Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cafe Castagna

1752 SE Hawthorne Blvd
Happy Hour: 5 - 6 PM & 9 - close, Tuesday through Friday

Portland does happy hour better than any city I know. Food carts, too. But we aren't just about discounts and street food. Portland's food scene is forever expanding and the talent in this city is growing at a rate that seems almost out of control. Recently, I had the opportunity to experience some of that talent at a special event hosted by Watershed Communications and Cafe Castagna.

Although we spend the majority of our blogging efforts in search of the best discounted drinks and the cheapest eats during happy hour, it's nice to get out for a fancy meal now and then. At Cafe Castagna, you can do just that--at a fixed price. I've always loved the concept of a prix fixe meal--assuming, of course, that they include a vegetarian option in every category. (Which reminds me...Portland Dining Month is just a week away. I'd better start planning.) But at Cafe Castagna, they've made things even easier. As long as you trust the chef. And having tasted some of the creations coming from Chef Wesley Johnson's kitchen, I know he's one to be trusted. For as little as $30 per person, Chef Wesley will fill your table with his favorites. Leaving it up to him means that you are getting the best pairings, the freshest ingredients, and--in many instances--the newest items to hit the menu.

We started the evening with appetizers. Available on the menu in the cafe is a plate of fried panissa--similar in both appearance and texture to polenta fries but made with a chickpea puree--for $8. These are perfect for sharing and quickly became one of the most frequently passed plates of the evening.

Also ideal for sharing and an excellent starter option is the Flatbread. Served with three small dishes of chicken liver mousse, harissa & labneh, and Turkish hummus, this dish gives everyone at the table a chance to savor some of the broad flavors that Chef Wesley has introduced to the menu at Cafe Castagna.

Charred Beets, Oven Roasted Carrots, and the most fragrant citrus salad made with grapefruit, Meyer lemons, ginger, basil, and thinly sliced charred garlic are all available on the current menu as share plates. The roasted root vegetables were not listed on the menu but paired perfectly with some of the meat dishes and made this vegetarian happier than happy. Allowing the chef to make your selections for dinner could easily equate to enjoying items NOT on the menu.

Although the majority of the plates served from here on out were meat dishes, Chef Wesley did state in his introduction that the fixed-price chef's dinner can cater specifically to vegetarians (Thank you, Chef Wesley!). One dish that he's sure to include--and that's listed on the current dinner menu--is the Celery Root and Parmesan Agnolotti, served with black trumpet mushrooms. This was, by far, my favorite dish of the evening (and I'm not just saying that because it was the only vegetarian entree available).

By the end of the evening, there were so many plates on our table that it made passing dishes from one end to the other a bit of a puzzle as there just wasn't room to set anything down. The majority of the dishes were meat entrees that I just can't comment on. Luckily, it was a blogger dinner (two back-to-back nights, in fact, of Portland's bloggers eating, talking, eating, drinking, eating, and taking pictures from every angle possible) and you can read all about it at Bakery Bingo, Serious Crust, Pechluck's Food Adventures, and Salt.Water.Coffee.

We ended the evening with the most adorable profiterole--with pate a choux puff pastry split in two and filled with a Halvah (sesame seed) ice cream. Topped with honey, chopped walnuts, and a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper flakes, this made for a light finish to a very filling meal.

Despite the many changes to the menu at Cafe Castagna, they still offer one of the very best burgers in town. And it's still available at a discount during Happy Hour (Tuesday through Friday from 5 to 6 and again from 9 to close).

To make reservations for the prix fixe meal at Cafe Castagna or one of the many other restaurants participating in Portland Dining Month (March 1 - 31, 2015), visit OpenTable.


Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Po'Boys in New Orleans: Chowzter North American Fast Feasts Awards

One of the most amazing things that has happened to us because of our blog (okay, the actual most amazing thing) is that we were invited to become Chief Chowzters for the Portland area. I remember when I first got the email, I thought maybe it was a scam. I didn't quite understand why we had been chosen, and I also was very skeptical that the invitation also included a free trip to San Francisco for the Chowzter awards. As it turns out, Chowzter is actually a legitimate company that is serious about food. They have local experts throughout North America (and other countries) who are insanely dedicated to finding the best food ever.

After working hard to come up with our list of our very favorite fast feasts in Portland, we officially became the Portland Chief Chowzters. While my co-bloggers went on that first trip to San Francisco, and later went to a trip to London, I was taking care of my new baby. They came back with tales of eating, eating, drinking, and more eating. They also talked about all of the other cool food bloggers they met on their trips. I was happy for them, but obviously very, very jealous.

When I heard that we were invited to another Chowzter awards ceremony in New Orleans, I decided that it was finally time to leave my baby for a few days! I knew my husband was more than capable of taking care of her, and I wanted to finally meet all of the Chowzter people I had heard so much about. We also had three of our favorite places up for awards (Pip's, Frank's Noodle House, and Dove Vivi), so I thought it would be fun to represent them.

While my co-blogger has an entry planned that covers the fancy places we got to experience, I wanted to write about my very favorite part of the trip: the Po'Boys. I don't know if I had ever even had a real Po'Boy sandwich before this trip. If I had, obviously it was not very memorable. Even though I knew it was a New Orleans specialty, I didn't have very high expectations.The Chowzter people decided the best thing to do was go to three different Po'Boy places one right after another (like a pub crawl for Po'Boys!) to determine which Po'Boy was the very best. Having experienced a Po'Boy crawl, I now want to live the rest of my eating life this way. Pizza crawl, BBQ crawl, sushi crawl, dessert crawl?!

After a very long (and odd) taxi ride, we arrived at our first destination, Domilise's. I had been dying to hear real Southern accents, and the ladies behind the counter fulfilled this desire immediately. They were really sweet, and we could tell this was a popular neighborhood place. People at other tables were friendly and talked to us about their favorite items. We ended up trying two sandwiches here: the fried shrimp and the roast beef. The shrimp had a really delicious spicy/sweet sauce, and it was my favorite of the two. The roast beef was a little bit dry, but the sauce on it was amazing. One of the locals said that the mustard was Zataran's brand, which I had never had before. Usually I am not a fan of spicy mustard (as I mentioned in another blog entry that embarrassed my co-blogger, it makes me want to vomit), but this mustard had just the right amount of spice to it. We were off to a great start, but we had to save room for our other stops.

Our next stop was Killer Po'Boys, which is at the back of a bar called Erin Rose. This place was small, but they definitely had their own unique twist that made our visit worthwhile. These Po'Boys reminded me of Vietnamese Banh Mi  sandwiches. I tried the pork belly (amazing) and the shrimp. Other people also tried a meatloaf version, but I am not a fan. The pork belly had a great flavor, but the shrimp was not as good as at Domalise's. They were sauteed instead of fried, so they already had a disadvantage. My co-blogger pointed out that they were completely different genres so couldn't really be compared, but I did it anyway, and Domalise's won!

I was feeling a little full and lethargic at this point. A few people started to give off signs of possibly quitting and skipping out on the final stop. Luckily, we persevered and rallied, figuring we would have enough time on the taxi ride over to work up an appetite again. At the last stop, Parkway Bakery and Tavern, all of the Chief Chowzters who had decided to go out for fried chicken were already there. They had eaten delicious chicken but did not want to miss out on the final Po'Boy stop of the day.

Parkway Bakery and Tavern ended up being my favorite, partly because it was such a fun experience, but also because they truly had my favorite Po'Boys. Because there were so many of us, we got to try so many menu items. I tried shrimp, French dip, roast beef, regular fries and sweet potato fries with gravy, fried pickles, and bread pudding for dessert. The shrimp was really good--they were fried perfectly, but could have used more sauce--but the roast beef was the real winner. It was so tender it was falling apart; it was like having a pot roast dinner on a sandwich. If I ever get to go back, this is the sandwich I will order again. Other people also tried alligator sausage and surf and turf, but I skipped those. We also got to meet the chef, who had a fun accent and was so nice. The service here was also amazing--they were really busy, but they did not bat an eye or miss a step while dealing with 30+ food bloggers who were all taking a million pictures.

Although my co-blogger is writing an entry about our two delicious, multi-course dinners (and the awards ceremony), I do want to mention something else about our trip. I was blown away by all of the people we met. So many of the Chief Chowzters really are experts when it comes to food--many have been on TV shows or they are professional food writers. And all of them were so nice and friendly. Just a few of the fun bloggers we got to hang out with were Fiona from Boston, Tiffany from Niagra Falls, Drew (and his beautiful wife and baby) from Austin, Rachel from Dallas, Joe from Detroit, Lauren (and her adorable baby) from Washington D.C., Bradd and Kristy from Philadelphia, Shanna and Felice from Dallas, and Kim from New Orleans.  And now we have a big fat list of cities we want to visit and people who we want to show us all the best places to eat!


Domilise's Po-Boy & Bar on Urbanspoon

Killer Poboys on Urbanspoon

Parkway Bakery & Tavern on Urbanspoon

Monday, January 26, 2015


28 NE 28th Avenue
Happy Hour: 4 - 6 PM, daily

Disclaimer: Our food and drinks were complimentary, but--as always--all of our opinions are our own.

Tapalaya has been on my TOP FIVE happy hour list since the beginning of this blog. Our original reviews date back to the spring of 2010 and--after almost five years--Tapalaya still pulls ahead of so many other Portland establishments. That's pretty serious. We've been to hundreds of happy hours. So when they contacted us to try out their new menu, we made plans to be in as soon as possible.

While everyone's favorite Cajun & Creole dishes still appear, Chef Anh Luu has added an Asian twist to both the happy hour and dinner menus. No worries, they still offer Po'boys, Mac 'n' Cheese, and Jambalaya...but now they also have a Pork Belly Banh Mi, Boudin Egg Rolls, and a Crawfish Etouffee made with roasted chiles, lemongrass, and shrimp paste. The happy hour menu might look smaller than before, but that's only because so many of the sides are already available at such a discounted rate. And that's just one of the reasons why Tapalaya has always been on my list of favorites.

Although it can add up if you get too carried away, the concept of small plates is usually accompanied by small prices. At Tapalaya, I can easily fill up (whether I make it in before happy hour ends or not) without the worry of a hefty check. My favorite menu items--the ones I have ordered again and again--are all priced at four bucks and under.

With a new menu, however, I knew that I had to try something I hadn't already grown to love. I was a bit limited, though--being both a vegetarian and 38-weeks pregnant--so you'll have to wait for my cobloggers' perspectives to learn more about the fancy cocktails, the steamer clams, and the crawfish.

I did try the Mississippi Caviar ($3) made with black-eyed peas, bell peppers, red onions, and celery. It's dressed in a red wine vinaigrette and is a healthy addition to the meal (especially if you are like me and plan to follow it with Mac 'n' Cheese, Creamy Grits, and a Cornbread Muffin).

The Charred Brussels Sprouts were a favorite all around. Listed as a nightly special, these sprouts are halved, roasted, and topped with honey, chili & lime. It's the kind of recipe that might just change your opinion of the leafy green. I, however, have been a fan for years. It's all in the way you cook them. And next time I cook them, I'll probably be trying my best to recreate this same flavor combination. It was really quite addictive.

Although I had the chance to taste a few of the other plates served (the cornbread is a win every time and I especially enjoyed the texture of the stuffed mushrooms), the only other item I ordered that night was a small dish of the creamy grits. Included as an accompaniment to many other meaty entrees, these grits are available on the sides menu for just three bucks. Made with Bob's Red Mill stone-ground grits and topped with charred green onion butter, this dish is one that I could barely stop eating (and when you're 38-weeks pregnant, you're stomach doesn't have the capacity for overindulgence).

I loved everything about our most recent visit to Tapalaya (well, except the Hurricane...virgin Hurricanes are okay, but the real thing would have really made the meal) but it was the service that was most appreciated. Having witnessed that same genuine service at every table, it was obvious that this place really values their customers. And, based on the makeup of their clientele, it's clear that they value the whole family. (Yes, it's true. I will be focused on happy hours that accept small children from now on.)

With Mardi Gras just around the corner, it's probably a good time to start thinking about making reservations. The live music starts at six and there are still plenty of reservations available on Open Table. In addition to the festivities planned for Fat Tuesday, Tapalaya will be partnering with Breakside Brewery to host the second annual Lundi Gras. The special event includes a multi-course meal paired with five beers specially-curated for the dinner. Tickets are just $55 each and can be purchased through Eventbrite.

And if going out on a weeknight isn't your thing, make plans to stop in for brunch. Available on Fridays (yes, Fridays!), Saturdays, and Sundays from 9 AM until 3 PM, Tapalaya now offers a lengthy brunch menu, including a number of Benedicts and--my favorite--Beignets.

Food: Meets
Drinks: Meets
Service: Exceeds
Ambiance: Meets
Value: Exceeds


Tapalaya on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bazi Bierbrasserie

1522 SE 32nd Avenue
Happy Hour: 3 - 7 and 10 - close, Monday through Saturday

The three of us have been blogging about Portland's Happy Hours for more than five years. During that time, we've had three weddings, two pregnancies (only one month left and there will be two bloggin' babies), we've bought and sold houses, and we've taught hundreds of lessons to hundreds of students all while doing our best to keep up with this blog. This is post number 400. And although it's just another restaurant review, it feels like a pretty important milestone.

I've been to Bazi Bierbrasserie once before. I remember it well because it was my birthday and I was on a happy hour mission. Days later I flew to Washington, D.C. and returned just in time for the school year to begin. I got behind on blogging--really behind--and never finished the post. It's an awful feeling, leaving something unfinished, but I just didn't feel right about finishing the post without really remembering the experience. Now that I've been back, it's fresh.

Bazi is located just off of Hawthorne at SE 32nd Avenue. They are known quite well for their (what seems like an) endless list of fancy Belgian-inspired beers, but really the entire drink menu is extensive. It's a full-bar (and I do mean FULL), the wine list is just long enough, and the bier-cocktails were a big hit with my husband.

Happy Hour runs from 3 until 7 PM daily (although they are closed on Sundays until Spring) and again from ten until close. There are discounts on drinks--including a $5 cocktail of the day--and enough food options to make most anyone happen. As a vegetarian, I typically am left to pick between one or two items on a restaurant's happy hour menu. That's not the case at Bazi. Sure, they are not all healthy options...but there are enough meat-free items listed on the menu that I actually had a hard time making up my mind.

This time around, I enjoyed the Velgie Burger and an order of Flemish Frites. (I thought it was a typo at first, too. Unless they are big believers in copy and paste, that misspelling was completely intentional.) The Velgie Burger is a house-made lentil patty topped with a handful of greens, a mountain of fried leeks and comes sandwiched between a soft potato bun. I added a slice of Gruyere cheese. And after taking the first bite, I was especially thankful I had. Not just because it's Gruyere...but because lentil patties can be pretty soft. Without that cheesy top, I could have easily been wearing more of my meal than would have seemed possible.

The Flemish Frites are thin cut, tossed in sea salt, and served with a delicious aioli. The regular menu includes two other variations--the thin-cut fries tossed in truffle oil or the Street Frites, which are of a thicker cut. I had a hard time sharing these. It was a decently sized portion, but they were just too good to give up.

Also at the table was a plate of the Aged White Cheddar Mac and Cheese. With add-ons available, this macaroni and cheese (with a side salad, perhaps...or maybe a plate of Brussels Sprouts) would make for an excellent meal.

The Pork Belly Skewers, Spicy Grilled Shrimp, and an order of house-made deep fried Kale Chips rounded off the meal while--at the same time--giving us a really good sampling of all the menu had to offer. The shrimp seemed to be the favorite among the meat eaters but I was especially impressed with the kale chips. They honestly seemed to melt in my mouth.

Although they prefer cash and really appreciate limiting the number of credit cards at each table, the service at Bazi is pretty much right on target. The place was nearly empty at first (all but the bar, that is) but really picked up prior to kickoff--they've got quite the set up with a big screen and projector--and still our server was able to meet all of our needs.

Food: Meets
Drinks: Meets
Service: Meets
Ambiance: Meets (although it was a bit dark in there)
Value: Meets


Bazi Bierbrasserie on Urbanspoon

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Chowzter North American Award Nomination - Pip's Original

Chowzter is dedicated to finding the Tastiest Fast Feasts across the world and we Portlandians are so lucky to have many of them in our very own city. Included in this year's nominations for Tastiest Fast Feast is the Raw Honey & Himalayan Sea Salt Doughnut from Pip's Original Doughnuts, a locally-owned cafe in NE Portland serving made-to-order mini doughnuts and house-made chai. We were lucky to be able to sit down with the owners, Nate and Jamie Snell, to find out more about the story of Pip's.

Pip's started as a desire to fulfill Jamie's need for a larger kitchen space for her catering business, Lamb's Table Catering. The couple had found the perfect location--but there was one small catch. Using the space for a kitchen alone was not enough. Nate and Jamie would need to have a store front--something for the community, something that fit the Fremont vibe.

Thinking back on time spent in Seattle and a memorable first bite from a street vendor frying doughnuts on the spot, the couple settled on a concept. These street donuts were good, but it was the emotional tie to the trip and that first bite that really influenced the Snells to make a better version of these freshly made mini doughnuts. Nate and Jamie want to give their customers an emotional experience. They want their customers to remember that first bite just as they had. And they have succeeded! According to Nate, "Pip's receives love letters from across the country" from those who have sampled the deliciousness but live too far from Portland to return when the cravings hit. Nate also shared with us how much he loves watching the faces of the older generation light up when they come in and eat Pip's for the first, second, or even third time. They express that these doughnuts are just like the ones that had growing up--back when everything was made fresh--but have not been able to find again since childhood.

As I sat in Pip's, watching the line grow, the tables fill, and the plates of doughnuts disappear, I could see that it wasn't just about a mid-day sweet treat. These people were creating emotionally-tied memories. There were groups of friends chatting, young adults playing scrabble, little kids enjoying the collection of classic books, and a few times during our conversation Nate and Jamie paused to greet customers by name. As posted on their Facebook page, "Good doughnuts are good memories; Once eaten, never forgotten".

Nate and Jamie not only had the vision for Pip's but they built it! They drew up the plans, pulled the permits, and really built Pip's Original from the ground up. They did not get bank funding but instead used all of their savings. They wrote on their Facebook page, " We opened the doors completely broke, just hoping and praying that we would make enough money to be able to keep those doors open and our people paid. Because we had no money to go out and buy things to decorate the shop, almost everything decorating the shop is from our house, including the vintage chandelier". When Nate spoke with us he explained that, if it wasn't for friends and family, Pip's would not have opened. It took the entire village to see Pip's through, hence the name Pip's from Dickens' Great Expectations.

Once the counter was in place and the kitchen was fully functioning, Nate and Jamie started working on the delicious design of their doughnuts. It is Jamie's great sense of taste and masterful mixing of ingredients that creates the recipes for the doughnuts and the house-made Chai. We ordered the chai flight--which includes all five flavors--ranging from the very floral to the oh-so smokey and a little bit of everything in between. My favorite was the King and I, a slightly smokey yet sweet mixture, but my co-blogger goes for the Heart of Gold every time. The EmmyLou is decaffeinated while the rest are not and all can be made with whole, skim, soy, hemp, or almond milk.

Fun fact: the honey used at Pip's comes from the local NE Portland neighborhood near Pip's. The community rents out a piece of their backyard to house the bees and then the honey is collected from different homes around the neighborhood. How awesome is that? Again, this shows Nate and Jamie's commitment to community.

The made-to-order doughnuts are mini in size but gigantic in flavor! The menu currently offers Cinnamon Sugar, Nutella & Sea Salt, the Dirty Wu (named after a character on the Portland-based TV show Grimm), Candied Bacon & Maple, Pineapple-Bourbon, and the Raw Honey & Sea Salt. It's really hard to choose a favorite because they are all so very delicious but I can at least narrow it down to my top three. The Cinnamon Sugar might sound too simple but life's beauty often comes in the simplicity. It is the perfect combination of sweet and warm, soft crunch. I also love the Dirty Wu. It is their everything doughnut. It comes sprinkled with cinnamon and sea salt and drizzled with raw honey and Nutella. The Raw Honey & Himalayan Sea Salt doughnut--nominated for this year's Tastiest Bakery Item at the North American Chowzter Awards--melts in your mouth, giving you the joy of sweet and salty at the same time.

Family, friends, generosity, and excellence seemed to me to be the underlying creed of Pip's. They put family first. And they treat their employees as family. They take every opportunity to give back--through donations of money, goods, and time. In everything they do, they strive for excellence. As stated on their Facebook page, "We understand that excellence is a burden but it is one we will gladly bear because daily shouldering the burden of excellence is the only way to fight against the human tendency towards complacency and apathy. And hubris". As a part of their commitment to excellence, Nate and Jamie have worked hard to select the perfect ingredients (from the organic soy shortening used in the fryers to the locally-produced honey drizzled on top) and the best methods. Because Pip's doughnuts are made to order and flash fried at temperatures higher than you might expect, they are made to be eaten immediately. Take out is available, of course, but if you do take some cold Pip's doughnuts to a friend, you're actually doing them a disservice! Bring your friends to Pip's, sit down, and create some awesome memories together. For now, that's the best way to experience a mini made-to-order doughnut. Someday soon, however, Pip's will be on the go! The Pip's mobile is in the making and we can't wait to see it on the road.

We'll be in New Orleans for the 2015 North American Chowzter Awards later this week. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram for up-to-the-minute details about the event.