There are people, die-hard foodies, who will willingly stand in line for an hour or two for a table at a popular restaurant. And not because the place is hip, cool, the place to be seen, but because the food is that good. At Portland’s Tasty and Alder, the breakfast/brunch line starts forming half-an-hour before the doors open, mostly with locals who know the food is worth the wait. And it is.
Location: 580 SW 12th St., at the corner of Alder, in Downtown Portland, Oregon
Menu: It calls itself an American steakhouse, but it is far more than that. Essentially, the menu is eclectic and fun. Look for seasonal, locally sourced food prepared in creative and eclectic ways. Creative brunch dishes you haven’t seen elsewhere, with outsider touches like potatoes cooked in duck fat, polenta with pork shoulder and belly and chicken and mozzarella, all topped with an egg.
At dinner, meat is the star: Steaks from Japanese wagyu kaburi to gaucho ribeye; apple-brined pork chops; seafood from cedar plank salmon to grilled octopus to scallops, or a bone marrow board. It’s basically dress-up food in a casual setting.
Thoughts: My first word to describe the food that comes out of the kitchen at Tasty and Alder is… fun. Fun and unexpected. Combinations I never would have thought of. My next word is…revelation. Who would have thought that frying French fries is Wagyu lard would make all the difference? Or that a perfect six-minute egg chopped onto radicchio with thick-cut bacon lardons and manchego cheese would turn into the best salad I’ve ever eaten in my life? Or that grilled broccolini with salsa macha, crema, and lime could make a wonderful meal almost by itself?
Chef/creator John Gorham knew all that, of course. His innovative mixing of ingredients reminds me of watching contestants on “Chopped,” who are presented with a basket of odd and usually mismatched ingredients from which to create a well-balanced dish. Calling himself a “chef of the people,” Chef Gorham uses a lifetime of travels and years of working with immigrants, bringing all these global influences into the kitchen to create genuinely international cuisine.
And it works, magnificently. I was first taken to Tasty and Alder for a business brunch. Now you should know that Portlanders are ga-ga crazy about brunch. It’s like a contact sport, so passionate can they become. And Tasty and Alder is mentioned regularly in those “Best of…” lists for their brunch. So it was the perfect introduction to the place. I went back later for dinner, but that brunch still sticks in my mind.
One of the first things they tell you when you get the menu is that dishes are meant for sharing, sort of tapas-style. I love that since it’s basically a socially acceptable reason to taste food on another person’s plate. Everyone gets to try everything.
The concept at Tasty and Alder is that dishes are not only to be shared but that service is what they call “family style.” What that means in practice is that dishes come out of the kitchen when they’re ready, not in any expected order. Once you understand that going in, it can make for a delightful meal. A dish comes out, you divide it up, and everyone focuses on savoring that dish to the fullest. Then another comes out when it’s ready and you repeat. But if you’re someone who wants and expects every dish on the table at the same time, in the “proper” order, you’re likely to be disappointed.
We started our brunch with banana walnut bread spread with house-made cajeta and seared foie gras. This turned out to be a magical combination. The sweetness of the bread and cajeta, the silkiness of the foie gras—it was marvelous. We decided we needed to try the fried chicken biscuit sandwich, because we heard it was “their thing.” Picture an airy, fluffy biscuit as big as your hand, with just the right amount of crust on it, cut in half. Add a slice of good cheddar, then a fried chicken breast, then a fried egg and the biscuit top. I immediately saw why they are famous for this thing.
We also shared a Tasty Hangtown Fry, an open-faced omelet with fried oysters, house-cured bacon lardons and another buttermilk biscuit. One member of our group ordered the Korean fried chicken. It comes with rice, house kimchee, and eggs two ways. I’m not a fan of spicy food and this was very spicy, so I passed but my companions raved about it.
Other items on the brunch menu that looked tempting and I’d love to try were the pork schnitzel with a sunny side up egg, ham, havarti, and mustard braised cabbage; butternut squash ricotta gnudi with oyster mushrooms and delicata squash; and the cast iron frittata with sunchoke, mushrooms, gruyere, onion and walnut pistou.
On the “Sweeter” side of the menu, I’d like to try the lemon ricotta pancakes with blueberry syrup. And the chocolate potato donuts! And one day I will return just to have the chocolate malt milkshake and fries. I’ll sit by myself at the counter, and nibble and slurp away and no one will think me weird. Or they will, but then Portlanders are expected to be weird.
When I returned for my second visit to Tasty and Alder, it was for an early dinner. We began our meal with a house specialty, the hand-cut steak tartare with pickled mustard seeds, ramp aioli, and onion ash. Raw beef can be chancy, but this was simply perfect, flavorful and fresh. We also shared that radicchio salad that should be called “ricidulous” radicchio, because it is so ridiculously wonderful.
From the list of meats and sea, we shared am Iberico pork skirt steak with hazelnut romesco and sherry glaze and the cedar plank salmon with salsa verde. The fish was perfect, with a nice smoky char and a flaky and moist interior.
So now the trick is how to get a table at a place so popular. Remember what I said about standing in line? Alder and Tasty does not take reservations (except for large groups), and they are crazy popular. Expect to wait. A long time. But there are ways around that, especially good to know in Oregon’s rainy season…which is about 7 months of the year.
Here’s the trick for breakfast/brunch: Get there at least half an hour before the 9 am opening. Pop into the café across the street, order a coffee, and sit by the window where’s it’s warm and dry. As soon as the first couple of people show up to get in line, go join them. As long as you’re in the first batch of people when the door opens, you’ll get a table right away.
Between the end of brunch and the beginning of dinner, the dining room is closed. Only the bar remains open, but it does have a decent menu for a light mid-afternoon meal.
For dinner, try this. Any time after brunch service closes down, stop by and put your name on the list for the first dinner seating. Wander off and enjoy checking out downtown Portland, a pretty happening place. The (deservedly) famous Powell’s Bookstore is just five minutes away, and if you’re anything like me, you can happily kill a few hours roaming the miles of shelves.
Shortly before dinner service begins at 5:30, head back to the restaurant and you will be promptly seated. If you’d rather eat a bit later, show up at the door an hour or more before your desired meal time and put your name on the list. They’ll take your phone number. Again, you’re free to wander off, though not too far afield. When your table is close to being ready, they’ll send you a message to hightail it back.
Finally, it’s generally possible to get a seat in the bar. They do full service at brunch and dinner, so you can often get served quickly. And if you are dining solo, you can sit at the counter facing the open kitchen, with hardly ever any wait.
The room at Tasty and Alder is airy, with large wrap-around windows and lots of wood. The high ceiling has that industrial look that seems to be de rigueur in Portland these days: exposed wood beams, pipes and ductwork, and even the black paper-wrapped insulation. White lamps hang from pipes. The bar lines one wall, with the most extravagant range of liquor I’ve ever seen outside a liquor store. When the room is full—which is all the time—it can be noisy. There are tables outside on the sidewalk for nice weather.
Price Range: Prices fall into the usual range for food at this level in Portland. At brunch, you’ll pay $8-15 for dishes on the “smaller” list, such as quiche Lorraine, patatas bravas, or a Merguez sausage omelet. Various cheese and charcuterie boards are $12-21. The biscuit sandwich is $12; other sandwiches and burgers are $16-18. Main dishes are $15-19 with steaks going from $20 up to $42 for the gaucho rib-eye.
At dinner, starters are $7-19, meat dishes are $17-38, fish and seafood $17-31. Sides are $5-10.