What is humanity’s fascination with the Jell-O shot? The titillation of spiking a childhood fave with booze? The delight of having a drink and eating a snack at the same time? The miraculous transformation of alcohol from a liquid to a solid colloid state?
I don’t know for sure, but I do know I love Jell-O. As a troubled youth, I’d mix a fifth with a packet of lime Jell-O so I could get inebriated undetected on public transportation. I later evolved to create champagne Jell-O shots dusted with edible glitter for New Year’s Eve, and cake-shaped jigglers that were served on a tiered platter for my wedding.
If you’re a Jell-O connoisseur like me and—unfortunately—Bill Cosby, here are the best bars in Portland for gettin’ jiggly with it.
FoPo Tavern (5902 SE Foster) takes Jell-O shots from novelty act to main attraction. Once a month, the bartender loads up her shopping cart with little cardboard boxes, then spends her day off making Jell-O “like a witch stirring a cauldron” to keep up with the demand: 1,200-1,500 Jell-O shots a month. The mellow amaretto sour and watermelon Jolly Rancher Jell-O shots ($2) made me think that FoPo’s “Taste the Rainbow” flight (all 25 flavors for $30) might not be as bad an idea as it sounds.
If you like to eat your Jell-O in a rocks glass with a demitasse spoon, try Interurban (4057 N Mississippi) or Aalto Lounge (3356 SE Belmont), where the shots ($3) aren’t just spiked Jell-O, they’re gelatinized cocktails in sophisticated flavors like Lion’s Tail, Manhattan, French 75, and Aviation.
With a rotating selection of artisan Jell-O like wasabi and salty-spicy hibiscus margarita, you never know what to expect at Tanuki (8029 SE Stark)—except greatness. The sakura (with a real cherry blossom suspended inside) went down smoother than the human-insect J-porn playing on the monitor in the corner.
Pudding shots are Jell-O shots for when you have an appetite. You’ll get a tummy ache before you’ll get a buzz off the cheesecake pudding shots ($2) at mahogany-paneled Sundown Pub (5903 N Lombard), but they are yummy. The “2 Smurfs 1 Cup” ($2.50) at Mad Hanna (6129 NE Fremont) is a two-bite parfait: icy, boozy blue pudding topped with a swirl of whipped cream and a tiny peanut butter cookie. The pudding shots ($1.50) at Mock Crest Tavern (3435 N Lombard) are as fluffy as chocolate mousse, taste like Kahlúa, come covered in whipped cream, and—if you look like you wanna party—rainbow sprinkles.
My exchange with the bartender at Sandy Hut (1430 NE Sandy) went like this. Me: “What flavors of Jell-O shots do you have?” Him: “Red.” At a rock-bottom $1 each, red worked for me. Leave it to the punks at Star Bar (639 SE Morrison) to come up with a vegan Jell-O shot that blows the competition out of its plastic cups. Their tart and pungent Kamikaze Jell-O Shot ($2) is made with tapioca instead of hooves.
For anyone who’s just getting into Jell-O, the tasting flight ($7 for four Jell-O shots) at Crackerjacks Pub (2788 NW Thurman) is a good place to start—though the impressive flavors will spoil you. My lineup consisted of a sweet-n-salty dill pickle garnished with a real gherkin, a “Total Eclipse” made with Blue Moon beer, an orange Creamsicle that came cracklin’ with Pop Rocks, and a shot of “Red Velvet” as cute as a cupcake—and together they just about did me in.
Scooter McQuade’s (1321 SW Washington) Jell-O shot flavors may be indistinguishable in a blind taste test, but people will keep coming here for the jiggly stuff ($1.75) as long as the neon “Jell-O Shots” sign continues to burn in the window. In fact, the guy ordering Jell-O next to me said that when he was in rehab across the street, he used to gaze at that sign and dream about the stuff. And after slurping so many shots all over town, I realized that the old adage is true: There’s always room for Jell-O.