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Thrive's new NE Fremont Street cafe.

Image: Kelly Clarke

It’s a safe bet that you’ve eaten chef Erika Reagor’s cooking already; or, at least, her addictive Thrive Extra Special Sauce. That’s the creamy, sweet, fiery habanero-tomato goodness in the plastic bottle emblazoned with a dirty carrot that often shares spinner space with local ketchups and Secret Aardvark sauce at the city’s smarter cafes. The spice-loving, always gluten-free cook first garnered fans for farm-fresh world-cuisine-in-a-bowl offerings at her roving Thrive Pacific NW food truck. Now, an expanded menu of her bowls, dishes, and, of course, the sauce, is the focus at Thrive’s new brick and mortar restaurant, which opened its cherry orange doors in the former Alameda Café space on NE Fremont Street in October.

The hyper-seasonal, “veggie-centric” menu builds on the cart menu, with a lineup of global bowls that showcase spices from Thailand and India to Argentina with add-ins like tempeh, grass-fed hanger steak, pork belly, and sustainable fish. New dishes range from Japanese noodles to warming masala lentil stew and polenta. The restaurant is as earnestly local, cage-free, sustainable, and organic as possible; they even make sure patrons can view the open kitchen from the dining room in order to ensure celiac-sufferers feel secure about their orders. Those orders can take some time to get to the table, but you get a sense that their hearts are in the right place. “This is a from-scratch kitchen,” attests sous chef Michael Robinson. “So our cooks put all their energy and love into the dishes.”

Indeed, the farm-chic space, decorated with a giant mural of Thrive’s signature carrot stretching across the back wall, is a welcome addition to a neighborhood that excels at doughnuts and unorthodox, high end Asian fare (and high volume wings), but had yet to produce a restaurant that could satisfy the area’s legion families without causing a coronary after repeated visits. Thrive’s menu isn’t life-altering enough to warrant a drive across the city, but for Northeast Portlanders, it hits that sweet spot ably with big salads groaning with shaved beets and goat cheese for veggie fans; hearty veggie and rice bowls crowned with juicy, perfectly cooked proteins for the carnivores, and wildly-spiced house sodas for the kiddos that skew delightfully adult with a jigger or two of good booze from the onsite bar. It’s a friendly spot that caters to all eaters with equal aplomb—and that’s a feat in itself.

Here’s three things to order:

DELICATA SQUASH FRIES Spuds, you’ve been replaced. The kitchen batters seasonal squash in a rice flour slurry to produce savory, salty, bubble-crunch sticks that taste like sweet potato fries on steroids. They’re molten hot, so dunk each and every one liberally in house buttermilk dill sauce.

MEXICAN BOWL WITH PORK BELLY Every bowl starts with a solid jumble of seasonal veggies from local farms, wok sautéed to order—maybe red and green cabbage, celery, perfectly cooked broccoli and brussels sprouts, a little squash and nuggets of avocado. The Mexico bowl served its greens over a bedrock of toothsome, bay-infused black beans and brown rice. Then comes the bright tomatillo-avocado salsa, zingy lime sauce, and a shower of cilantro. The kitchen’s thoughtful attention to texture and spicing leads to a mingle that tastes both homey and reviving. It’s even better with pork belly: confited in the oven for five hours, compressed, and fried to order to create crisp-edge cubes that dissolve into sticky, porky goodness with every bite. Score a generously sized “solo” bowl for $7 or a horse-trough sized family bowl for $25. Either way, you’ll have nicely spiced leftovers for days.

PEAR CARDAMOM SODA WITH BOURBON Local sodas are a big thing around town, but they often end up tasting like weak, deflated fruit juice. Thrive gooses its sweet pear pop with a major punch of cardamom for a fizzy drink that evokes a crisp, cold holiday in a glass. And yes, you should get it with bourbon. Obviously. 

Thrive Sauce & Bowls
4641 NE Fremont St
503-288-8365, thrivesauceandbowls.com
Lunch and dinner Tuesday–Sunday
Sauce available at New Seasons and other markets.
Visit Thrive’s website for its food truck schedule and catering info.

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