Part of the GangIt’s that Meatapalooza Friday Following That Eatapalooza Thursday.Thanks to the six other hungry souls (with one missing in action) who braved that nasty freezing wind and those other unpleasant coldnesses to join me in eating fatty BBQed meaties a day after everyone’s favorite November holiday for gorging (unless you are really big on Veteran’s Day, of course.) It was certainly the highlight of my extended weekend.

And thank you Russell St. gang for listening to me endlessly prattle on about my new digital camera, which I had braved intense shopper insanity to purchase that very Black Friday in hopes of regularly livening up this blog with pithy photography. I know I probably got a tad carried away, frantically prancing around the table forcing my camera in front of your food, and taking those pictures of the gum under the table and the server’s ear hair, but you just never know what will become that special shot. So thanks for putting up with me, especially since I barely know how to use this contraption and had only taken about eight photos before I unleashed myself at Russell Street. It was nice hearing peoplMore of the Gange’s holiday stories, Brian and his dinner of multitudes with the free flowing liquor, Grace getting up at 2:00 am to brave mall craziness with her two under age five daughters, (Daddy Frank still cozily asleep at home in bed,) and Tori and Dave, often our most colorful couple, with their enchanting tale of seeing their host’s holiday table start to burn up before their eyes, and everyone frantically pounding out the flames with spoons. I just hope these fire fighting implements weren’t part of the “good silverware.” Unfortunately, my only noteworthy story to contribute was how I had been hobbled for two days when I tweaked my back picking up some doggie poo from the yard Thanksgiving afternoon. And happy holidays to you all! (And now no one will doubt I have a maximum strength canine. I guess I need to switch her back to that light food.)

And now, on to trying your patience in my usual way by adding a bit of restaurant history before I get to the actual dinner. Around 15 years ago NE/N. Russell Street was a pretty sad and rundown thoroughfare that at its most commercial juncture ran from up at MLK (maybe still Union then?) down through quite a few mothballed old buildings, along the side of Emmanuel Hospital, and down the hill towards Interstate Ave., passing some equally old and probably even more dilapidated buildings. If you want a feel for what the area was like, take a gander at that really scary, almost collapsing old building on the North side of the street about one block East of 820/Mint, the one with all the pigeons at the roofline. (Horror movie psychopathic scary dilapidated!)

The White Eagle Tavern/Hotel has been at the lower end for a long time, but aside from that, there was nothing going on to make this area anywhere you would want to end up at, except perhaps accidentally, and that might be even worse. Then, maybe about 14 years ago or so, people seemed to look around and figure out there were quite a few turn of the century old but well built buildings in this area that could be turned into commercial ventures probably much cheaper than in many areas of town, as this was a part of Portland that was so far still depressed as far as development, and urban renewal, and all of those other things that people will debate until the end of time whether they are good for poorer neighborhoods or not.

I think one of the first buildings on Russell to be rehabbed and turned into a new commercial venture was at the corner of Russell and MLK, a neighborhood institution called Doris’ Ribs moving into this nice new fancified space from its cramped little house not too far away on Williams (which incidentally, I think Doris’ moved back to a few years later.) After this, at the lower end, the Widmer Brothers turned a really frightful building into their really nice (and woody!) Widmer Gasthaus and Brewery. Soon after, Lucy Brennan opened her wonderful restaurant, Mint, one block East of Widmer, soon to be followed in the building next door by her always hopping cocktail haven 820. Then, about five years ago, up by MLK, gallery owner Mark Wooley and a couple of partners decided they would rehab the gigantic and impressive Royal Hiberian Lodge into a music venue, gallery, and restaurant bar, and after much work, dedication, and most likely money, The Wonder Ballroom was born. I like the Wonder Ballroom, it’s a great place to take in a show, but the rehab is a tad strange, the main performance space ending up looking much like a gigantic tractor barn (is that really the original ceiling?)

Interesting DecorSometime in the last 4 years, Doris’ went back to Williams, and Russell Street BBQ moved into their pleasant (but odd for BBQ) space. Then, last summer, the most recent (and perhaps wonderful) Russell St. transformation was completed, and the building next to the Wonder Ballroom was the site of a great moment in recent Portland dining, the opening of Toro Bravo, now in almost everyone’s top five for Portland restaurants.

I was looking for a somewhat humble, informal, and homely place for the RR dinner the day after Thanksgiving, after all, who wants to go to a big swanky place right after all the hassle and multi-course madness of the day before? And I’ve been wanting to have an RR dinner there since the group began, as I always thought Russell St, served good food, and for a BBQ joint, the space is both large and somewhat high end. In fact, the space seems intentionally dumbed down for the cuisine it serves, with the plastic checkered tablecloths and other down home touches, and the little pig figurines everywhere. It’s meant to appeal to people who like simple BBQ fare and parents who want somewhere to take the whole family. With the beautiful wood floor, high ceilings, and two separate dining areas, however, this place could be swanked up really easily and turned into a pretty upscale place, it’s already as nice as a restaurant like Bread and Ink for example. Russell St. BBQ apparently has humble origins though, it just wants to serve good hearty food to the masses in a pleasant atmosphere. And while I think the dark indigo ceiling above the extra dining room is pretty and well painted, and somewhat relaxing, I will always miss the weird and whimsical barnyard mural that graced this ceiling in Russell St. BBQ’s earliest days (flying pigs amongst other oddities.) Unfortunately, less than a year after I discovered Russell St. BBQ, on a Labor Day weekend about 2.5 years ago, an electrical fire in the middle of the night caused severe damage, and RSBQ was closed for months while the interior was rebuilt and revamped, thus the demise of those flying piggies.

Okay, that’s enough of a stroll down my somewhat fractured memory lane. On to Friday’s dinner. Russell Street has a strict no reservations policy, so to secure a table for eight, I made it a point to show up around 6:25 to announce our intentions to the staff. I was told it would be around 20 minutes until a large table was ready, which sounded about right, as I had told the group to show up 6:30 – 7:00 ish. As a decent sized space that does a healthy amount of take-out, they have a relatively nice waiting area (opposed to high-end places like Lauro who don’t take reservations and don’t have a waiting area, or Autentica, who takes reservations but has too many customers and has no waiting area, to Pok Pok, which is insanely busy, and where you also wait out in the elements, often FOREVER!)

Russell St. has benches though (hey, I didn’t say they were comfortable, that’s why they have those pillows there,) and newspapers and magazines and a coffee table even, and they always offer you a drink if you want one while waiting. So I didn’t mind hanging out by myself for a few minutes, I just tried to blend in with everyone waiting for take-out (all African-Americans, it’s good to see that Russell St. actually appeals to people that probably live in the neighborhood. It seems like you don’t see much of that in the Alberta and Mississippi St. restaurants. The “reasonable” prices probably help too.) So I amused myself watching this well-dressed older couple who came in for take-out, and had probably been married for many years, judging by their loving but argumentative interactions. The man, looking quite a bit like George Foreman, told the woman to go up and order for him. When his wife proceeded to the take-out counter to order, the husband firmly rejected everything she tried to order for him, saying “I don’t want that, no, I don’t want that.” Finally, exasperated, the woman exclaimed “why did you even tell me to come up and order for you?” When it came his turn to order for himself, however, he seemed totally baffled by the concept of selecting two side dishes, and I think he finally ended up just having two sides of the beans (sounds like a man!) He then screamed out in glee “Fry’s” when he saw a newspaper ad for the electronics superstore on the back of the Oregonian (sitting on the table in front of him,) and proceeded to amuse himself with all the sale items, despite his wife’s threats that he better put it down, right now. I had turned to look his way when he yelled “Fry’s, as I thought maybe someone was serving free potatoes in the waiting area, and he said to his wife “see, she looked when I said Fry’s,” like that perhaps validated his interest in a shopping excursion all the way out in Wilsonville for all these things he probably really did not need. (Unlike Grace, I KNOW you needed those things.) It’s interesting the amusements that can seem more fun than staring at your shoe for 20 minutes, and I was glad this couple was there, as they seemed like they should have their own TV sitcom or something (perhaps a modern day, more PC “Jeffersons.”)

I didn’t see them leave with their food however, as Brian had shown up in the interim and we had began chatting. He was followed shortly by a very frigid Tori and Dave (I swear they told me that) who live relatively close, so consequently their freezing cold car had remained in that state for the short trip to the restaurant. Since I live a farther patch away, it was actually one of the few times I’ve warmed up in weeks. If only our houses could be heated as cheaply and efficiently as our vehicles.

After a few moments, the four of us were ushered to our table to wait for the four other members of our party. Beers and wines were ordered, but unfortunately I wasn’t as observant as the later arriving Grace and Frank, and didn’t notice Russell St. has hard liquor now, or I probably would not have selected that Pinot Grigio they served in a small tumbler. I found this drinking vessel quite confusing, I’ve had wine here before, I know that serve sangria in actual wine glasses. I think this non-descript glass ruined the bouquet of my vino, and I kept forgetting to drink it, as I kept glancing down and thinking it was water. Obviously, it pays to read the drink menu, but I didn’t even know Russell St. had a drink menu, and could barely even read the regular menu, as the room was rather dark and the menu has been redesigned to look much classier, but harder to read, since the last time I was here last December.

FriesTori and Brian each selected one of the starters to kindly share with everyone. Tori decided on the basket of fries with the cajun aioli, actually my favorite side dish here. As a general rule I don’t go out of my way to get fries with things, but these fries, tiny and dark brown, go great with the spicy mayonnaise they serve with them, so I usually get some to go with my ribs. My only complaint is that sometimes the hunks are so small they are really hard to eat and dip in the sauce, but they seemed of a more conventional french fry size on this occasion. Brian’s Hush Puppies were okay, dense and crispy but as always with hush puppies, a tad fried-doughy. As a resident of the South for quite a few years though, Brian was quite disappointed with the dipping sauce, a dark greenish/brownish mustard which I forgot to even try. He didn’t think about it until later, but he should have tried some of the the hot andHush Puppies barbeque sauces that were already on the table.

Around 7:20 or so we made the decision that perhaps there would be only five of us, so decided to order. One thing I had noticed earlier on the menu, (which to be honest I barely looked at, because I always get pork ribs at BBQ places because they are pretty hard to make better than average at home,) was that all the prices here have risen considerably. I don’t think it’s Russell St. gouging people, I just think it’s another sign of the high price of dining out in RIbsPortland these days, but the very same 1/2 rack of baby backs I was paying $9.50-$10.50 just a couple of years ago, now cost $13.50. You get a healthy amount of food here, half a rack of really nice quality lean ribs, two generous sides, and cornbread or Texas toast, but still, having a rib joint charging $13.50 for ribs is a trend I don’t like. That being said, Tori and I both selected half racks of pork ribs, Tori deciding on braised greens and meaty beans for her side dishes, my choices cole slaw and aforementioned beans. Kimberly, perhaps sensibly watching her red meat consumption, decided on the BBQed chicken breasts, with sides of mac and cheese and beans.

Our big manly men both voted for Metapaloozas. This scary sounding, but always tempting selection, is your choice of any three meats and any two sides for $16.00. Dave, who had the prettiest looking plate of food at the table (see photo) after much mental anguish, decided on BBQed shrimp, smoked brisket, and pulled pork, with greens and mac and cheese on the side. Brian, our Southern boy (by way of Dave's dishBrooklyn,) selected the smoked sausage, brisket, 1/2 rack of baby backs, yams, and greens.

As I had confidence they would, our family oriented friends Frank and Grace finally appeared a few minutes after the rest of us had ordered, apologizing for their late arrival, as it had taken them longer than planned to lock those pesky daughters in the closet for the evening. (JUST KIDDING, they are really nice people (wink, wink.)) I told them it was okay, as someone else had not shown up at all, so they certainly did better than that. They zoomed right in on drinks and food, having what Full rack of ribsI’m told was a delicious “Sidecar” and something more boring that I’m way too lazy to remember (beer maybe?) to drink. For food, Grace being in a “manly man” mood (she’s svelte, but knows how to eat) chose a Meatapalooza with sausage, ribs, and shrimp (she was clearly seduced by the sight of Dave’s pretty pink shrimp,) with cole slaw and yams. Frank, dragging up the ordering rear, had an entire rack of ribs ($21 – yikes!) with beans and mac and cheese. I think everyone at the table had the cornbread option but me, mainly because I’m really really picky about cornbread, and don’t like it cold. Back in the late 80s/early 90s (yes, I know many of you were barely alive then,) a place at NW 21st and Lovejoy called the Cajun Cafe had a wonderful bread basket that came with their meals, and their corn muffins ruined me forever, I hardly like any cornmeal bread or roll I’ve had since in comparison to theirs. MeatapaloozaSeveral people commented though that once they drenched this cornbread in butter and honey it was pretty good (if you drenched a big old piece of liver in butter and honey, it would probably be pretty good too.) Here’s Dave’s actual comment – “I liked the honey and the sauce almost put me to sleep.” (What do you want, the guy is an artist?)

Sadly, the packets of honey seemed to get some of the most positive comments as far as food item were concerned. Tori, who had food from Russell St. before and likes it, despite Dave’s pants ripping episode (like I said, colorful,) always seems to find something nice to write about on her dining slip. On this evening she wrote that the “greens have been better other days, but baby back ribs were fall off the bone tender and didn’t get stuck in your teeth just like before.” She also noted (after all, he was busy commenting on honey,) that, of the three meat items on his plate, Dave enjoyed his pulled pork the best, and that she really liked his mac and cheese, “cheesy, cheesy” she proclaimed. I would say Tori had the most positive dining experience at the table (but she did sit across from me – it’s lucky she could eat at all.)

I would say that Frank and Grace had a pretty neutral verging on negative opinion of the food on this night. They both thought the Sidecar was great, and Grace was another one who got-off on the honeyed cornbread experience. I also heard her exclaim “good sausage” at one point. Frank’s comment on his dining slip only mentioned that he found the “beans somewhat insipid,” but when he finished eating I noticed he had barely touched his ribs, about a 1/4 of the rack, so that leads me to believe he didn’t particularly enjoy them, or was planning on a really big snack at a later time. When I asked Kimberly what she thought of her food, she said is was only so-so, which makes it pretty hard to blather on about in my usual goofy fashion.Brian wasn’t exactly wowed either, of the meats he said the brisket was by far the best, but he had the unpleasant flavorless greens and consequently only ate about one bite, but he thought the yams were pretty good.

As for moi, who at one time actually had the nickname the “Queen of Barbeque” (mostly for preparation, not consumption,) it seems to me I might be losing my taste for and interest in BBQ (I think I’ve used my BBQ at home less than 10 times this year. Usually it’s about four times as many.) Although I thought the fries and sauce were as good as always, and the cole slaw better than average, I really could have taken or left all of my food on this particular evening. I’ve always been so enraptured by the smoky flavor imparted by good BBQ, whenever possible I ask for my meats sauceless, so I can add sauce if I desire later (besides, most barbeque sauce really sucks, too sweet and tomatoey with not enough smoky flavor.) As Tori mentioned, as always at Russell St., the baby backs were extremely tender, and a good lean cut with modest meat but little fat, but I just didn’t taste that intense grilled meat flavor I remember from previous occasions. Perhaps the ribs weren’t cooked as long as usual this day, and while they were plenty done, the flavor reminded me more of steamed or par-boiled pork ribs than smoked pork ribs.

Someone mentioned that perhaps because of the holiday the usual kitchen crew wasn’t in place, and one has to wonder if that was the problem, as the food just wasn’t as good as it was on past occasions. I’ve taken many different parties to Russell St. BBQ, and this was the first time I’ve heard unfavorable opinions, and the first time I myself have been ambivalent about the food I was served here. Or maybe I’ve just been to too many fancy pants places over the last few months, I’ve become spoiled, and my tongue has become jaded, and I’m losing my appreciation for these more humble places. Or perhaps my brain was just obsessing over the fact that Toro Bravo was just 1/2 a block down, and my taste buds were in cahoots and refused to appreciate the decent food I had in front of me, they were more interested in having some spicy Spanish fare. Sorry Russell St. BBQ, down home cooking will always have a hard time competing with Mediterranean glamor in my jet-settingly exciting world! (please refer again to the previous story on the excitement of my Thanksgiving day.)

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