I toured Swan Island briefly in 1999, back when I worked for DaimlerChrysler.* We tooled down to the Freightliner plant, where the chassis and sleeper cabs of massive hundred-thousand dollar rigs swung on the assembly line like Christmas ornaments. All there seemed to be for lunch around those parts was a McDonald's and a little strip mall with some sad-sack utility nosebags, so we ate in the cafeteria. Jake's Famous Crawfish, downtown, was the local boys' idea of a big night out, and I had a barfy little crab-and-brie-stuffed filet of sole with a one-gallon martini that was clearly portioned to obliterate any recollection of the meal.
Portland dining has obviously changed a lot since then, and this change has just now hit the psychologically remote but geographically central little island. Tilt, three months in, is turning out far better fare than it needs to, given the competition, and the locals are responding in kind. In a wasteland of fast food, teriyaki, and the World's Most Depressing Pizza (this deserves its own column, perhaps narrated by a North Korean propagandist extolling its virtues with a gun to his head), there was a huge gap to fill, and this 60-seat restaurant has done precisely that.
On paper, Tilt is, appropriately, a truck stop: big wedges of homemade pie fill the pastry case, great tanks of hot black coffee sit at the ready, and huge scratch-made biscuits share skillet space with a gravy that is equal parts roux and tender, crumbled sausage. Loaded, high-quality burgers dominate the lunch menu; 18-wheelers pulling reefers and doubles hiss and groan outside. On the inside, though, it's almost Swedish-modern, with minimalist white plastic seating, long unfinished-wood communal tables, and a huge open kitchen, whose shiny new gear gleams in the abundant natural light. A full-service espresso bar with its own register greets patrons just inside the door.
The burgers themselves ($6.50-9) are higher-end fast-food style, with a flavorful 1/3-pound Fulton Provisions patty done to a default medium on a seeded brioche bun with standard vegetables and "Tilt sauce" (a slightly spiced pink sauce that will remind some of the Thousand Island-type spread used at In-N-Out). You can get in over your head with about 20 topping and 20 condiment options, or opt for one of their signature constructions. A "more is more" philosophy turns out house-designed burgers such as the Koolakofsky—essentially a pastrami Reuben (a "Rachel," to the hidebound) with a burger patty thrown in for good measure—and the Mad Andy, which features balsamic glazed onions, pepper bacon, roasted jalapeño, roasted garlic aioli, fried egg, blue cheese crumbles, lettuce, and tomato. You get the idea. Despite the mess of ingredients, the burgers are constructed well and eat cleanly on the ample rolls. The "Lambastic" ($9.25) a 1/3-pound lamb patty seasoned with mint and spices and topped with fried onions and tzatziki, is delicious, but also done medium unless specified otherwise.
An all-day roster of biscuit sandwiches (priced around $6.50) provide considerable staying power, and come with fillings from eggs and sausage to fried chicken and pickles. The massive scratch-made biscuits are tender and slightly chewy—not crumbly—ideal for containing the ample ingredients.
Large sides of crisp, well-seasoned shoestring fries, dosed with fresh pepper, are $2.75, or you can add sea-salted house-made tater tots (shredded potato and cheese), which, if described more accurately as potato croquettes, probably wouldn't sell as well to the no-nonsense crowd.
Pies are the sleeper hit here—they are clearly the passion of someone in the kitchen, and are baked fresh throughout the day. The handmade crust has the holy trinity qualities of richness, delicate crumb, and a baffling lightness that soaks up the locally made vanilla ice cream. If you want an archetypal custardy, satiny coconut cream pie, look no further. The sweetness and simplicity of the fresh apple and berry pies is perfectly balanced.
Tilt has a few areas for improvement. Sandwiches and salads here lack the excitement of the hot foods menu, with an Italian cold cut combo ($8.50) on dull sliced sourdough just feeling generic; a mighty Cobb salad ($10) generously laden with fresh avocado, bacon, and chicken should be tossed with its dressing before composing.
Yes, it's hard to imagine "headin' on down to Swan" for much other than a keg of fish piddle from the Columbia Distributing center, but factually speaking, it's only about a one-minute drive down North Going from the Interstate intersection, so it's a good option for the area, or a great option for the vastly underserved resident 11,000-member workforce.
Chicken breast or scratch-made vegetarian patties available. Open Mon-Fri, 6 am-2 pm. Website menu no longer current. Liquor license and subsequent dinner hours are pending.
* The path from telematics engineer to just eating all the time is clearer than you might think.