The Dining Report – Tapalaya

Try Chewing Those Patooties Without Any Etoufees

Kudos to 28th for attracting another reasonably priced restaurant. Is there really another street in Portland that within about six to eight blocks you can find restaurants like Pambiche, Dove Vivi, Fonda Rosa, La Buca, Navarre, Esparazas, Ken’s Artisan Pizza, and now Tapalaya? Lots of good quality food at a moderate cost. Sure, Alberta and Mississippi have good places in close proximy to one another as well, but lots of those places will set you back more than a few bucks, where basically every place on 28th can be relatively inexpensive, at least as far as our trying economic times go and how much things cost these days.

Health nut that I am (????) I love Southern food, and basically when I hear a new Southern inspired restaurant is opening in these parts, I’m there.IMG_0873 Except for ribs though, Portland’s interest in the food from down South seems fleeting at best, so many of the Southern places don’t seem to last around here for too long. I’ve always been rather ambivalent about Bernie’s, but most of the other Southern places we have in Portland I love, Acadia, Roux, The Screen Door, Miss Delta, yum, yum, yum. So imagine my excitement when I read a few months ago that a New Orleans inspired restaurant with small plates would be opening soon in the space vacated by the unfortunate Taqueria Nueve, especially since small plates means you can sample lots of different things, which is just what out group of eight did this pre-inauguration Friday night.

It’s easy for me to make positive comments on the dinners, because as hostess and RR promoter, it’s my job, but I think this was a relatively fun and lively outing for us. For one thing, Southern food is almost always fun, much having to do with the names. Who can really take dishes with titles like Etoufee, Gumbo, Jambalaya, Sweet Patootie, or Hominy too seriously? IMG_0869Just ordering makes you feel goofy, especially once you get some of those extra strong New Orleans style beverages in you. Also, we had a couple of new recruits joining us on this evening, actual Southerners (originally Floridians) drawn by the promise of down home cookin’ and reasonable prices (one of the two is famously thrifty when it comes to going out to eat.) So thank you Betsy and Dennis, for finally giving RR a whirl. It was fun having you (even if I do see one of you over 36 hours a week,) I hope we see you again someday (I’ll let DM know when we have another inexpensive restaurant on the horizon.) Actually this was an evening when I had two of my co-workers join my table, so not only was my profession well supported, but we also had three people who work in the medical profession, at least three avid readers who obsessively purchase and borrow books, and several rabid Obamites at the far end of our table. (Although the way things are right now, I think we all need to be rabid Obamites and offer our support.)

Also, Grace and Frank joined us for their second RR dinner in a row, and these two bring fun to any meal, much to do with the fact that they are engaging people, but also due to the fact that as always, it’s just entertaining to see all the different dishes this couple orders, especially knowing they share almost everything with the table. IMG_0866Thanks also to Pam, Glenda, and David for not being duds either, if only our other two newcomers who originally RSVPed yes had managed to join us, it would have been an over the top banner evening. But eight was good, and this was much a dinner modeled after some of those from RRs glory days (which even with our disastrous economy, we hope to see the return of.) So thank you, my seven co-diners, for joining me at Tapalaya

For our second dinner in a row, this wasn’t exactly an evening for the the punctual, much having to do with how hard it can be to park around the intersection of 28th and Burnside, between all the great restaurants, small shops, the movie theater, the pubs and bars, and the people who actually live in this funky Laurelhurst neighborhood, parking is generally at a premium, and often takes actual parallel parking skills. IMG_0865Everyone take note, however, I actually read on the back of the Tapalaya menu that it’s okay to park in the Whole Foods parking lot behind this block, so that makes me think this is also the case for the other restaurants at this intersection as well. Anyway, two of us were there about five minutes before the 6:30 reservation, two were there about 10 minutes later, two showed up about 15 minutes later, and poor Frank and Grace, who live on the far west side and are always stuck in traffic, brought up the heiney end of attendance (but politely called and told us they were indeed coming, and to get those victuals rolling.)

Quite a few years ago, when Taqueria Neuve opened, I went there a couple of times and thought what a cute little place it was. Its popularity outgrew the space though, and eventually T.N. doubled its space with a complete remodeling. I went there a time or two after they expanded, and really didn’t care for the restaurant after that, it seemed like it was all pink with diaphanous curtains, filtery lighting and full of rather snooty people, and I felt that the decor just didn’t fit the hearty Mexican cuisine served there, upscale Mexican though the food was. While Taqueria Neuve was all trendied out when it filled this floorplan, Tapalaya seems a bit more down to earth, opened up and somewhat brighter with a interesting bar area by the door and the front wall sectioned off with square wooden frames, beige and terra cotta walls with green accents, and a variety of modern prints on the walls.

The cocktail list was a long one, with rather reasonable prices in this day and age. My drink was pretty good, some sort of Southern Punch with strawberry infused tequila (a first for me) cointreau, lemon and lime.IMG_0852 Pam and I had already had some relatively “hearty” drinks at the interesting Bar Avignon, and I had consumed very marginal food, so I must say this one made me a bit fizzle brained. Luckily, much food was to follow in the course of our activities. Some other drinks were slurped up, perhaps some sort of Julep by Frank, maybe a margarita by Dennis, a Tetanus Nail by David, prosecco by Glenda and red wine by Betsy, but whether people enjoyed any of this swill I didn’t hear, as I was too busy picking my napkin up off the floor all evening (I had slippery lap syndrome.)

IMG_0855The waiter mentioned a couple of specials for the evening (a fried chicken leg and wing with gravy and some sausages) and answered questions about what a few things were, like Muffaletta Sliders (little sandwiches) and showed us there was a translation key on the back of the menu. He also explained that everything was small plate sized, and the average person should order a minimum of two to three items (or in my case, four, and dessert as well.) We were also told that the food generally came out when it was ready, not in any particular order. As requested though, we could specify if we wanted a particular thing first, like a starter, and what general order we wanted our items to arrive in.

Glenda, our resident classy diner (okay, classy in a radical, out there way,) is pretty good about watching what she eats, generally steering away from breads and starches as much as possible (although she rarely steers away from dessert, bless her hair.) IMG_0854So it’s not overly surprising she didn’t begin her evening with some big, greasy item, but instead began with the Warm, Stuffed Seckle Pair, which was made into a salad with mixed greens, spiced pecans, Oregonzola (??) tossed in a coffee-truffle vinaigrette. Grace later had this same item, and I must say it looked like a lovely little salad, and certainly someone’s brain went into overdrive thinking up the dressing. I didn’t hear what Grace thought of this particular plate, but Glenda seemed to enjoy hers thoroughly. To my left, no big surprise, Pam had the Fried Green Tomatoes, that girl loves her tomats (I once saw her eating a paper one from a magazine,) and they came in a lovely breading with Shrimp Remoulade, and she found them quite delicious.IMG_0853

David started the food part of his evening with “Tim Chee,” the ho’ made (let’s hope not) pickled vegetable platter with house bread. David kindly shared this with all comers, although I must admit I didn’t have any, as I’m not a big fan of pickling (yes, my face just looks like this on its own.) Frank and Grace also ordered the Tim Chee after everyone else had eaten David’s, and basically found the table Tim Chee’d out. Frank’s opinion of the Tim Chee was that it was really pickled tasting, which didn’t sound too positive the way he said it. Perhaps he was expecting more Korean style pickling (could it be the name) and this was more dilly pickling, or visa versa. 

Betsy and Dennis both started (oh those Siamese twin couples, I think they had on the same outfit too) with the interesting sounding Bibb Salad with black-eyed pea and bacon vinaigrette with smoked tomatoes.IMG_0857 Perhaps this is some sort of Southern specialty that made them both remember fondly their much earlier days in Florida as gator wranglers and pedicurists, but whatever the case, they both loved those Bibb Salads. I myself began my meal with the Poor Man’s Foie Gras, which was actually the only kind of liver I enjoy, fried chicken livers. The problem with the Tapalaya menu, and having everything so reasonably priced was, it was hard for me to select, so many things sounded good. Chicken livers are certainly one of those under utilized organs in fine Portland dining (gee, I wonder why, with such a classy reputation,) so I couldn’t really pass them up. These were really delicious, and fancy too, coming with red pepper jelly and sweet pickled onions on some tender little toasty thing.IMG_0856 Actually, this is something I found quite surprising about Tapalaya, you don’t really think of Southern food as being artfully presented, it’s usually just giant mounds of delicious goop on your plate, but the dishes at Tapalaya were well thought out and prettily posed on (and in) a variety of interesting dish ware, including long skinny plates and lots of mugs with handles. Someone really did put in extra work making this place really pleasant.

Once Frank and Grace started their furious ordering about 20 minutes after everyone else, and all our, and all their, dishes started to arrive, I started to lose track of who had what, when it made it to the table, and what people thought of some of their food.IMG_0872 I must say I had many many samples though, as Frank and Grace love sharing their food, as well as David sitting across from me, so I had a whole lot of tastes. One dish I heard two definitive opinions on was the Crispy Duck Confit, which was a whole duck leg, sweet potato waffle and Barq’s root beer demi. When she originally arrived, I don’t know if Glenda had overly high hopes for Tapalaya, she’s more of a lover of European cuisine, but she said the Duck Confit was exceptional good, moist, and delicious. Grace also had an extremely positive opinion of the duck, so it got very high reviews from two discerning palates. IMG_0861David had “Not Yo Momma’s Pork and Beans,” which consisted of pulled pork, smoked pork belly and white beans. Somehow I missed David’s opinion of this item, I think I kept getting distracted by all of Frank and Grace’s food filtering about, and was awed by Grace’s stories of how she Christmas shops like she orders food. (As I’ve said before, it’s good these two have medical professions for financing.) I do know that David found his Potato and Bacon Gratin delicious (I really enjoyed this potato dish with smoked gouda and apple as well) and that he totally loved his Gumbo, which means it must have had a good kick.

Dennis and Betsy did order different things for their second courses, Betsy having the Tapalaya Jambalaya, which was said to be cooked creamy and risotto like with chicken, shrimp, and andouille (although there is a chance she had the vegetarian version, I never heard.) Dennis, generally a real mudsucker himself, has always had an affinity for catfish, and this rather vertical presentation came with creamy hominy and spicy romesco. More of a garbage eating fish traditionalist, I think Dennis was not as fond of this preparation as some others he’s had in the past, but I had the catfish too, and found it second in goodness only to Miss Delta’s Crispy Catfish (what do you expect, that’s deep fried,) and enjoyed the almost tempura like batter and extremely mild flavor (strangely though, I don’t even remember eating the hominy.) IMG_0859Frank had an order of catfish too, and I’m pretty sure he gave it a thumbs up as well. Pam had the Crawfish Etoufee, which came with rice and house bread. I think Pam had hoped the Etoufee would be laden with crawfish, and was a tad disappointed. I’ve always found all these signature Deep South rice dishes like Jambalaya, Gumbo, and Etoufee tend to be pretty light on the meat, so wasn’t surprised she found it only average. Somehow I missed trying any of her House Bread, which was interestingly a seared flatbread, something I would not expect in a New Orleans’ joint.

IMG_0864I myself ordered the Corn Bread, which was fresh and delicious, with house made sweet butter (sorry, I just couldn’t say ho’ made again.) I’m frequently disappointed by restaurant corn bread, especially when it’s not that fresh, and if it’s dry or has no touch of sweetness. This was actually rather cake like (if only everything in life could be cake like,) and a great deal for only $2, as the butter was wonderful as well as the bread. I must say, I really did like each and every part of my meal, the chicken livers were delicious, the corn bread was really good, the catfish was mild and tasty, and the bacon and potato gratin and hearty and flavorful. Actually, if I went back to Tapalaya anytime in the near future it would be hard not to order the same things, I enjoyed them all, although it might be hard to pass up the pear salad a second time. Interestingly enough, everyone kept saying to me “I bet you’re going to have the Caramelized and Grilled Hanger Steak (with portobello fries and whiskey sauce.)” Hmm, do you think I order beef a bit too often? I never really thought about ordering the steak (at $9, one of the three highest priced items,) because although the preparation certainly sounded good enough, I really don’t eat enough fish, so I had made the commitment to the catfish before I sat down. I know it’s hard to believe with my amazing brain power, but I almost never eat fish at home, I don’t have many recipes I like to prepare, so prefer to leave it to the pros. Decent steak is easy, delicious fish is harder.

Grace and Frank, bedazzling us all with their food selections, kindly annotated their meal on their Restaurant Roulette Dining Slip, then made sure I didn’t leave without it. Here is what they had from beginning to end – Tim Chee, Fried Green Tomatoes, Pear Salad, Corn Bread, Catfish, Duck Confit, Crawfish Etoufee, and Jambalaya.IMG_0870 It sounds like a whole bunch of eats, but actually only averages out to about four things per person, which is also the amount of items David and I ordered. I think probably Frank selected about two or three of the dishes though, and Grace decided on the rest, especially since towards the end of the meal Frank kept saying “did we ask for this?” I really like Grace’s way of ordering at restaurants, like she’s afraid she will miss something good, so orders as many things as she can. It did seem like most of what they ordered got eaten, not necessarily all by them, and towards the end I know I had a spoonful of something of theirs that had a big pepper kick, I think it was probably the Jambalaya. 

Grace’s ordering laissez-faire also extended to the desserts, so she made sure both she and Frank got one, although Frank kept protesting he didn’t want dessert, especially what Grace ordered for him, the Salty Pecan Bar. What was important though, was Grace wanted to taste two desserts, so two desserts they got. Because of this, the whole table basically got to enjoy dessert.IMG_0877 I don’t know if in the long run Frank even had a bite of his Salty Pecan Bar, which was actually two Salty Pecan Bars and a glass of whipping cream with nuts in it, but Grace enjoyed one of the Pecan Bars, and the rest of the table had the second (actually the women at the table, the men all seemed to have pecan issues.) The second dessert Grace ordered was the Creme Brulee Flambe, which burned out before I could take a photo of it, so Frank insisted the waiter redouse it with alcohol and reignite it, so I could get a picture of this flaming object. The waiter agreed, so I was able to capture it in all its incendiary glory. It seems like the creme brulee was not harmed at all by the second go around with the flames, the table at large found it extremely tasty, in fact (Grace and Frank just had bites and passed it on.) IMG_0881Glenda said she preferred her creme brulee more custard-like, but this version was totally to my liking, very creamy and vanilla-laden. (I am disturbed when this dessert has a runnier, flan like texture.) I think David liked this version too, as he basically functioned as our clean up hitter, and forced himself to partake in quite a few samples.

Three ho’ made ice creams were available, sweet potato, molasses, and bacon (originally bacon and egg.) Glenda ordered the molasses, and said it was quite good. Once she saw the fancy nature of the presentation, she also coveted my Chocolate Pots de Creme, a small demi tasse of intense chocolate, two squares or lemon curd, and an attractive swirl of whipped cream. Since for once my bill was not in the stratosphere, and I was just pleasantly full, I really wanted to try one of Tapalaya’s desserts, but none really called out to me. All of the ice cream flavors were a tad obscure for my tastes, the bread pudding sounded too filling, the pecan bars too intense, and I often find creme brulee rather so-so, so I settled for the chocolate overload. IMG_0876As is almost always the case when I get really chocolate-laden things for dessert, I don’t enjoy them that much, and this was also a bit too sweet and creamy to please me (I like intensely chocolate things a tad chalky.) I did like the little lemon curd squares though, and others at the table seemed to enjoy the chocolate concoction. It seems our dessert ordering was just a bit off this night, as Glenda wished she had my dessert, I coveted Grace’s Creme Brulee, Frank didn’t want any dessert but had two at his disposal, and the rest of the table, who did not want dessert, had samplings of everything.

The unisex bathroom was rather boring and ran out of TP, but aside from this “issue,” I didn’t find much at Tapalaya to complain about, nor did anyone else. I think everyone agreed that the menu was fun, the food was a good value, well prepared, and nicely presented, and the service was friendly and helpful. The atmosphere didn’t really knock you out, but the big tables were sort of nestled in the rear corner, so it was hard to get the full effect from the decor. The restaurant was more or less full, probably a decent accomplishment for a very new restaurant on “Restaurant Row,” and the waiter told me it was their best night ever. IMG_0863As a fan of the cuisine, I’ve seen my share of Southern Cooking places in Portland come and go, and except for eateries that have lived charmed lives here, like Bistro Montage and Bernie’s, they tend to go more often than I like. I really hope Tapalaya is an exception to this rule, and soon builds a loyal following and is around for years to come. It’s great to go to a place that has good delta-style cooking, really reasonable prices, and where you can decide just how many items you are in a mood for, and what level of health implosion you want to subject yourself to, since there are several lighter and more healthy small plates you can select from. Also, 28th is actually one of those streets where you can go and find at least 1/2 of the establishments open for a weekday lunch, a rarity in Portland. I think Tapalaya would make a great lunch spot, small plates fashion a wonderful midday meal, which is one reason I love to have lunch at Navarre, just a couple of doors South of Tapalaya (although Navarre is not open for lunch everyday.) So that would be a great development, if Tapalaya could build a stable clientele and someday start serving lunch at least a few days a week. But even if they stick with dinner only, that’s okay by me, I’d love to be able to drop in there now and then for a fun, economical, and delicious meal. I just hope they get more toilet paper by then.