Because it shares restroom facilities with Mary's Club, I spent my first several months of El Grillo patronage affectionately referring to this hole in the wall as "Stripper Burrito." The juxtaposition is really the only notable aspect of El Grillo's décor, which is otherwise just cramped and dingy. The food? Cheap, plentiful, and perfect. The huevos rancheros are delicious, the steak tacos, superb. Still, somehow I just don't trust a cloth towel dispenser in a strip club. ZP
2035 NE Glisan, 235-5690
Considering the theatrical look of the exterior, you'd think Club 21 was a magnificent hunting lodge on the inside, replete with huge goblets and a stuffed, mounted moose head. Sadly, this is not the case. But while Club 21's meager, smoke-worn decor may not have you telling fanciful stories, their burgers, onion rings, and turkey sandwiches will. Plus, they make a good stiffy (if you know what I'm talking about), and I'm not complaining about that either. KS
Kay's Bar and Grill
6903 SE Milwaukie, 232-4447
Kay's is ugly in the way that your cigar-smoking, whiskey sour-drinking, 60-year-old uncle is ugly. In other words, there's charm there--you just have to want to see it. Kay's, which has been around since 1934, is devoid of canned hipness. If it was a baseball stadium, it'd be Fenway Park: not something new made to look nostalgic, but something actually old, with plenty of spunk left.
You come to Kay's for a cup of coffee, not a latte; for a tuna salad sandwich on white, not a roasted veggie on focaccia. Breakfast is all about bone-in ham steaks and Denver omelets. Lunch might be their twice-baked potato and the soup of the day, or a warm patty melt on rye.
Next time you're checking out a flick at the Moreland theater, stop in for a bite. Kay's menu will teach you a bit about Portland history while you dig into that chicken-fried steak or turkey club. PA
3445 NE Broadway, 249-PORK
I'm not sure if proper New Orleans-style cooking will really catch on in Portland. Sure, there are Southern-style places, rib joints, and such. But a low-key spot with good jambalaya, fried catfish, and red beans and rice, made by a passionate but humble chef from Naaw'luns would be a welcome addition to the food landscape.
Hmm, come to think of it, Lagniappe is such a place. What it (absolutely) lacks in decor, it (absolutely) atones for with food. The smoked chicken and andouille jambalaya is worth the nine dollars, as is the smoked beef brisket for $9.75. The one-pounder pulled pork for 10 bucks is enough to share. And among all that meat, the veggie plate (black-eye peas, spinach, corn bread, rice) stands strong.
At the very least, give Lagniappe a shot for a cup of coffee and their bread pudding with bourbon sauce. Though the patio can only offer a view of Burger King and Blockbuster across the street, if you're with good company, the crappy outdoor scenery won't matter. PA
6236 NE Sandy, 281-2990
The charm of Pho Oregon--is not immediately obvious, and that's putting it kindly. While slick Pho Van makes a killing in the Pearl, this beef noodle house on Sandy is happy just to serve the local Vietnamese community.
The exterior looks like a gutted Arby's, and you can barely see what all the fuss is about inside. But there is a fuss. Especially on weekends, the place is usually packed. If you're not up for some of the more traditional items (ie: anything with tripe), go for the nam ve don (noodles with skirt steak), or the chin (noodles with brisket). A large order of beef broth and meatballs is definitely worth the five dollars. -- You can get vegetarian dishes here, like vermicelli noodles with tofu, but know that about two-thirds of the menu is loaded with meat dishes. PA
On the subject of corporate subs, I prefer Quiznos over Subway any day of the week, and here's my reasoning: 1) Subway sometimes smells funny. I don't know why. The one on NW 23rd smells just fine, while the one on Burnside smells like a big yeasty ass. 2) I find Subway's meats and condiments to be untrustworthy. Again, no proof--just feel that way. 3) Quiznos' "toasting technology" exceeds that of Subway. I have no idea how a toasted Subway sandwich will emerge, but a Quiznos sub comes out perfect every time; hot, cheesy melted-ness on top of a variety of impressively seasoned meats, resting inside a fresh warm bun that never lacerates the top of your mouth. And 4) though I never understand them, I like Quiznos' commercials better. WSH
7901 SE Powell, 771-5842
Powell is one of those streets in Portland that really wants to be something else, something better, but doesn't know how. On one level it's Safeway, McDonald's, and Arby's. On another, it's the Japanese okonomiyaki house, Kyo-Fu, and the Korean barbecue spot, Sorabol.
There aren't that many Korean barbecue houses in Portland. Seoul Garden in Southwest has a friendly staff, but the meat is sub par. Be Won on NW 23rd is great, but best for special occasions. So, though Sorabol rests at "hell's intersection," better known as Powell and 82nd, it offers an authentic Korean food experience without sacrificing quality or pinching your wallet.
Whether you go crazy grilling your own thin slices of marinated meat at one of the table-top grills, enjoy a big bowl of bee bim bap (vegetables, egg, and rice served sizzling in a hot stone bowl), or sample Korean dumpling and rice-cake soup, you'll realize soon enough that Korean food is much more than kim chi. PA
10506 SE 42nd, 786-9370
Quick, think of three reasons to go to Milwaukie. Time's up. There's only one answer, and that's Super Burrito. True, there're a handful of really great, no-nonsense Mexican places around the city. True, you probably don't have to travel all the way to Milwaukie just for a taco. But you should. Super Burrito makes no bones about what it does best: serve up delicious, homestyle Mexican food fast and cheap. There's no need for ambience here. Piñatas and sombreros aren't tacked to walls and ceilings. The only priority is the food: not elevated or reinvented Mexican food, just honest-to-god grub at prices that are probably too good to last.
A quesadilla for $1.75? Carne asada soft shell tacos for $1.45 each? A huge bean and cheese burrito for $2.60? Yup. The most expensive things on the menu are the enchilada, burrito, and chimichanga plates, and the super nachos. But all of those are still under six bucks, and are plenty to share, especially the nachos. Why anyone would eat at Taco Bell, I have no idea. PA
Vat & Tonsure
911 SW Taylor, 225-9118
This British-esque hole in the wall features old men waiters and steaming plates covered in mounds of boiled cabbage, mustard, and steamed meats. It ain't pretty to look at and the cabbage marinade is almost too intense for words, but if flesh is your thing, you'll be A-Okay. The beef stew is a gorgeous glut of bubbling richness, and the many different kinds of sausages are invariably simple yet delicious. Despite its creaky, ornery interior, the Vat & Tonsure gets lit up during the day via its high windows, so check out the lunchtime action, when the prices are right, and the bitters will kickstart your afternoon nap. JWS