The taste bud is a complicated chemical receptor resembling a hairy onion. But without food to process, a taste bud is nothing. Tastebud, the tiny 30-seat Southeast Portland eatery, is a simple bistro serving a menu of seasonal, wood-fired dishes. But without its small selection of pizzas, Tastebud would be nothing special.
The theme at Tastebud is "hearth roasted." Everything on the menu, aside from salads, does time in a wood-fired brick oven, giving each dish a crisped and rustic aura. This is simple, salt-of-the-earth food, produced by a one-time farming family that loves its salt—maybe too much.
The amount of salt on the Caesar salad with bagel croutons ($7) was simply overwhelming, masking the subtler qualities of a good Caesar. Only after the salad was finished did a hint of anchovy rise on the back of the palate and fade. Still, the bagel croutons were a nice touch, with a good crunch and a chewy interior. The salt onslaught continued in a dish of clams with garlic and Aleppo chilies ($10). The clams themselves were not overly chewy, with a hint of heat from the peppers. Unfortunately, the broth (often the best part) sopped up with toasted focaccia was too salty to enjoy.
A very good farmer's soup (the best value on the menu at $6 for a large bowl) was almost too salty, but held just this side of the enjoyable line. An overall flavor profile similar to sweet and sour soup—most likely from a combination of leeks and cabbage—provided a backdrop for red beans and crispy little blips of pork back fat that exploded with lovely porcine goodness on the tongue.
Still, the triumphs of Tastebud lay in finely executed pizza. One, topped with roasted pear, pancetta, mascarpone, and arugula ($22) offered a studied balance between the deep sweetness of mascarpone and pear, the savory of pancetta, and the spicy zing of fresh arugula. Another, with braised Swiss chard, spicy sausage mozzarella, and tomato ($21), had my tablemate and I fighting over slices with abundant chard that offset the spicy sausage with a nice green earthiness. But be aware, when tomato is listed in the ingredients, it's most likely referring to the well-executed sauce.
Of greatest concern to most pizza lovers will be the crust. Tastebud exceeds here. The thin crust provides a nice crunch on the outside with a good amount of chewy snap inside. Slices are foldable for the most part, and the atmosphere is casual enough that you don't need to reach for the knife and fork.
In the end, Tastebud does best what they've been doing at area farmers' markets for some time: making great crave-worthy pizzas. The territory beyond the pizza selection could be desalinated a bit.