Kim Boyce, ruler of Sandy Boulevard’s dangerously good Bakeshop, doesn’t like dessert.
She shared this revelation on a recent afternoon, defiantly, standing tall in her crisp white apron. Cheesecake? Don’t even get the Beard-winning cookbook author started. Rails Boyce: “Too dense, too sweet, too smooth, no crisp, no crunch, no caramelization.”
Yet, even Boyce has fallen under the spell of the “burnt Basque cheesecake,” an ugly-delicious phenom that dunked on New York–style and stormed the internet last year. For decades, this crazy-dark tarta de queso was known only to locals at La Viña, a pintxos joint in San Sebastián, a city where diners flock to high-flying avant-garde Spanish restaurants. But as travelers discovered La Viña, word-of-mouth proclamations about “the best cheesecake, ever” caught fire. Just the idea sent internet sleuths and top chefs down the rabbit hole to crack the code of something that looks like hell and tastes like heaven.
Writes one cook of the quest: “It started to consume my every waking moment. I was Googling in Spanish, searching hashtags, clicking through videos.” Burnt Basque cheesecake can do that to you. Tokyo is officially obsessed, and versions are now emanating from Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, and, yes, Portland.
Adding to the lore is the key ingredient, good old Philly cream cheese. Seriously, nothing else will do. Meanwhile, forget cheesecake rules and regulations—the water baths, the fear of a cracked surface, the graham-cracker crust, that lily-white shade. This beast creates its own crust: an unruly, undulating fortress of dark molten chew, formed, almost magically, inside a screaming-hot oven. The center, cratered like a deranged soufflé, is a sunken rink of burnt sugar goodness. What hides below is cool and comforting, a kind of cheesecake custard, barely sweet.
This push-pull of luxe creaminess and bitter juju proves irresistible. Last Thanksgiving, I watched Bakeshop’s version absolutely destroy the willpower of people already bloated enough to do aerial combat with Macy’s helium balloons. The pumpkin pie never stood a chance.
Two years ago, the cheesecake quietly debuted in Portland, pre-craze, at Alberta’s Urdaneta, where the waiters all but insist you have it the Basque way: with a glass of sherry. Owner-chef Javier Canteras, born in Bilbao, shoots for a lighter, fluffier version while pushing the limits of “burnt” cheesecake to near-charcoal levels. And where La Viña literally slings unadorned slices onto plates like short-order cooks, Urdaneta, like most places in town trying their hand at it, adds personal flourishes: here, sherried whipped cream and a cool cap of membrillo jelly. Over at North Portland’s bumping Toro Bravo, the kitchen adds huckleberry compote and a clever slice of fruit-leather “jamón” but subtracts the cake’s essential custardy essence (though the crust has a great, toasty chew).
Sellwood’s newish Communion Bakehouse serves its version in true Portland style: for brunch. The outside is a bit pale, but the interior hits the right notes and the accoutrements are spot on—crème fraîche and tart marmalade. The $6 price tag is just as sweet. Meanwhile, more are coming: At the new Lazy Susan in Montavilla, pastry ace Nora Mace expects burnt Basque cheesecake to be a house signature—“a little gooey inside,” she promises, just like La Viña’s.
Over at Bakeshop, Boyce is busy doing her perfectionist thing. She made her first one last year, only at her boyfriend’s request and after spying eye-grabbing photos on Instagram. There’s no stopping her now. She’s sweating the details and running all the variables, and it shows. The unlikely dessert is now a crown jewel and must-try at Bakeshop, available whole for $45 with 72 hours’ notice or on weekends at the shop for $7 a slice.
What won her over? Turns out, burnt Basque cheesecake is everything cheesecake is not. And while she loathes making anything trendy, Boyce admits this is just too seductive, especially with a handful of fresh berries. “It’s like a cheese course,” she concludes, “like cheese and fruit, the best dessert.”