IN MY SALAD DAYS I spent time in both Alabama and North Carolina. It wasn't necessarily a significant amount of time, but enough to give me a constant craving for pulled pork, sweet tea, biscuits, collards, and okra.
Taste memory is a powerful thing. The experience of a dish can get lodged in the tangle of your hippocampus and limbic system and lie dormant for years. Then, driven by hunger, you'll stumble upon a place you might have never visited otherwise and tuck into a plate of pulled pork and dirty rice.
Suddenly the flavors of sweet and sour, balanced on the fulcrum of tender salted pork, will cause that taste memory to dislodge and start rolling around, touching off little sparks of recognition and emotion. You get the squeak of the screen door, the warm scent of buttermilk biscuit dough, the puckered smile of an old woman who likely went to her grave long, long ago.
Essentially Proust's inspiration is a food critic's nightmare. Because, really, how can someone fairly judge a meal that's garnished with a sprig of memory and seasoned with several dashes of emotion? Would the Southern specialties I find pleasing taste as good to someone who never sat in Nana's North Carolina kitchen? I'd hope so.
The worst thing about Hillbilly Bento, with its memory-suffused pulled pork, is its utterly confusing name. Do not expect some kind of odd Dixie/Asian mashup. You won't find country ham gyoza or catfish sushi rolls. It's "bento" only in that you're getting a boxed meal. That's it. The rest is all unapologetically deep-fried Deep South.
After walking into the tiny storefront a couple times, it feels more and more improbable that Hillbilly Bento can distribute such a huge amount of flavor. The place is tiny and decked out from ceiling to floor with strange kitschy Southern tchotchkes. There's a small bar area to sit and eat, and a few large tables outside, but it's not necessarily the most accommodating place for a dine-in lunch. In fact, it's dominated by a large buffet-type staging area manned in most cases by the owner, Jay Irvin, who welcomes you with his warm Southern drawl.
The setup at Hillbilly Bento requires you to choose one of five basic options, which are served with your choice of Cajun dirty rice, rice pilaf, or salad. The best bet from the basics is the pulled pork, North Carolina style. It's an absolute wonder, and combined with the Cajun dirty rice, there's little you can do other than point your face into the cloud of savory aromas coming out of your to-go box and start shoveling.
Delicate food it is not. There is very little subtlety about what's happening in this meal. It's saucy, salted, fatty, sweet, and all good. The dirty rice is a perfect example: Chockful of peppers and sausage and onions, it's perfectly spicy without being heavy. It's a great base for other basics like the Pepsi chicken, featuring heavy chunks of bird glazed in cola and molasses. It's actually the one dish that could be mistaken for a standard American Asian bento option—reminiscent of a smokier version of sweet and sour.
Outside the basics, which also include vegetarian beans, shrimp, and beef pepper pot, are the daily specials—a craveable option for each workday of the week.
Monday's biscuits and gravy are the perfect soft landing after a weekend of revelry, grounding you for the coming week. They aren't the intellectual Portland brunch version you had on Sunday. They are straight-up grub. Sure, the gravy may contain a tad too much flour, but the sausage makes up for it, as do the jalapeño biscuits. Also, the whole thing probably weighs three pounds.
It gets better from there. Tuesday's chicken and dumplings float in a savory velvety sauce. Wednesday's BBQ ribs literally fall off the bone, with smoky meat slathered in a thick spicy sauce. Friday's catfish and hushpuppies get the job done with crisp, swampy fish and ever-so-sweet hushpuppies (that admittedly were a bit too crusty and dry on one visit.)
All of these are complemented with your choice of sides, though the standout is absolutely the super-crisp and flavorful fried okra, followed by spicy black-eyed peas, a pleasantly sweet slaw, and some fine collard greens.
This food is not for everyone. It's inexpensive, abundant, fatty, and in no way concerned about its place in Portland's food scene. It's simple, with big robust flavors. And maybe my memory has removed the subtle nuance of the meals eaten on warm Southern evenings, but damn if Hillbilly Bento isn't serving up the flavors of the South I remember.