Beyond Biscuits and Gravy
The coffee at Thali Supper Club’s new brunch greets you with a “where you been, suckers?” aroma. There’s no microroast speech, no tatted baristas. Just gray-haired Joe Ezekiel serving his Southern Indian brew to communal tables of bleary-eyed brunchers: monsoon-fed Coorg beans, slow-dripped in a traditional two-pot coffee maker. Donald Trump couldn’t claim a richer cup. (OK, he could.) Then comes a kind of divine smoothie: yogurty, cardamom-kicked, positively thick with mango pulp. Sitar music jams with sounds from the spice-grinding kitchen. At the stove, Joe’s wife, Assam native Leena Ezekiel, whirls around a double boiler, scrambling eggs into super-creamy clods, “Parsi”-style, served under a crown of cilantro and deep-fried shallots.
Thali’s new brunch adventure, served twice monthly in a loft-like Northeast space, is best defined by what it’s not: a cliché. It didn’t shoot out of whatever cloning machine has lately interred all of Portland under a pile of biscuits and gravy. This city’s vaunted brunch scene was once compelled by ideas and passions, from Broder’s DIY Scandinavian to Tasty n Sons’ shakshuka game-changer. Now, the meal’s crowded field feels fatigued, in both purpose and quality. Yet out of nowhere, three new brunch options—joining Thali are Expatriate’s lovingly detailed Asian-stoner-waffle hut cuisine and farm-fresh Korean at Han Oak—feel like new frontiers. These meals may end up flukes or a reformation, but they’re what you might hope to wake up to in a playfully serious food city like Portland.
Over the next two hours, other regional surprises emerge on silver, leaf-lined thali trays. There are griddled flatbreads, house-made Goan sausage (India’s postcolonial answer to chorizo, from a part of the country occupied for centuries by the Portuguese), eggs poached in tomato chutney, and sambar dense with “drumsticks,” artichoke-like vegetables oozing their own marrow. Thali’s masala chai is like a heavenly latte, with little snorts of black pepper, lots of fresh ginger, and milk steeped to a caramelized finish. Some dishes rise above others, but everything is fresh, literally and figuratively. Standing at the head of the table, Joe—at 59, light-years away from most youthful pop-up provocateurs—takes it right to the hoop: “For those who believe that Portland invented brunch, welcome to the Indian Nasta!”
In early spring, Expatriate, arguably the city’s best bar, put Portland’s most enduring fixations onto one weekend brunch docket: chicken and waffles, ice cream for breakfast, spicy Asian food, turntables spinning vinyl, and one bad-ass Bloody Mary rippling with fish sauce, steak sauce, and something called XXX Death Sauce. It doesn’t seem fair that it works as well as it does.
These ideas are just an (il)logical extension of the scene Expatriate concocts by night, when the place feels like a hybrid of a Hemingway novel and a fever dream of every Chinatown in the world. In waking up early, married partners Naomi Pomeroy (the James Beard medalist behind Beast across the street) and Kyle Linden Webster haven’t missed a beat.
The menu is small but tight. Yeasted rice-flour waffles are a revelation, full of browned butter for extra nuttiness. Improbably, they taste like fortune cookies, every bite deep in golden crisp-crunch, and even better beneath Pomeroy’s black sesame ice cream. Congee, typically a creamy, homey Chinese rice porridge, gets the full Expat treatment: artfully elbowed with chile heat, candied peanuts, sweet onion nibs, fried garlic, fish sauce ponzu, and a rich, poached duck egg. Don’t miss it. Fat burritos hold soft scrambled eggs, the kitchen’s whipped shrimp cakes, fresh herbs, and some left-field pepper-jack cheese. On the side: puréed house kimchi with sweet chile sauce. The lip-smacking licorice and gin-soaked Palm Cocktail makes mimosas look sad and forlorn. The only flub so far is a pho–hash browns mash-up: just trying too hard. Mostly, Expatriate delivers—not just imagination but discipline and confidence. Already, it’s vying for PDX’s brunch crown.
On Sundays, over at Han Oak, behind the Ocean’s microrestaurant row, waltz through an unmarked door and find yourself, literally, in Peter Cho’s kitchen. The Nordic-styled room doubles as an event space and weekend-only outpost for Cho’s own private Korea. For brunch, that means a collection of intricate dishes royally arranged on laminated trays from City Liquidators. (If Seoul had an Ace Hotel, this is what room service would look like.) It’s the gentler side of Korean cooking, bundling old-school family recipes and seasonal inspiration. Among the highlights: kimchi pancakes draped over six kinds of farm greens and raabs, dressed to kill. Every bite hits a different Koreatown pleasure center: spicy, sweet, sour, funky, umami, and addictive. One week’s grilled mackerel was so pristine I could taste the omega-3s. And I’m calling it here: Han Oak’s mandoo dumpling soup, intoxicating beef-mushroom broth to beautifully crimped, chive-talking pork dumplings and omelet shreds, is destined for cult status.
The lights might not be on when you arrive. Cho may look half asleep. Recently, he forgot to print the menu. Don’t let all that fool you. He served real time as queen’s hand to New York’s April Bloomfield (the Spotted Pig) and it shows, blade-work to palate. This is Portland, Korea, and brunch in a fresh new package.
Rev your engine, brunch cloning machine: you couldn’t duplicate these three spots if you tried.