Shrimp Cocktail Is Back, Baby
Portlanders are picking up stemware filled with cocktail sauce once again, and you should, too. To call shrimp cocktail a trend seems a bit ridiculous, but the steakhouse classic is alive in the city's oldest establishments and spreading its opulence to progressive restaurants across town. The repeated opening and closing of dining rooms has taught us to take advantage of the nights out we get, when we get them. So, if Tuesday dinner reservations are the highlight of your week, put on your good shoes and let glitzy shrimp cocktail help you celebrate with an eye towards the past.
Potluck iterations might conjure images of plastic Costco trays and cream cheese-laden dips, but when dining out, the dish feels grand. The old guard has preserved the classic, providing a window to a sumptuous past, while updated versions tweak preparations and presentations, sometimes offering new ingredients and garnishes, sometimes a touch of vintage glamor amidst an otherwise modern spread.
Though shrimp cocktail might have reached peak popularity in the sixties, the exact dates of the staple’s origin are tough to pin down. Its ancestor is the oyster cocktail, a popular drink in the early 1900s of raw oysters and absinthe spiked with horseradish and ketchup (imagine the dirtiest Bloody Mary you’ve ever had). Prawns became a popular substitute mid-century as oyster prices rose and access to ice made transporting highly perishable shrimp more convenient. Thus, a slurp became a dip.
Jake’s Famous Crawfish (401 SW 12th Ave) is the spot in town to get a shrimp cocktail with downtown panache and turn of the century flare. Here, bowtied bartenders wear long white coats and serve the dish across a 130-year-old bar with old-school martinis. There are old-timey tunes, big pepper mills, and even bigger menus; stained glass and neon signs are abundant. Jake’s feels like a time machine. Their cocktail is perhaps the city’s most iconic: five prawns hang from an ornate metal bowl coated with a picturesque frost. The details are immaculate—down to the sprig of curly parsley and lemon wedge suspended on a cocktail fork that juts out of the crushed ice.
Equally rich in history, Ringside Steakhouse (2165 W Burnside St) has been serving shrimp cocktail—of the tuxedoed, white-tablecloth variety—since at least 1952. A vintage menu gifted to the restaurant lists “Louisiana shrimp cocktail” for 50 cents. Aside from the price, the dish hasn’t changed much in the 72-plus years they’ve been serving it. Similar to Jake’s, Ringside’s prawns are perched on a stainless steel vessel over crushed ice, nestled with a few pimento-stuffed olives, a flourish of lettuce, and the obligatory lemon wedge.
Historically, Ringside has been a preamble to the theatre or symphony, but Geoffrey Rich, the restaurant’s general manager, notes a trend of pandemic diners making a night out of dinner, a respite in these uncertain times. Rich says connecting to the past is largely what brings diners in, and their swanky presentation of the dish can certainly take you back—and serve as a preamble to your T-bone.
Though the classics are tough to contend with, Andrew Mace feels confident serving a close-to-traditional shrimp cocktail at his two-year-old Montavilla restaurant, Lazy Susan (7937 SE Stark St). “It checks all the boxes for us,” he says. The dish makes sense on their menu of Americana-tinged takes on high-quality products like chicken-fried pork chops from Canby-based Revel Meat Co. and Alaskan pollock turned smoked whitefish spread to be scooped with fried saltines. Connotations aside, at its best, shrimp cocktail is a simple preparation of an extraordinary ingredient. Their version swaps the crushed ice for a stemmed cocktail glass. Gulf Coast prawns line the rim of the glass and sit above house-fermented cocktail sauce that’s heavy on the fresh horseradish.
Jacqueline (2039 SE Clinton St) has served shrimp cocktail every winter of the restaurant’s five-year history. However, chef and owner Derek Hanson says he’s seen a jump in enthusiasm for this year’s version: a take on Louisiana-style peel-and-eat shrimp served with both house-made cocktail sauce and rouille (a breadcrumb-enriched, saffron-stained aioli traditionally served with bouillabaisse). Hanson credits the spike in sales to a balancing of iconic favorites with the creative takes his customers have come to expect. He has an affinity for what he calls “steakhousey” and “fishhousey” recipes, but finds classic dishes to be most successful on his menu when tweaked to the restaurant’s progressive style. During the pandemic, hints to nostalgic dishes like shrimp cocktail, Hanson says, “are maybe pulling you back to when things were a little more stable.”