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Casual, Comfort Food in Portland

I love eating shit.

I mean, not actual shit, obviously. But I like eating non-fancy, good-old, probably-bad-for-you meals. These types of dishes are my safe place. They comfort me.

And nowadays, who doesn’t need a little comfort?

Pizza is probably my number one comfort food. A food I like to eat alone, a food I like to sit with and eat quickly, a food I like to eat on the couch while watching tv with my family, a food I like to take my time on— picking off the pepperoni and eating them first—a food that, even when I’m sad, is easy to eat and makes me feel good, however briefly. Pizza is great. I prefer it cold. But this isn’t a piece about pizza.

I also love eating fancy food. I do. I really, really do.

Fancy Portland French food? Sold. Crazy flavored intense-experience Thai food? Absolutely. Creative Middle-Eastern food served to a table stocked with different spices and hot sauces? Oh, please. Fancy-ass steaks that come complete with the cow’s biography, geography and mastication history? It’s what I do for my birthday. Locally sourced farm-to-table small plates with Spanish influences where the waitress knows what wine to bring you without you asking? Probably my favorite.

But fancy meals, they’re meant to be shared. They are an experience. Like going to an art opening or a play, you want to share them and talk about them with people you love. They serve as the decadent goal of all your hard work. They’re things you earn, things that add to who you are as a person—both metaphorically and physically. They’re not day-to-day things. They’re special. They should be.

Most meals, by the necessities of time and money, can’t be that way. Most meals are maintenance meals.

It’s lunch time, you’re hungry, you have to eat. Maybe you packed leftovers from the night before. Maybe you got it together enough to generate a Fluffernutter. For me, since I don’t ever have it that together, I eat at the closest cheap Thai place. Is it good? No, not really. Is it cheap and am I not hungry afterwards? Yup. Body maintained. Next meal.

Somewhere between maintenance meals and fancy dinners are the real shit meals. The casual meals that are something special.

Now these things may not be especially good for you, and may be things that might give you a little heartburn or hurt on the way down, but in a good way. These are the sweet-spot of meals.

There’s a handful of these meals in Portland that I really love, and, so here’s a list of just a few:

Shut Up and Eat

Broadstreet Bomber: Aka Cheesesteak, paired with an IPA.
Ask for both sweet and hot peppers.

This is my #1, I feel kinda crappy and I deserve a little treat food.

It is half a pound of thin sliced beef — and not cheap stuff, either—chipped and grilled with onions, cheddar, provolone, american and both hot and sweet peppers. The roll is a fresh, perfect texture and doesn’t fall apart from the weight of the sandwich. It’s perfect.

When I’m done eating it, I feel like I can’t move and want to nap.

Tienda & Taqueria Santa Cruz

Pastor Plate paired with a Tutifruti Jarritos.

Some people love their tacos, others their burritos.

I’m fine with both, of course, but the best way to truly enjoy the taqueria is to get a full plate. The pastor plate comes with rice, beans, a little guac and some shredded lettuce. It comes with hot tortillas wrapped in paper; they stay warm and there’s enough to make about six or seven of your own tacos.

You go over to their salsa bar and shovel on their avocado sauce and, if you’re lucky, because they only have it sometimes, some chunky, chile de arbol oil. It’s a dream.

The rush of hot sauce making me sweat a little combined with the salt on the pork make me a little euphoric. When I go there by myself, I twinge a little with a near-intense guilt—I imagine it’s as close as I’ll ever come to cheating on my wife.

Fire on the Mountain, Interstate Location

A dozen Buffalo Lime Cilantro wings, but not one of their beers.

My grandparents lived in the apartment downstairs from me as a kid. Which meant I ate meals there, pretty much every night from 3rd grade on. I love my grandmother, but she, admittedly, was a horrible, horrible cook. Her idea of pasta was 10¢ ramen with the flavor packet promptly put in the trash. I don’t know how she did it, but she managed to blanch every ounce of flavor out of any chicken she ever touched.

It got to the point where if I knew it was going to be chicken, I’d find an excuse to stay over a friend’s and eat dinner there.

So growing up, I didn’t like chicken. I just assumed it was all either this gross, wet, tough mess, or it was McNuggets. There was nothing else.

My first week of college I met a cute girl in my freshman class who was vegetarian. And as Jules in Pulp Fiction put it, that pretty much made me a vegetarian, too. So that was it. No chicken for me until I dropped my vegetarianism some 16 years later.

Which is all to say, I never had buffalo wings. Not until I was, like, 35.

It’s weird to retroactively miss something you never tried, but I do.

Fire On The Mountain makes great buffalo wings. They have 12 different sauces and I’ve tried them all. Their lime cilantro is the best.

Pizza Jerk

Eggplant Parm sandwich, paired with a fountain root beer.

Wait, wait, wait. I bet you’re one of those people who says “I don’t like Eggplant.” Well, you’re wrong. Really. Hear me out:

You’ve never had a good eggplant parm before.

That’s the number one reason I think most people don’t like it. Eggplant parms are not easy. They’re not. Eggplant isn’t forgiving. Most eggplant parms aren’t good. They’re too soggy. Or they’re too hard.

And maybe you had some weird eggplant dish at your Aunt’s house. I don’t know. I don’t know why people feel so hurt and offended by eggplants. I do know this 🍆 emoji-as-penis business doesn’t help at all.

But Eggplant parms are awesome.

And Pizza Jerk makes the best one in town.

As a bonus, they recently added a crazy spice dish to each table—featuring a hot oil that’s delicious, among other things. So if you’re looking to go big and go parm, I’ll meet you there.

Burgers? I’ve had a few.

Burgers kinda need their own 600 word essay, but I’m running out of steam as it is. So, here’s my hot take, pun intended.

There are two great, local, satisfying casual burgers spots in Portland: Tilt and Killer Burger. I’ll go to either almost any time I want a burger. And I waffle (fry) back and forth between which is better.

Killer Burger’s Jose Mendoza burger is hard to top. It’s a juicy patty topped with house-roasted green chilies, bacon, Monterey Jack, grilled onions, & pickles. I skip their Smokey House Sauce, because it’s not for me, but if you’re a sauce person, top it on. Comes with free fries for $9.75

Tilt’s Double Bacon Cheeseburger costs a bit more ($11) and doesn’t come with fries, but does have twice the meat and is very, very satisfying. I find the meat, cheese and bread alone are all perfect. Doesn’t really need other toppings. They have a “Mad Andy” that’s similar to the Jose Mendoza, but they use jalapeños instead of house-roasted hatch chillies, so it isn’t nearly as flavorful.

True Comfort? Forget Lunch, Have Pie

Tilt has one unfair advantage over Killer Burger: Pies.

Tilt has some of the best pies in Portland. Second, I think only to Random Order. They’ve got multiple creams and fruit pies on hand all the time. I’m not a big chocolate person, but even I love their chocolate cream pie.

And, when it comes down to it, if you find yourself needing comfort food, if you need to leave work during lunch and go somewhere by yourself and have something that’ll take your mind off things and make you feel better for a little while, then, well, if you need that maybe you should skip lunch.

Because if there’s a food that actually defines what a comfort food should be, it’s pie. So, have a slice or two of pie. I’ll join you.

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