidden in the back room of their modern ramen spot, Wafu. Huffman says that “piggybacking” on Wafu’s existing infrastructure dramatically cut start-up costs, from $150,000 to $15,000.
The Ocean goes a step further, clustering the micros together in a pod, creating an energetic community of restaurants with shoestring budgets. Uno Mas owner Oswaldo Bibiano, Portland’s most celebrated Mexican chef, pays around $1,400 a month for his 505-square-foot space, a typical Ocean rate. The rest appears to be gravy. “I can make rent on one good Saturday night,” he says.
Cavenaugh envisions a city soon packed with similar “only-in-Portland” microrestaurant pods and chains. One of the next is the Zipper, another “experimental” microproject boasting a shared commissary kitchen and five food spaces, planned for NE Sandy Boulevard. “One space is only 380 square feet,” Cavenaugh confesses. “I’m going even smaller.”
Chosen Subject: The gluttonous, gruyère-cloaked, onion ring–topped objet d’art made famous at Southeast Portland’s Slow Bar, plus other burgers, onion rings, and fries served in a snug, retro-style diner
Stuff Your Face: Brioche-bunned burgers, meaty and monstrous. But the real surprise is the genuinely great veggie burger: a creamy-yet-chunky black bean and roasted corn patty stacked with guacamole, pepper jack cheese, spicy mayo, and crunchy tortilla bits.
Be Warned: Sliders are often overcooked and precariously tall, thanks to their laundry list of toppings. Stick with the heftier patties.
Chosen Subject: Balls—beef, chicken, even vegan—snuggled in rolls, swimming in sauce or atop pasta from fine dining vet and Tabla owner Adam Berger. A boxing mural emblazoned with dirty “ball” puns counts for décor in this avocado-green man cave.
Stuff Your Face: Stick with classic Italian spicy balls, smothered in sweet tomato basil sauce and packed inside a sloppy hero. Make room for a smoky kale salad and some seriously creamy, cheesy polenta. Get silly and order the $1 “Kool-Aid of the day.”
Be Warned: Despite claims of PDX’s “tastiest balls,” the sides often outshine the inconsistent main event. The gluten-free chicken balls are rubbery and sad.
Chosen Subject: Korean hot wings according to a pair of cooking pros in a Zen-modern spot with a premium on service. Cavenaugh calls it “faster than McDonald’s, but with Draper Valley chicken and recipes by a Beard award winner.”
Stuff Your Face: These deep-fried wings are hot, salty, crunchy stoner-food heaven. The craggy coating clings to a trio of intense, aromatic Asian sauces that John Pence makes fresh daily. At $10, six big wings with mixed sauces, a scoop of mellow macaroni salad, and rice is a steal.
Be Warned: Takeout orders are a bust. That puffy magic coating wilts after a long road trip in a steamy bucket.
Chosen Subject: Tacos—nearly two dozen varieties of them. From the electric blue walls to the caution-tape-yellow stools, Bibiano’s taquiza feels as bright and zingy as one of his rotating house-made salsas. He says the spot was inspired by traditional Mexican operations, where “you try one taco and say, ‘Mmm, uno mas, por favor!’”
Stuff Your Face: Three consistently excellent options are the tender little tortillas cradling garlickly, lime-laced octopus; a clove-scented mound of barbacoa sprinkled with onions; and the fiery prawns, marinated in four different chiles (endiablado).
Be Warned: Don’t be put off by the Lilliputian size of the $2–3.75 offerings; Uno Mas packs a lot of flavor into a three-bite taco. Order a dozen “chef’s choice” tacos for $20.