The redoubtable Besaws has been forced to close. Although we hope that it will eventually relocate in the neighborhood, an evil alliance of developers and lawyers are even fighting over their name, so who knows? Where do the hip folks of NW Portland go for breakfast now? MagoGuide heartily endorses Stepping Stone Café located a mere biscuit’s toss away on NW Quimby. Indeed, Stepping Stone staff has long considered Besaws its “NW breakfast partners in crime,” and posted a very gracious tribute to that century-plus institution on their Facebook page when Besaws was forced to close and lay off most of its staff.
Stepping Stone Cafe
Telephone: (503) 222-1132
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Rostra rating: 3.5
Now that’s all well and good, but Team Mago does not wear its heart on its sleeve; we reserve that space for our taste buds. We hate what happened to Besaws and we will support and review their reincarnation, but the truth of the matter is that head-to-head Stepping Stone always served a better breakfast than Besaws ever did. Honest to Addephagia, this diner delivers.
I love the ambiance at Stepping Stone, from the Christmas tree balls suspended from the stained ceiling and connected to the door by fishing line so that they bob every time someone enters, to the condensation of their culinary attitude into the motto “You eat here because we let you.” Then there is the music. I cannot remember the last time I had breakfast accompanied by The Band’s Rock of Ages, but it was definitely in the vinyl age.
Like that classic album, the key to a great breakfast is the backing; in the case of The Band, a killer horn section and for Stepping Stone estimable hash browns, biscuits, and sausage gravy. Good hash browns are rare, great hash browns are an art form, and Stepping Stone has some maestros on the line. The crust is a couple millimeters of exquisite crunchitude that gives way to a wonderfully soft latkes-like interior. And they look great on the plate, which is not the case with Stepping Stone’s biscuits. They look like a beginner’s first try, but if you can get past that and taste one, it really delivers in terms of flavor. The sausage gravy is exemplary; you can really tell that some one took the time to make a genuine flour-based gravy as opposed to the vile glue one finds in many diners, even good ones.
Surprisingly, the only outlier in Stepping Stone’s supporting breakfast cast is the toast. Team Mago’s experience is that you have to fight to get the toast right, otherwise it shows up pallid and pale. Or you could be Adam Richman, whose toast looks nice and brown on his 2008 Man v. Food Portland episode. Personally, Team Mago would rather just ask nicely for browner toast when placing an order.
My personal introduction to Stepping Stone was the smothered badass (how could you not eat something called that?). Purists might protest at whacking up an amazing chicken fried steak and then engorging a three-egg omelet with it as well as those wonderful hash browns, jalapenos, onions, and then inundating the monster in a lake of great gravy, but the result is amazing. Formalists can always order a traditional chicken fried steak and eggs, which comes close to the Platonic ideal in its own right.
Stepping Stone actually deploys three menus, the ginormous regular, a list of a half dozen specials posted at tables and counter, and the daily black board specials behind the bar. The specials list contains huevos rancheros, the archetype of bad breakfast offerings. Whenever I order them, Patti always fixes me with her patented spousal gaze and informs me that I am going to be grumpy all day. But Stepping Stone does a very creditable job on this unexpectedly finicky preparation, garnishing over-easy eggs and fresh tortillas with killer black beans, lots of avocado, cheese, and red and white salsas. You can goose this dish to any level of heat you desire with either or both the Tabasco and Cholula bottles that adorn every table. My only complaint is that the huevos did not contain any meat–a minor sin that could be alleviated with the addition of chorizo, which should be an option (as it is with Stepping Stone’s nachos and quesadilla).
The best blackboard daily special I have had so far is the Monte Cristo breakfast sandwich made with French toast and served with two over-easy eggs on top. Pure maple syrup can be added for a pittance (as in $1.50; all prices are quite reasonable at Stepping Stone, especially given the huge portion sizes of everything). If you do not mind scaling Mount Cholesterol first thing in the morning, it is a wonderful way to start your day. The diners at the next table had no such qualms. In fact, when my Monte Cristo arrived, they cursed their inattention to the black board while openly debating the wisdom of ditching their half finished choices and starting all over.
And what about those famous mancakes that Richman could not finish because he had to run off and fry his palate into asphalt with habanero fritters? Well, just this once mind you, MagoGuide has to agree with that binging misogynist. These monsters are superior flapjacks with a light, sweet batter that is perfectly griddled.
Mago Tip: order a single mancake for a table of three or four and share it along with your other entrees as a breakfast dessert.
Normally, I would wax rhapsodic concerning Stepping Stone’s plentiful supply of draft beer, decent plonk, and booze, but it’s Portland after all, where only the absence of such would be cause for remark. Did I mention that they are open until 3AM on Fridays and Saturdays and otherwise open at 6AM except on the weekend? For those that still can (and by Dionysius I sure wish that included Team Mago, but sadly it does not), this makes Stepping Stone the perfect place to stave off or nurse a hangover. In any event, Stepping Stone—a mere stripling at 67 years of age—can easily satisfy the hungry hordes until Besaws is reincarnated and returns to their breakfast partnership.
Here are some more photos of the Stepping Stone menu.