Chef Shaun King’s dream restaurant, Bar King, was meant to be a place for people to gather, full of large-format plates shared family-style, a “live fire and smoke love letter,” as he describes it. The restaurant opened on March 9, but closed just six days later due to the pandemic. Eventually, the restaurant and the neighboring The Bakery at Bar King both reopened, albeit with plenty of pivots along the way—even making PoMo’s list of Best Restaurants 2020. But even with all of the restaurant and bakery's adjustments, King doesn’t think it’ll be enough for Bar King to remain open through the restaurant industry’s upcoming harshest season yet. This week, the restaurant will lay off all its staff and temporarily close for the winter, paring down its operations to weekly Saturday smoked meats for takeout and delivery—though The Bakery at Bar King will remain open.
King, perhaps best known as the former executive chef at the Las Vegas outpost of David Chang’s Momofuku, moved to Portland to make his dream of opening Bar King come true. After Bar King’s quick shutdown, a PPP loan helped the restaurant reopen in late August, and the Bakery at Bar King made its grand opening in early August. But dine-in service as King originally intended only lasted two months—hampered in part due to the restaurant’s 50 percent capacity limit, and in part due to a lack of dine-in customers during the week.
In October, the restaurant relinquished its original menu and pivoted to a new winter menu, serving ramen made with smoked short ribs and smoked pork shoulder, but it still wasn’t enough to buoy the restaurant. Rent on the 8,000-square-foot space costs $10,000, King says. “I can’t do that with just noodles.” Ramen service, which is available for takeout and dine-in for lunch and takeout-only for dinner, will end this week as soon as inventory runs out.
But Bar King has yet another ace up its sleeve: smoked meats. King is a devotee both to Texas barbecue and Santa Maria barbecue. Every Saturday at Bar King, he’ll be smoking gochujang-rubbed brisket and pulled pork; fish sauce-cured bacon with Okinawan brown sugar will be added to the menu soon. The smoked meats will be served with housemade brioche, housemade pickles, some “unsung hero vegetables” like Korean watercress, water spinach, or Asian squash, and with a side of what King describes as “Korean grandmother smoky beef broth” flavored with shoyu, apples, and horseradish. Preordering for smoked meats starts tomorrow, Thursday, November 12, at 11 a.m. via Bar King’s website and by phone.
Operations at Bar King’s other half, The Bakery at Bar King, helmed by pastry chef and business partner Katherine Benvenuti, will continue as usual, serving the bakery’s increasingly popular miso walnut sticky buns, matcha passion fruit gâteau Basques, brown butter rice cakes, kimchi egg muffins, and breads made by Adam Kennedy.
Even with barbecue and the bakery, King says that a potential Bar King comeback next spring hinges on one thing: financial assistance. “I’m optimistic that if we do get a loan, we’ll be able to open again,” he says. “Hopefully we get some government assistance, because that’s what we’ve been waiting for.”