Tasty & Alder is my kind of restaurant, even if I found it mostly to be very good rather than great. The varying dish size — everything from a single (warm) donut to a life-sized Bi Bim Bap — the many brunch-friendly cocktails, the zingy wine list (with a couple of surprisingly old Burgundies on it): all of this appealed to me. In its freewheeling spirit, the place reminded me of the old Liberty Bar in San Antonio. I have a fondness for restaurants that are slight scofflaws. Liberty Bar was in a listing-to-one-side house practically underneath highway 281. It had two rooms which were quite unalike. On Mondays, bottles of wine were half off, and they had good wine, so you could really take advantage. I went there in 2002 and then again in 2008 and had the same waitress. They had really good, wheaty bread. The menu was a bit all over the place, and good-not-great: shaggy, unusual. I get really tired of restaurants that are standard-issue, even when they’re good: things cold and raw to start, big hunks of protein on starch and hot vegetables after. Too much of everything. Too much fat and salt. I keep coming back to Jim’s line: “Restaurant food is a caricature of real food.” (I even had that response to Mateo, which I found tasty but often inelegant, heavy, over-seasoned).
At Tasty & Alder, which is real food (at least, what we ate), we basically had dessert first. There was the single donut, a warmed-up improvement on Phoebe’s donut muffin (which I have always found too granular because of all the sugarcoating), with creme anglaise. Then roasted strawberries with mint chèvre. The smoked trout was really good, and the waitress persuaded us to get both the Korean fried chicken and the Bi Bim Bap. She told us the latter was her favorite dish, and it was much better than the fried chicken, I thought. I admire waiters who will tell you what they really think. I liked her casual demeanor, her apparently genuine indifference to how long we sat there taking up a table. And I got to have some “cask” wine from two Oregon producers I had never heard of, although they don’t seem to have been at all obscure. Both were very good, especially Mahonia’s Chardonnay, which was a little like a Macon. Sometimes you enjoy a wine because you’re in a really good mood, and I was in a really good mood that morning. So it was probably nothing special, but it went perfectly with the environment: T&A’s big, bright, airy, loud room, which seemed to call for young, fresh wine.
A little plate discipline of our own: on the coast, one night we had take-and-bake pizza for dinner, and another night we split a deli sandwich. We were on vacation. It sounds fun to cook extravagantly when you’re in someone else’s getaway house, but in fact no, it’s fun to eat quickly and then go back to relaxing. Should we do this more often at home, will that ease our lives by some small degree? I wrote an entire new piece of fiction on “vacation,” easily, while struggling back home in “work” mode to get “work” done. Maybe take-and-bake pizza is a part of this ease of work. I recall reading that Guy Davenport claimed to have subsisted his entire life on fried baloney sandwiches and Snickers bars.
When we went to buy fish in Garibaldi, we stopped on the way back out of town at Parkside Cafe(not near a park), ostensibly for coffee to go, and then ended up sitting there and eating a TBLTA sandwich made with real roasted turkey. This was one of the better sandwiches I’ve eaten in quite some time. We chatted with the fifty-something sisters who run the place (one was a school bus driver for a quarter century) and I gawked while the bus driver assembled a three-layer cake of such stupendous buxomness and icingness and stickiness that I felt almost as if I shouldn’t be watching. Her daughter was hanging around in the tiny kitchen during this. There was, paradoxically, something wholesomely Rockwellian about this very meretricious, even lewd, cake-making. In other words, Parkside was about as American as food gets, including the eggy coconut custard pie slice we took home. It wasn’t all that great, but you just had to admire the sheer richness and shamelessness of it.
We had good fish. I was delighted to discover that the reason “chinook” salmon was so expensive (and delicious) was that “chinook” is what the locals call wild king salmon. It was running: fresh, in season. We had some ling cod — neither cod nor ling (discuss, as Linda Richman would say) — and I think that was actually my favorite fish that we cooked in the house. But I think the most fun was the fish and chips we had in Rockaway while the guy filleted the black bass we took home to cook. The fish we chose for the fish and chips was halibut. I say disparaging things about halibut on a regular basis, because it’s so bland, but it made really good battered fish. They didn’t over-batter it, it was light and crispy. I like tartar sauce a lot and so I’m glad we rarely have occasion to eat it because it’s terrible for you.
More plate discipline. Number of restaurants we ate at in Manzanita: 0. Was a single one of these restaurants really even tempting? (We could have gone to the pizza place, which charged $25 for an 18″ pie. No, thanks.) Instead we found an organic grocery, a neighborhood grocery (with the sandwich counter), and a perfectly good IGA. There was even a Friday evening farmers market. The discipline in place like Manzanita is in reading your options and making shrewd choices. The best of these, to return to the thesis, was in spending our energy doing vacation things like resting, walking on the beach, etc., and not caring too much about food. We ate Pirate’s Booty, dream bars, hummus.
Just making sure to mention here Wheeler Station Antiques, whose deco collection was so astonishing (and large) that the place seemed unreal. (The most recent review on Trip Advisor begins, “I almost cried when I walked in…”) The owner was chatty and very calculating. He made sure to lodge his name — Greg Nichols — in our minds by telling us that we wouldn’t remember his name. Sheer ego is very important in the creation of a life, I note. I’m watching the Wimbledon men’s final as I write this.
Back in Portland on our last day as we waited for our redeye, we went over to Division St. in southeast Portland. This is a lovely neighborhood, and they’re doing food and retail right. Sure, it’s getting built up, but a block away on Clinton St. there are old Arts and Crafts houses in fine uncorrupted shape. We walked into a godawful expensive yoga-clothes store (and studio) — that seemed very Portland to me, if not Portlandia, which I have never seen. But I know enough about the show to appreciate the ways in which what Portland is doing tips over into parody. The municipal trash cans have solar-powered compactors. There are clean public water fountains, bathrooms, etc. It can seem a little precious. (But what to make of the teeming homeless?)
Yet at base, the whole blue-state project of a place like this is in the spirit of what urbanity should be striving for. Maybe it’s too easy to say that, after visiting as a tourist for just two days, I don’t know. But I saw ultimately how livable Portland was — okay, in June, in beautiful weather (same with Buffalo last year) — and to me that is what cities should make their top priority: places that are comfortable to live in despite all the forces working against that comfort: noise, pollution, trash, traffic, crowds, and the necessity of ugly conveniences. Portland has its own plate discipline. When you carp that all these prefab new condo/apartment complexes in downtown Durham are devoid of ground-floor retail, that’s an example of the builders’ failure to think about urban life. These complexes are discouraging foot traffic and the natural conviviality they foster. They’re promoting car culture, exclusivity, dead spaces.
We ate at Whiskey Soda and Pok Pok, two of Bear Award-winning Andy Ricker’s places, practically right across the street from each other on Division St. While we waited for our table at the latter, we had appetizers at the former. Then a waitress told us when our table was ready across the street. This was a nice touch.
The fish sauce wings are apparently famous: “Yes, these are the wings you’ve been looking for,” the menu boasted, and then backed up the boast. They were the best wings I’ve ever had, the secret weapon being the little nuggets of chili-garlic rub that fell off the wings — which were enormous, justifying the $14 price tag (same as the halibut fish & chips in Rockaway). We kept picking up the nuggets and eating them, like pop-rocks granola. And we gnawed on the bones, the cartilage, etc. The wings were smartly served with a side of wet naps.
The little wraps we got were filled with southeast-Asian staple flavors: ginger, dried shrimp, chilies, etc. They were great at first and then began to cloy: too much palm sugar in one appetizer, maybe. We were sitting outside on a beautiful evening. Durham doesn’t have enough places to sit outside and eat. Vin Rouge is okay but doesn’t quite count because that’s a back patio. The only street eating that comes to mind are Scratch and Toast, which are not dinner places, of course. I guess there’s Dos Perros and Pompieri. It never quite occurs to me to go to those places, though.
I was pretty curious about Whiskey Soda’s name and drink list. Okay, obviously the idea is to have whiskey with this food. So I ordered a glass of Rowan’s Creek, neat. I was pretty skeptical of all that alcoholic burn with spicy food, but it was a great pairing. The food brought out the fruitiness in the whiskey, and the spice, too, of course. So I stayed with the theme at Pok Pok, which had much the same menu (but much more expansive) and drink list. I wanted a glass of rye, so I asked the waitress which of two ryes was spicier. I was pleased to hear say she didn’t know, because I hate waiters who bullshit. She volunteered to ask the bartender, which I appreciated, and brought me a glass of Willets (or maybe Willits). It was really good, and especially right with the smoky wild boar under a sauce that was as close to the flavors of Laos as I’ve had since I was there 13 years ago — I had a slightly emotional reaction to that dish. The gaminess of the boar matched my sense-memory of the gaminess of much of the meat I had in Laos.
The noodle soup was excellent, and a reminder that curry doesn’t have to be spicy. The waitress messed up and brought us the wrong salad, which we didn’t quite figure out until we were more than halfway through it. It was pretty good, but not what we wanted, and here’s another item of good (disciplined) service: the waitress took the salad off the bill and didn’t say so — just quietly comped the salad, which was actually kind of expensive because it had tuna in it. I really admired this, because telling us about the deletion would have been angling for a better tip. That sounds like a contradiction, since she had made a mistake, but the way the psychology works is that instead of a $56 bill we had a $43 bill, so we could afford to express our gratitude for the comped item by upping our tip. Which I did anyway despite her not having said anything.
Back home for your birthday, Crook’s Corner. I could be wrong, or maybe spoiled by Oregon, but I’m pretty sure that just about everything about this place was a disappointment. Oh, except the crab-and-shrimp “calas” (i.e. fritters). Not because of the fritters, which weren’t very crabby or shrimpy (though still pretty good), but because of the dip, which was basically tartar sauce.
Am I supposed to say something about baseball? Twice we drove right past Ron Tonkin Park, home of the Hillsboro Hops, just west of Portland. (This a short-season rookie-ball team.) Both times, we could have stuck around for an hour or so and gone to a game. Both times, this opportunity did not really occur to us. Vacation was a vacation baseball, a pass-time away from the pastime. Also, who wants to watch rookie ball?
Ron Tonkin field looks like a high school field, and it’s in a complex of athletic fields. There was a girls’ softball game going on right across the parking lot. The whole environment had a pleasantly suburban feel to it (is that an oxymoron?). We went into the tiny gift shop and you got yourself a nice Hops jersey. I forget sometimes that “minor leagues” = more than, or rather less than, just Triple-A. Hillsboro’s ballpark was a very nondescript, small, homely little place, lacking any kind of character. All around it were industrial parks and vacated flatlands. It was just a ballpark in which to stick juveniles and let them play rookie ball. I got much more of a sense of the minors as a place of development and practice and trial. In Durham, it’s almost like a finished thing, meant to stand on its own. Ron Tonkin Field, mixed into a cluster of other ballfields and looking like a training facility more than a friendly confines, did not pretend to that status. It almost looked like it could be dismantled like an erector set at any moment, loaded onto flatbeds and trucked to any suburb in the US for the training of ballplayers.