Restaurant Review

Meat ’n’ Greet

Top Chef alum Doug Adams balances hotel politesse and Lone Star meat craft with Bullard.

By Karen Brooks March 26, 2019 Published in the April 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Doug Adams (center) with his Bullard kitchen crew

In 2014, Doug Adams was just another anonymous foot soldier in Portland’s food army, sweating on the line at down-town’s Imperial under star chef Vitaly Paley. His dossier in a nutshell: journalism school dropout, bluegrass bandmate, comfort food lover. That he was even cooking in Portland was a fluke: a random Google search for “culinary schools” brought him here in 2009, far from Bullard, Texas, the redneck-noir town he fled at 18.   

And then, out of nowhere, Adams was on my TV screen on Bravo’s Top Chef. “Who is this guy?” I thought. I pegged him as a dead man walking, like the sweet grunt in a war movie who bites it early on after flashing a picture of his girlfriend back home. Instead, Adams crushed the competition with a career-defining plate of fried chicken and spicy watermelon pickles, drawing heartthrob attention from judge Gail Simmons, and battling his way to the finals. He didn’t win, but back at Imperial he earned a new title, executive chef, and a line of smitten fans out the door. That fried chicken dish went on the menu, swiftly becoming a local icon.

Lesson learned: don’t ever count Doug Adams out.

Today, he’s a true local celeb chef, calling the shots at the Woodlark Hotel’s primo, 3,000-square-foot downtown restaurant, opened in December. The revamp of the historic property dragged on for two torturous years, during which Adams mostly sat on the sidelines, fly-fishing. An underdog no more, and with a rep to defend, he’s also making a huge play to win the city’s boutique hotel dining arms race with a smoke-perfumed meat palace named, yes, Bullard.

It’s a well-heeled Lone Star dude food magnet—San Antonio–style smoked chicken, lunchtime meat-’n’-threes, and spendy T-bone steak dinners. Interestingly, Adams had no interest in Texas flavors before facing the bone-shaking pressure of Top Chef. “Fear can make you jump back to strange places,” he confided. “I ran away, but when I needed it most, Bullard bubbled up.”

Bullard crowds the table with tender, 12-hour smoked beef ribs with tomatillo salsa, hominy corn bread, tamales, and turnips with trout roe.

It’s very early in the game. Bullard is still furiously tweaking dishes. But Adams has won round one, nailing many elements that elude most hotel menus: a point of view, a genuine taste of local chef culture, and a few knockout dishes right out of the gate. Case in point: a hotel-polite, grill-perfect rainbow trout popping with Texas caviar, the vinaigrette-punched black-eyed peas crowned, gleefully, in tiny potato chips. Plus, the ladies still love him: “I tell you, anything Dougie does is great,” coos a well-bangled gal parked next to me on one of Bullard’s leather banquettes, the room crowded with baseball caps and West Hills players.

Well, not anything. Let’s be clear, you’re not coming here for the salads or the $24 cauliflower steak. More pressingly, the house flour tortillas—a key component in Bullard’s top-priced showcase dishes—are weirdly rubbery, without joy, flavor, or sin factor. Might as well just get ’em at Safeway.

Meat is king here, the portal to Adams’s heart. (Be warned: most showcase plates run $50 and up, sized for two.) Proceed directly to the Texas red tamale, a Frito-pie spinoff that layers soft masa and a near-black inferno of burnt-brisket ends and smoky chiles beneath fizzles of salty cotija cheese. (Already, it’s on my unofficial Portland must-eat list.) Slow-cooked beef ribs are a Texas dream: teeth-sinking juicy and big enough for a man and his horse. Throw in textbook-perfect chess pie and call it a good night.

But the game changer is Bullard’s smoked pork belly—not only euphorically tender, but presented Korean ssam-style, ready to tuck inside lettuce cups with garlic-chile sambal, green papaya pickles, and bread-and-butter jalapeños. “Now we’re somewhere new,” chortles my friend Paul. 

That hallowed fried chicken showed up in February, sporting great crunch plus a new hint of smoke, available Sunday nights only. Downside: no spicy watermelon pickles. I miss that left-field sweet-hot-fruity-juicy headrush. Upside: the city’s best corn bread now comes with the deal, light and griddled on top, like corn bread French toast. Add a new pickle concept, and Adams could win Portland’s fried chicken wars.

Like many dishes here, Bullard’s bistro cheeseburger is a few tweaks short of awesome. Yes, there’s the rich, deep pleasure of aged beef and stellar smoked onions. But the scale is off—small bun, sauce-soaked, ingredients squishing everywhere. Where is Marie Kondo when you need her? Adams’s better burger holds down the menu at Bullard’s cozy sister bar, Abigail Hall—a fast-food riff that employs thin double patties, lettuce crunch, and requisite “fancy sauce.” Bonus: the Woodlark bar, carefully restored with a stately grandma vibe, is one of the sweetest spaces in town to sip a spritz.

Bottom line: Bullard is solid right now. But it could evolve to a legit wow. Adams’s meatcraft is real deal; his slow-cooking skills impress. Smoking food throughout the day, nailing the tender factor consistently, is no small feat—especially considering that Bullard operates inside a hotel, not as a dedicated barbecue pit. Can he pull the rest of the menu up to this level?

My best guess: never count Doug Adams out.

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