WHILE YOU MAY have thought the "and" trend in business names was over (see: Oven and Shaker, Cup and Bar), here we are at Swift and Union—a new North Portland neighborhood pub from Tabor Tavern owners and Kentonites Ken Naffziger and Kristen Siefkin.
Maybe it shouldn't surprise that it's taken this long for the trend to make it north of Lombard. Even razor's-edge arts center Disjecta's arrival in Kenton in 2008 didn't quite put the neighborhood on the map. A historically important but sometimes tragic stretch of Portland landscape and history (see: Vanport, the Vanport Flood), Kenton has either been ignored by New Portland or somehow resisted the onslaught of overwrought typography and blandly slick decor.
Swift and Union's name isn't as cloying as it sounds, though. It actually comes from Kenton's antediluvian history—the area was once a company town erected around Swift Meat Packing and the Union Meat Company. Chef Aaron Hepp-Buchanan celebrates that meaty story with two beef burgers (plus a lamb version), the Tabor Tavern's famed bacon jam, and brisket for breakfast or dinner.
The Swift Burger ($13, comes with fries) looks unassuming until warm blue cheese oozes out, pulling along crisp, sticky hunks of bacon jam that leave you with a smoky Joker grin crawling up your cheeks. Even a notoriously prissy hater of sticky fingers (me) can't imagine choosing the neater, cheaper ($11) pickles 'n' mustard Union Burger (except at happy hour, when it's $6).
Most plates come with fries, and there's nothing special about them except the large serving size, which appears to be a couple of good-sized russets. It's great alongside a sizeable burger or steak, but makes a sandwich like the Reuben look waifish.
That's a shame, because the Reuben ($11) is made with the real star of S and U's cattle auction: a house-smoked braised brisket. Sliced thin and a little crispy, it's great in the Reuben, but even better at brunch on the Mr. Berry's Benedict ($10). Tender, smoky brisket under hollandaise and poached eggs, on a dense-but-flaky thundercloud of a biscuit—I can't speak for long-dead Kenton confectioner Mr. Berry, but this breakfast seems timeless enough to belong on his plate, too.
Brunch also pays tribute to Kenton's movie house (now an excellent antiques market) with the Chaldean Ciabatta egg sandwich ($10), with more bacon jam, and Swift and Union's biscuits and gravy ($10) named for the giant statue of Paul Bunyan that has watched over Kenton since 1959. (Of course, it's Portland, so now Paul casts sidelong glances at the ladies of the Dancin' Bare.)
There are seasonal offerings on the menu, too, including some warmly spiced pumpkin fritters ($7) and Thai curry mussels with a hearty, smoky grilled bread ($10), and a cocktail and wine list that's... at least cheap. I'd stick with beer, except that on two recent trips there were three IPAs and no lagers, and one of my favorite local beers tasted more like dirty tap lines than hops and oats.
Given its thoughtful meat-and-potatoes menu and loving entrenchment in Kenton's history (at least the loveable parts of it), it's hard not to be disappointed by Swift and Union's adherence to the blah minimalism of exposed air ducts, predictable typography, and reclaimed light fixtures that has been creeping northward lately. This vanilla blandness seems to be in some of the food, too: the excellent steak frites ($15) were served with a killer marrow butter but also a "garlic aioli" that tasted like nothing, while the saffron poached pear dessert ($7) was simply too subtle for its calculated plating, more decorative than delicious.
But if it feels slightly flat and cold now, it's also obviously a space to be grown into and warmed by Siefkin, Naffziger, and Hepp-Buchanan, and broken in by the community of Kenton. You can already see the personal touches that will come to define the place: the ceramic cattle salt and pepper shakers; the cow horns on the walls, some wearing seasonal hats; the photos of old Kenton in the back hall; and—goddamn—that brisket. You may never have gone to Kenton and you may never need to, but if you find yourself at Swift and Union some time down the line, you might discover a reason to keep coming back.
Open Mon-Wed 11:30 am-10 pm, Thurs-Fri 11:30 am-11 pm, Sat 10 am-11 pm, Sun 10 am-10 pm. No kids after 8 pm. Happy hour Mon-Fri 4-6 pm.