CHURCH, a bar-forward restaurant with a playful motif of sin and repentance, opened four months ago on a commercially barren stretch of NE Sandy. It's of the current Portland fashion, and I think we all know what that means: Old ship horns are given new life as light fixtures, reclaimed siding gives the room a warm and nostalgic feel, and Gold Rush-era sundries of cast iron and varnished architectural salvage decorate the nooks and cornices. Despite the chapel-esque theme, seating is forgivingly comfortable, with a room-ringing banquette, barstools for 10 or so, and a long communal table. As the sun sets through two tall walls of windows, the place becomes itself: cheery, vibrant, and noisy, but not so loud you can't hear your fellow guests. It's spacious enough that even the open tables feel acoustically private. The crowd is a cleaner kind of hipster, ranging from mid-20s to late-30s.
Service has been friendly and prompt, even when full. Food and drinks are ordered at the counter, and to the counter you must return for future rounds. It gives you a good chance to check your legs, which is wise because the drinks range from strong to overly strong. More on those later.
The menu is Pan-Southern, with most of its spirit drawn from New Orleans. Fried okra chips ($3) are light and crisp, and eat like popcorn, though the flavor of okra seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. "Smokey" cheese straws ($3 for five, with dipping sauce) are pencil-size Cheez-It sticks, subtly spiced with what I suspect is smoked paprika. Larger starters are hit and miss. Corn hushpuppies ($6 for six) seem based on a black-eyed pea batter, and they're a serviceable if unexciting fried snack. Fried green tomatoes ($7) with peach marmalade and a buttermilk-like yogurt sauce have an onion ring-type batter, not cornmeal, which has difficulty clinging to the soft, steaming fruit inside (which, like the okra, lacks flavor).
The deviled eggs ($5 for three halves), however, have a rich and full-bodied bacon and sweet onion stuffing. Gluten-free chicken strips ($7) are three juicy tenderloins in a crust spiced with sesame seeds, garlic, and celery salt, and come on a large serving of quarter-inch fries. The batter doesn't get as crisp as a wheat-flour version, but as a compromise, it's decent. Smoked mac and cheese ($7) was the only starter I'd call delicious: The crumb-topped shells held a smooth, smoked and white cheddar sauce that was rich and comforting.
Mains were also a mixed bag. A shrimp po' boy ($8) was served with sautéed shrimp, not fried, and came across more like a Westernized banh mi. (Fine print later revealed that the shrimp are offered with a cornmeal crust also, but that never came up during the hurried ordering routine in the busy queue—a shame.)
BBQ pork spare ribs (two, with slaw, are $5 during happy hour; the half rack, with slaw and potato salad, is $11 at other times) are boiled or steamed before smoking, and served wet. The meat is truly flavorful—and the sauce is decidedly sweet but not cloying—but this cooking process means the bone sheds the meat without effort, and the meat itself had a bit of a mushy texture consistent with overcooking. The 60/40 burger ($9 at happy hour, $10 other times, both with fries) features a great set of toppings—pickled slaw, aged white cheddar, fried onion strings, and BBQ sauce—but they don't take your temperature and the patty, though thick, was cooked to a gray and dried-out well done.
Vegan options pop up here and there, with the corn-based vegan "gumbo" ($7) packing a surprising amount of brown sugar enriched, spicy, and well-rounded flavor.
Church's unique cocktail program ($7-10) is large and inventive, but I just don't get it. The standard drink profile is thick bodied, under chilled, overly strong, and medicinal, with occasional appearances by forced adjuncts that are meant to underscore the Southern theme, but which distract and clash. The Great Fire (tequila, lime, grapefruit, dill syrup, cayenne pepper) is an overly sweet, sorbitol-textured margarita, and the Sunday Morning (bourbon, Drambuie, ginger, lemon, Angostura, sparkling wine) has the legs of a caber-tossing Scot. The Dead Ends (Overholt rye, Cocchi sweet vermouth, Campari, Strega) is a fiddled-with Boulevardier containing one too many ingredients for harmony: Strega, already bitter and astringent, has a licorice character that's discordant with Campari.
As if to make a position statement, the bar offers a Pickleback: a shot of pickle brine that washes away a shot of bad whiskey—an efficient tool for those only interested in one aspect of their drinking. It lives at the end of the cocktail menu, a white flag of capitulation after all that trying.
Church is open daily, 4 pm-2 am. Happy hour menu 4-7 pm and midnight-2 am, daily. Outdoor tables for those who "swing the censer."