I'D HAPPILY WATCH any Trail Blazers game at the new Northeast Portland bar and restaurant NEPO 42. Of course, that speaks more to atmosphere and clientele than the food, but there is a food-related reason as well: twenty-five cent smoked wings.
To be honest, I've never been to NEPO 42 when there wasn't a game playing on the flat-screen TV behind the bar, every patron leaning toward its glow like flowers toward the sun. Excited, cheering flowers. So I can't speak to how the barroom lined with booths, or the strange adjacent ancillary room, feels in more contemplative non-game hours. What I can tell you is when the Blazers are riding roughshod over the Spurs, the place is damn loud. Also, there are baskets of chicken bones—sucked clean—on almost every occupied table.
There's a reason for the bone proliferation, and not just because they're priced to move. The wings are good. First smoked, then fried, and finally coated with a sweat-inducing spicy sauce, the wings present a wonderful depth and heat on the palate, tasting almost more like pig than chicken. It makes sense considering how much affection NEPO 42 has for both pork and fowl. Aside from vegetarian options—salads, veggie burger, smoked tofu—chicken, turkey, and pork dominate the majority of the menu.
An entrée of mac and cheese yields small pieces of pepper bacon, along with peas, red pepper, and subtly tangy sharp cheddar sauce. There's harmony throughout—the red pepper and sharp cheddar elevating the flavor profile, creating a dynamic dish—freshness against a creamy backdrop with occasional wisps of pepper.
A turkey pot "pie," eschews the crust and tops a gravy-based stew of smoked turkey, carrots, celery, and onions with a puff pastry. Maybe not what you were looking for (pie it's not), but warm, smoky, savory, and satisfying nonetheless.
Bridging two large chunks of cornbread, the half-rack of ribs are accompanied by Carolina baked beans and slaw. It's a plate of contradictions. The meat, while moist and tender, is bland—tasting like it received little seasoning before hitting the pit. The barbecue sauce helps, but it's too cumin heavy and too sparse on the meat. The cornbread may be a tad dry, but has an interesting crust that I found delightfully corny, salty, and slightly sweet. I ate the crust, leaving the inside untouched. The Carolina baked beans have a balance of sweetness and savor; a bit of earthiness added from black beans—legumes posing as candy. The slaw is adequate but could use some heat.
A better option is the monstrous Killingsworth Chicken Club, most easily eaten by those with large mouths. It's stacked with grilled chicken, bacon, smoked pit ham, caramelized onions, and cheddar. Pure grubbin' goodness, though the toasted bread can do a number on the roof of your mouth.
Skip the limp fries and ho-hum onion rings and order homemade jalapeño poppers. Not much to look at, but they thrill with jalapeño heat and a lava-like burst of pimento cream cheese.
All this combined with down-home options like chicken and waffle, and pulled pork sandwiches, make the NEPO 42 menu interesting enough for a return during the post season. But add great fans, a comfortable atmosphere, and a decent selection of booze and beer and you can bet I've found a place to live during the playoffs.