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Rostra rating: 3.5
One of the highlights of Team Mago’s week away from wild fire, smoke, and the denizens of our little corner of the North American Redoubt is that Short Round is finally open. The Fish Sauce sibling has been in the works for at least a year with foodie media predictions of an opening cropping up with fake news frequency since last fall. Before we decamped for Outer Montucky in July, I made a point of walking past the work in progress every week or so to gauge the progress for myself.
By late August we had developed such a serious jones for decent Vietnamese cuisine that Team Mago voted unanimously (a very, very rare event by the way) to visit Short Round within hours of our return to Rip City.
Short Round’s decor looks for all the world like the winning results of a Food TV challenge to build a bar/restaurant out of a bunch of flat screen TVs, particle board packing crates, a load of 1 by 12s, ten gallons of black and grey paint, several cases of LED bulbs, and an electric drill. The space itself is severely linear and quite dark (no–as in none–lights on the black ceiling), lending it a divey ambiance that will need several years of hard use to come into its own. Until then, it has a frugal yet brand spanking new appeal that stops just shy of a fresh paint and recently sawed planking fragrance. The bar and kitchen is an arresting amalgam of sports bar meets small Vietnamese grocery, just the place to while away the generous afternoon happy hour or indulge in a night cap or three at its late night counterpart.
The chef’s counter, however, is a serious disappointment. MagoGuide knows from long experience that the open kitchen at Fish Sauce provides some of the best seats in the house, and that could have been the case at Short Round except that no effort has been wasted in piling up dishes, equipment, utensils, etc. to block the narrow view of the line between the counter below and the open can and bottled goods storage above the already narrow aperture. Non-bar/counter seating is confined to combinable four tops along the opposite wall as well as a couple picnic tables fronting noisy Hawthorne Blvd. Unlike Fish Sauce, however, Short Round is really designed as an inside venue, and as such it is a real addition to the northern marches of Portland’s Richmond neighborhood.
Like Fish Sauce, the staff at Short Round are exemplary. We had a wonderful time with our server Kaleb, who not only knew his way around unusual and unfamiliar menu items, but also was quick to reassure us that the demise of Fish Sauce due to a recent fire was greatly exaggerated. It turns out that the blaze was confined to the exterior of the building and the damage to the electrical systems was quickly repaired. Fish Sauce reopened, according to Kaleb, on August 21.
Except in terms of proximity to each other, Short Round is to Fish Sauce what Whiskey Soda Lounge is to Pok Pok. The menu borders on the exotic with offerings like balut and file fish jerky, but it also has about about a 42% overlap with Fish Sauce’s offerings. Here are the detailed tasting notes from our first (but definitely not our last) visit:
Anchovies: definitely a non-mediterranean prep, composed of dried neonata anchovy sprat loosely glued together with walnuts and peppitas in a sticky, shweeeeet/salty umami sauce.
Pan fired sticky rice cake filled with pork belly and mung bean: Vietnamese pork and beans turned out to be great drinking food enhanced by the inclusion of totally killer, acid and umami drenched, crunchy pickles that even Kaleb could not identify until we sent him back to the kitchen several times, where he learned that it was pickled daikon. However, these pickles were nothing like the sweet pickled daikon used on several other dishes, hmmmm. This dish would have been even better with some more integral heat, but spiking it with other Vietnamese condiments is always a work around at Short Round.
Vermicelli noodles topped with with crispy rolls, lettuce, cucumber, pickled (sweet) daikon and carrots, bean sprouts, scallion oil, crushed peanuts, and roast pork. This classic dish was a bit heavy on iceberg lettuce and bean sprouts, while the rolls are a solid but rather pedestrian B. The pig was just fine, but in addition to adjusting the ingredient mix there needs to be more of an umami hit to really juice this dish.
Steamed veggies: it’s all about the curry dipping sauce, which rocks. Otherwise the baby boc choy, carrots, and cauliflower (vice the cabbage listed on the menu) were quickly steamed to remain crunchy as well as flavorful. The tofu really needed the curry dipping sauce, of which you should ask for extra in order to employ it on other dishes (see below).
Salt and pepper calamari: flat out amazing–incrediblely fresh squid flash fried in a tempura-like batter.
Mago Tip: order extra curry dipping sauce with your veggies, because it is even better with the salt and pepper squid.
Korean seafood cocktail: waaay good kimchi-flavored sauce over cold yet perfectly cooked prawn, squid, octopus, and two veggie spears; a really nice summer bite.
Fish sauce wings were not Pok Pok crack and would improve greatly with more heat. Perhaps the Chojang vinaigrette or the lemon grass variants are better. We’ll let you know.
There is far less overlap between Short Round and its mother ship when it comes to alcohol. The house cocktail list contains no overlap with Fish Sauce (even an eponymous mixed drink failed to cross the Willamette). The frozen watermelon margarita and blue Hawaiian tanks churning away behind the bar were quite welcome on a hot evening. There are double the number of taps to be found at Short Round viz-z-viz Fish Sauce to include cider, and all wine except prosecco and sake are draft as well (all six of them). And they have Rainier pounders, which is a very nice break from the ubiquitous PBR.
Short Round’s kitchen was still working out the kinks in its cuisine when we descended on it in the dog daze of a Rose City summer, but it shows great promise. By fall Team Mago is confident that Fish Sauce’s beachhead will be secured in Southeast Portland and enlivening the growing drinking food culinary space.
Mago Update: As predicted, Short Round’s food is improving nicely. On our most recent visit, the crispy rolls had improved to an A-, while the kitchen had significatnly tightened up the pan fired sticky rice cake filled with pork belly and mung bean, making it even more a worthy foil for those funky pickles. The soy sauce geoduck was a revelatory umami grenade with sweet notes and crunchy veggies complementing the chewy fishy goodness that can only emanate from something shaped like a mule’s schwanzstucker. Meanwhile, the kalbi barbecued beef was emblematic of the genre. Service was friendly and informative–as in our waitress informed us that she had not and would not be trying the balut any time soon–although she did seem to know exactly how one imbibes a fetal chicken from observing other clientele partaking. Team Mago will be back, if not for balut then for the squid muchim, which was temporarily missing in action.