Portland Monthly Food Critic Karen Brooks Looks Back on Three Decades of Restaurant Reviews

From ‘80s bagel punks to gazillion-dollar flops.

By Karen Brooks August 15, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Joe Esparza at his Esparza’s Tex Mex Café in 1998

Before I started eating my way through the city for Portland Monthly, I manned the food desk at the Oregonian and Willamette Week for more than two decades. In the spirit of our restaurant history package, I dug through some old reviews and found a few choice cuts.

1980 • Barney Bagel and Suzy CreamCheese

One of my WW reviews revealed what Portland’s most hard-core punks were noshing: upscale deli sandwiches crafted by the bagel ladies at this tiny shop in the Galleria, which now houses downtown’s Target. "Barney Bagel and Suzy Creamcheese has won over the pierced palates of the local punk community. Here, they gather—in the Disneyland-ish surroundings of the Galleria’s atrium—to engage in long and intense social intercourse, to be hypnotized by heads and shoulders moving up and down on criss-crossing escalators, to contemplate the existential significance of indoor street lamps shaped like giant question marks and, of course, to eat."

1990 • Esparza’s Tex-Mex Café

Breaking Bad’s spiritual food ancestor was surely Southeast Portland’s Esparza’s, complete with darkly humorous cowboy décor, Te Ves Criminal on the jukebox, and electrifying food, crackling cornmeal-crusted cactus to legendary beef brisket tacos. It all spilled from the imagination of former Texan Joe Esparza, captured in my Oregonian review rapping about his quest to serve calf brain tacos: “In Texas, calves’ brains are in all the supermarkets. Here, only the medical students buy them, and they’re about $25 a brain. No way am I paying $25 a brain.” 

2004 • Hannah Bea's Pound Cake and More

The sweetest day at one of the last black-owned restaurants on NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. When lemon pound cake queen Anita Smith and chef Saan “The Sandwich King” Patterson got the call: Mr. Al Roker, of Today Show fame, was coming to shoot a Food Channel segment. Patterson’s seam-busting pride runs through the O piece that followed. This is what a journalist lives for: “We’d been up three days straight,” recalls Patterson, who helped make 100 pound cakes for the show. After spooning gravy over his creamy grits, Roker took a bite. “’Umm … that’s good,’ that’s what Al said,” Patterson says."

2007 • Ten 01

Hollywood had Ishtar. The music world has Britney Spears. Portland dining has Ten 01, a case of grand ambition gone terribly wrong. That was only the beginning of the Pearl District disaster, which rebounded a year later with a new crew helmed by chef Jack Yoss, Kelley Swenson’s cocktail savvy, and Portland’s best truffle fries. From my Oregonian review:

"Waiters are sweet but poorly trained, often disappearing for long stretches, drawing blanks on basic questions and given to such greetings as, “Are ya ready for me?” They seem to be fending for themselves, with no one to explain or maintain rigorous standards.  

“What's a sunfish?” asked a dining companion while perusing the entree options. “It’s a fish,” says the waiter. “It swims around Hawaii, has fins and, ah, it’s really good.” It’s really not. Delivered to the table with the exclamation, “Here’s your rockfish,” it was bland and indifferent and topped with a warm wad of arugula that brought to mind—no kidding—cow cud. The pork loin was equally depressing—dead-dry and delivered as “Heeere’s your pork cheeks.”

2008 • Lucier

The Hindenburg of Portland’s fine dining scene. Period. The gazillion-dollar South Waterfront project lasted seven months. From my O review, which almost broke the newspaper's online comments section: "Instead of ... restrained elegance, we get Dining in Dubai, or 1980s Vegas, with fun-house mirror columns, display case after display case of gaudy blown glass and Sinatra belting out "My Kind of Town." The overreaching extends to well-meaning and anxiety-inducing staffers hovering and swooping. On one visit a greeter escorted me to the restroom, swept her arms toward the heavens and exclaimed: “Enjoy!!!” I feared she was going to break out in song.

According to Lucier's website, (chef/owner Pascal) Chureau is inspired by the "jarring juxtapositions" of France's Pierre Gagnaire, a Michelin three-starred culinary magician. But where Gagnaire has the technical mastery to be inspiring, Chureau is merely jarring. Let's just say no one's fighting over the last bite of the kitchen's Turbot With Oxtail Ravioli, Red Lentils, Harissa Hollandaise and Picholine Olives, where the sound of promise (and $37) faded with each lifeless, blobbed-together bite. Lucier neither improves on Portland nor feels of Portland. It doesn't even seem for Portland. It's like a spec house on the Street of Dreams, with all the upgrades but no one to answer the door."

Fast forward to present day: Happily, some serious talents rose from the wreckage: Maurice’s Kristen Murray, Ox’s Greg Denton, and Top Chef fan fave Doug Adams.

2009 • Castagna

It’s as if Pink Martini woke up one day and decided to become Lady Gaga. That line, in a nutshell, captured the radical reinvention Castagna underwent when chef Matt Lightner waltzed in with a real taste of European avant-garde cooking. From my O review: Lightner’s brave new world comes with deep savors, exquisite beauty, and strange and powerful botanicals in dishes constructed like Frank Gehry’s wild and wavy walls. Sadly, Portland didn’t show up, and Lightner went on to quickly win two Michelin stars in New York City.

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