Go Small or Go Home

The Ocean microrestaurant project creates a blueprint for feeding Portland fast.

By Kelly Clarke January 23, 2013

Image: Dina Avila

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.

The Ocean’s façade on NE 24th Avenue and Glisan Street

Image: Dina Avila

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.”


Image: Dina Avila


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. 


Image: Dina Avila


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.


Image: Dina Avila


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.



Image: Dina Avila


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. 

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