Slathered in countless sauces, steeped in marinades, breaded, fried, grilled, baked, braised—chicken has seen it all. But Jay Irvin, a proud North Carolinian with a drawl to match, has introduced Portland to a novel dressing for the ubiquitous bird: Pepsi.
At his four-month-old Southern eatery, Hillbilly Bento, Irvin marinates his trademark Pepsi Chicken in a mix of molasses and, yes, real Pepsi. He then slow-cooks it in its own juices and smothers it in a reduction sauce made with more Pepsi, resulting in meat that’s sweet, savory, and impossibly tender—think teriyaki chicken with a sorghum tinge. To complete your Hillbilly Bento box ($5.95), you’ll need to choose a base for your bento and a side dish from a menu of mouthwatering Southern staples. We recommend the subtly spicy Cajun dirty rice studded with andouille sausage and a side of fried okra. And if you’re feeling indulgent, treat yourself to a slice of Irvin’s blissfully rich chocolate-pecan pie for $3.50.
“I wanted to do something that was authentic to the core,” says Irvin, a self-trained chef who’s run pizza joints, steak houses, and other eateries in Portland for the past 16 years. “I thought, ‘What do I do for friends? What do I really love?’” The answer was easy: the traditional, down-home cooking he learned to love as a child in his grandmother’s North Carolina kitchen—with a splash of Pepsi.