Word of Mouth

Real Good Food Unites Icelandic Kelp, Vermouth on Tap—and Jim Dixon

Even in Portland, there’s nothing quite like it.

By Karen Brooks August 27, 2019 Published in the September 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Real Good Food's Noah Cable, Joe Dixon, and Jim Dixon sample hot sauce and vermouth.

Image: Karen Brooks

At first glance, Real Good Food (935 NE Couch St) looks like a mini-mart for the cooking-possessed.

Shelves are stocked with nothing you need but everything you want—that killer vinegar, pure Louisiana cane syrup that smells like molasses pie, a hot sauce to up your flavor game. The house motto: “Only things we like, from passionate producers with a great story to share.” But wander a little longer and another picture emerges. Real Good Food, recently opened on NE Couch Street a block or so from the Doug Fir, is less a grocery store than a state of mind, an imaginary folksy-eccentric food show where people drift in and out like characters in a Robert Altman movie. Even in Portland, there’s nothing quite like it.

Banter between owners and customers competes only with the furious Afro-Cuban guitar playing overhead. Ask why the shop carries only one mayonnaise, Duke’s, and the answer is swift and definitive, “Because it’s effin’ delicious.” “How would one use wild Icelandic kelp, straight from the sea floor of the frigid North Atlantic?” I wondered out loud. A suggestion floats from across the room: “Try it on buttered toast.”

Nearby, at a table built from old pinot barrels, customers carefully parse and sample the house obsession: olive oil. Others congregate around Portland’s best new secret, the house vermouth bar, serving the soft, bitter delight of Spanish Axia vermouth ... on tap. The discussion veers from current ingredient obsessions to the latest Portland food gossip. Suddenly, a cabbage salad appears. Let others covet caviar. Cabbage—simple, perfect, lovingly seasoned—is the kind of thing highly valued here, delivered by a guy in a natty old-man hat, house icon Jim Dixon. The recipe is on the counter, one of hundreds in his collection. “Oooh, it’s so good Jim,” coos a woman parked on a stool. Everyone clinks a glass. And that, in a nutshell, is Real Good Food. 

The idea was born 20 years ago, when Dixon fell hard for good Italian olive oil while working as the food critic for Willamette Week. He started selling the stuff out of a backpack at the farmers market, and then from his garage. He was fast emerging as the olive oil consigliere for Portland’s top chefs. In the years that followed, he held court in an unmarked warehouse, with word-of-mouth sales and a die-hard following among avid cooks who came for an expanding list of prime pantry staples, Louisiana red peas to California’s prized Katz vinegars.

Now, at 65, Dixon has gone legit at last, in a storefront with real hours and enough space to hold ever-growing finds. Son Joe Dixon mans the vermouth and brings in intriguing aperitifs and off-the-grid wines. The exuberant, wise-cracking presence who greets you up front? That’s biz partner Noah Cable, who befriended Dixon years ago at the farmers market while helping launch his wife’s cult pie stand, Lauretta Jean’s. Cable is the shop’s de facto business head, and no one can get you more excited about ingredients. 

A vision for bringing “Jim’s World” above-ground came to Cable one afternoon at Dixon’s warehouse, when a nocino-fueled roundtable morphed into a conversation about food politics. “That’s the Real Good Food I fell in love with,” says Cable, “gathered around the kitchen, making whatever, sharing wine and stories.”

I came to report a story and left with a smile, some hilarious anecdotes, a bottle of vermouth I’d never heard of, and Red Boat Salt—a new definition of umami from the famous fish sauce company. All I can say is this: Real Good Food is the real deal. 

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