Best Restaurants 2018: Culinary Cully

Cully Is Set to Become One of Portland's Coolest Food Hoods

A working-class community with global tastes revs up.

By Kelly Clarke October 10, 2018 Published in the November 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Ae Sangasy dives into hand-rolled noodles at Cully Central, her kid-friendly neighborhood sports bar that serves local beers and Lao pub grub.

Last January, Ae Sangasy, a Laos-born Portlander with bouncy purple hair, opened Cully Central beer bar (4579 NE Cully Blvd) in the once-grimy spot that had housed the Shady Lady strip club. She and her biz partners refurbished tables with planks from old Hollywood Bowl lanes and prepped a menu of bold drinking foods more typical of Southeast Asia than Northeast Portland. (Think “stinkalicious” papaya salad thick with fish sauce and chile or chubby, hand-rolled rice noodles in shallot-heady chicken broth.) Sangasy crossed her fingers, hoping her neighbors would embrace the flavors—a world away from burgers and hot wings. Surprise: Cully showed up, with no sign yet of slowing.

Pop by and you’ll see locals demolishing paper plates piled with garlicky grilled beef and sticky rice between sips of Crux and Buoy drafts, or loading curry-scented crispy rice salad into lettuce leaves. Kids scribble on a giant chalkboard wall; staffers tune the big screens to ESPN, or stream YouTube videos of Milli Vanilli. The charming bar is emblematic of the unique restaurants that thrive in this still-diverse, relatively low-rent area. It also helps makes a case for Cullys rise as one of the city’s coolest food hoods.

The area’s already home to Portland’s only Native American–owned coffee shop (Bison Coffeehouse) and a nationally lauded punk-rock pizza parlor (Pizza Jerk). Draws along NE 42nd, the district’s western edge, include both a 56-year-old dive bar housed in a defunct bowling alley (Spare Room) and a vegan snack bar whirling smoothies named for feminist leaders (Tiny Moreso).

Come this fall, two hotly anticipated restaurants are scheduled to open on the same strip. Maya Lovelace and Zach Lefler’s cult Southern pop-up Mae will soon mount its farm-fresh Appalachian feasts in the former Delphina’s Bakery space—fronted by the couple’s fried chicken shack, Yonder. A few doors down, former Clyde Common chef Carlo Lamagna, who lives in Cully, will reimagine his family Filipino recipes at Magna, crab noodles to crispy pig feet.

This flurry of personal, intimate eateries is no accident. While so many “renewed” neighborhoods serve an interchangeable plug-and-play lineup of local food chains like Laughing Planet and Blue Star Donuts, this scrappier transformation is intentional—the result of years of careful curatorial work by two Cully-based economic development agencies, forward-thinking property owners, and outreach by neighborhood community groups. A philosophy connects them: when Cully hits the big time and foodies flock, the neighborhood’s business owners will reflect and celebrate this diverse, affordable neighborhood, not obliterate it.

Ultimately, Sangasy says it’s locals, not food tourists, who will keep places like her bar humming. “The neighbors come for dinner and say, ‘We’re gonna keep coming in. Because we want you to stay around for a long, long time.”

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