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Rostra rating: 4
We are all immigrants and many of us are refugees, but regardless of origin we all need a local within staggering distance of our humble abodes. After a two and a half year reconnaissance in force, Team Mago transferred our flag from extreme Northwest Montucky to Portland’s Richmond neighborhood. We miss our local at Home Ranch Bottoms near Polebridge but not the ten mile drive home on a road that resembles a dry river bed four months out of the year, a full one for two, and a frozen one for six.
The economics of scarcity, however, are turned inside out in the Division/Clinton corridor. Local establishments occupy a very congested and competitive niche in this quadrant of the Rose City gastronomic ecosystem that requires its own categorization schema–locals can be divided into week day, weekend, brunch, early happy hour, late happy hour, dive, upscale, booze focused, food centric, etc.
MagoGuide located American Local with our proprietary WAWHAT (that would be walking around while hungry and thirsty) algorithm. This radical approach eschews both social media and professional reviews–sources that are simultaneously skewed toward inflated ratings and infected with trolls and other malignant manifestations of “the wisdom of crowds.”
So we wandered into American Local because it looked like a local.
Most people seem to form first impressions of a restaurant based on decor, noise level, seating density, or number of patrons. Me, I go right for the napkins. I do not know why the humble serviette is such a useful culinary talisman, but it tends to be. The American Local sports beautiful snowy white, lightly starched, and no frills folded cloth napkins.
The rest of the space ain’t bad either. The ubiquitous concrete floor (is there a Portland restaurant style guide?) is surmounted by a blessedly enclosed ceiling with recessed lighting and suspended red lantern trios (it’s nice to find a local without exposed horizontal pipage intersected by vertical tendrils of hanging naked filament lightbulbs). The blond wood bar and chef’s counter are particularly nice touches that facilitate robust bar tender interrogations and chef pestering sessions, respectively (we need Big Data to feed our WAWHAT algorithm after all). There is also a touch of whimsy to be found at American Local in the form of two hobbit height swivel stools at the bar and a similarly equipped bench on the west wall. The atmosphere is rounded out with floor-to-almost-ceiling windows that fully open to outside picnic tables on Division.
Our WAWHAT algorithm noted the eclectic mix of clientele ranging from aging boomers through foodie hipsters to young millennial families with babies and leashed dogs at the outside picnic tables as positive confirmation of a Richmond local.
Co-owner Jenny Nickolaus handles the front of the house with a slightly throttled back joie de vivre that is as infectious as it is rare in long-term culinary professionals who have to deal with the dining public in person and on-line pretty close to 24 x 7. Jenny’s secret, well one of them anyway, is that she fights back against trolls and other negative reviewers. It is extremely entertaining to read her replies to bad reviews on [insert lame social media sites here] while enjoying your first drink.
I have long felt that culinary pros waste way too much time dealing with negative social media; after all they could be working on new recipes, revamped cocktails, or actually nabbing some REM sleep. But American Local is a darling of both professional reviewers and social wannabes, and while a lot of those accolades owe to superior cuisine, MagoGuide has to concede that Jenny’s pro-active defense seems to work (and I would bet that it is great way to let off a little steam).
The food end of things is covered by Jenny’s partner Chef Chris Whaley, a culinary refugee from Las Vegas, NYC, and San Francisco. His menu at American Local is a product of his restaurant history leavened with large doses of road food garnered from his and Jenny’s years of gastro-migration. I was slightly dubious about the sub-genre of New West Drinking Food, but I now possess the zeal of a convert to this quasi Asian-themed, locally sourced, small plates cuisine. This very rapid, first visit conversion owes in large part to the fact that Nikolaus and Whaley are, as their website proudly proclaims, ” fellow travelers of the American West.”
American Local is the kind of place that serves the kind of food you want to eat before embarking on a long trip abroad or after you return, when you yearn for consistently superlative yet unpretentious food and familiar ambience. Tourists will almost certainly enjoy a meal at their establishment, or face Jenny’s justifiable wrath, but American Local’s backbone clientele are drawn from the Richmond neighborhood and traveling locals like TeamMago.
Patrons are greeted with hot towels and a New West amuse-gueule. The towels continued to play on my “you will know the restaurant by its napkins theme,” while the no nonsense roasted chickpeas will put you off corn nuts forever while giving Andy Ricker’s peanuts served at the nearby Whisky Soda Lounge a run for their money. I also like the haute jelly jar glasses that contain the fruits of the three taps devoted to beer. The other taps flow with red and white wine as well as Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo sake. Like any genuine local, the tap and wine lists reflect a parochial instinct for 1) Portland, 2) Oregon, and 3) Pacific Northwest (nota bene: this type of parochialism is a good thing).
Mago Tip: If you are decibel shy or want time to chat in a leisurely fashion with the professional, friendly, and very knowledgeable wait staff, go fairly early on a week night. During weekend peak times, even the enclosed ceiling does not dampen the noise and both the front of the house and the kitchen are in constant motion.
Unlike most locals, American Local has a chef’s counter and a great one at that. TeamMago spent a couple very pleasant hours watching Chef Whaley’s team deal with a ticket tidal wave on a slammed Saturday over Memorial Day weekend. The five man line operating in a rather tight setting reminded Patti of Cal Pep, the iconic old school Barcelona taperia where the wait is often longer than the meal. That goes for the food too, but Chef Whaley has a different modus operandi than Chef Pep. While Pep operates on the extreme left flank of his line, Whaley posts up in the middle at the pass with the sous chef and garde manger positions to his left and the grillardin (piano and grill) and the friturier (flat top and fryolator) positions to his right.
Chef Whaley spent a lot of time head down in the tickets and other kitchen desiderata like a football coach with his lamented list of set plays, but communication up and down the line was excellent and both Whaley and his sous pivoted to tournant duties as required. I never saw a dish sent back nor an errant refire, and there was zero kitchen drama that I could discern.
Another nice thing about American Local is that the plates for each dish are stacked on the counter so that one can see the details of the plating process once the food is cooked. Evidently some thought went into this arrangement, because the plates are divided into stacks low enough to still offer a great view of the entire line (what after all is the point of a chef’s counter if you put machines and equipment between the diners and the cooks as a non-trivial number of Portland restaurants do?).
The culinary choreography of American Local’s line was a joy to watch while we inhaled its products, but we want to give a special MagoGuide shout out to Jackson, who anchored the line with some serious moves to include a heroic save when a hamburger patty went for a brief dunk in the fryolator. Jackson also had oven duties, which he handled with aplomb and the use of a small kitchen timer (as a result, I am no longer ashamed of my fanatical use of digital timers at home). He also plied an instant read thermometer like a rapier in producing perfectly cooked, crispy-yet-juicy fried chicken. And somehow Jackson still found time to grate fresh wasabi for each dish requiring it just prior to plating. Bravo, dude.
The jewel box menu is composed of 28 dishes across four non-conformist categories: fish (mostly raw or smoked), veggies (mostly not vegan), sticks (mainly proteins with fish brought in for a second act), and comfort (predominantly the road food repository). Below are my notes on the best dishes (as in everything we have ordered) so far.
Hawaiian albacore tuna tartare, sesame cone and spicy miso: very pretty plating-without-pretension presentation (this observation goes for most of Whaley’s creations). The tuna was a largish dice of very fresh albacore aggressively seasoned with miso and heat. The sesame take on a hand roll was both playful as well as delicious in its own right, more like a semi-savory ice cream cone–a great crunch foil for the tuna.
Monterey Bay squid skewer with preserved lemon, chile-garlic and mint: OMG. Perfectly grilled small fresh squid with an amazing combo of samphire (sea beans), mint, killer chili garlic sauce, and preserved lemon that added a hit of acid perking up the samphire’s vegetal salty goodness. All of these culinary rifs played together on top of a deep squidy terroir (how is that for a gastro-oxymoron?). This is the dish that made me believe in New West Drinking Food. Please chef, can I have another?
Smoked pork belly and potato croquette with Calabrian chile aioli: Best. Croquettes. Ever. This ain’t hype, dude. TeamMago are stone Pavlovians for croquettes. We have eaten them all over Spain and Sicily (where they are called fried béchamel and are delicious). I can’t really say that Chef Whaley’s versions are the prettiest croquettes I have ever ingested, but they are the best. The contrast between the 2-to-4 millimeter shell and the interior is a gastronomic example of the golden mean; and that smoked pork belly permeating the velvety spuds plus the Calabrian chili aioli made my taste buds dance.
Korean rice cake skewer wrapped with guanciale and served with tonkatsu sauce: I have long sought a rice cake treatment that addressed their gluey chewiness, which can turn even well-executed Korean dishes a bit stodgy. The answer should have been obvious, apply pig candy for flavor and mouth feel. Chef Whaley’s approach utilized guanciale and an earthy BBQ-like sauce for a very nice result, but it could use a little tweaking viz. thicker slices of guanciale (or maybe smaller diameter rice cakes) and more heat in the sauce.
House cut fries with special sauce: a solid B. I hope that I do not earn Jenny’s ire for a less than stellar score on American Local’s fries, but while perfectly cooked, they did not quite taste right to me. They reminded me of fries cooked in peanut oil, which is the devil’s very own handiwork for pommes frites. Our extremely friendly and helpful waitress informed me that American Local’s were fried in rice bran oil. While such a medium has the laudable outcome of avoiding the GMO blues, I am unrepentantly old school when it come to fried taters, precious, and that means that they need to be cooked in a very neutral oil or, even better, lard, tallow, or duck/goose fat. Now before Jenny goes all Soup Nazi on MagoGuide, let me hasten to add that this is a split decision. Patti thought that the fries were just fine and said that they reminded her of carnival and state fair fries from her youth in Arkansas (where they grow lots of rice). We both thought that the special sauce rocked.
Falafel with a snap pea salad and English pea hummus: the line’s fryolator skills were once again on display with that crispy/smooth exterior/interior dynamic that produced those killer croquettes. The pea tendril and shell salad and vibrant green pea hummus spiked with jalapeños crushed it.
Cumin roasted carrots with avocado, yogurt, cilantro, and seeds: Oh carrots are divine, you get a dozen for a dime, it’s magic. They fry, a song begins; they roast and I hear violins, it’s magic. Chef Whaley’s take on Bugs Bunny’s faves are roasted to bring out their natural sweetness and then finished on the stovetop in a very hot pan. They emerge from the skillet redolent of cumin with crunch and salt supplied by roasted pepitas. Whaley’s attention to detail continues with cilantro spiked yogurt that imparts an amazing yet subtle mouthfeel to the dish. Even the usually gratuitous avocado isn’t.
Black cod skewer with fresh wasabi and tare: This dish would grace any “real” izakaya. As cultural appropriations go, it was fantastic (and I mean that in a very, very good way). The delicate cod was grilled to perfection and then served with a bracing hit of a’ minute grated wasabi and a silky, salty thickened soy sauce.
Crispy fried chicken with hot sauce and lemon: Note to Doug Adams, this is how you do boneless fried chicken–see Imperial: the Emperor has no Clothes–and you still have time to try it many times before Bullard opens in 2018. Whaley’s superb minimalist breading reminded me of my grandmother’s fried chicken, which she fried on the bone in bacon grease. In fact, with the exception of the fries, I have to admit that rice bran oil does a great job with everything else the line cooks throw in the fryolator at American Local. The hot sauce rocked (again, again).
Ice cream sundae: A classic composed of bespoke strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla ice cream served with large waffle cone shards and hunks of “candy bar,” a baked concoction of cocoa nibs and other candy bar ingredients that are a bitch to break up with a spoon but really give the dish a luxurious crunchy texture. With chocolate and caramel syrup drizzled on for the sake of wretched excess, this is most definitely not your mother’s sundae. The portion is huge, so two or even three should split this homage to a classic American dessert, but I warn you that you will end up fighting tooth and nail over the candy bar chunkage.
Bottom Line: While we might well join Sam Gamgee’s gaffer at Lompoc’s Hedge House for a pint of proper 1420, overdose on wings at Whisky Soda Lounge, or wash down moules and frites with way too much Belgian beer at La Moule, we are inclined to view American Local as our go to local’s local.