Even with the warm summer months coming on, it's hard to imagine anywhere less tropical than Portland's stretch of NW Glisan near the I-405 entrance. And yet the folks behind Callaloo, Kevin and Colleen Peck, have set up an intensely "Caribbean escape" there all the same.
On the outside, Callaloo is a blandly colored corner building that my companion and I drove by twice before realizing we'd found it. Conversely, on the inside an atmospheric detonation awaited. Pushing through a bristly "gate" of overgrown plant fronds, we entered a brightly colored bar with rotating palm fans and antique island maps. The cheery, beachside-joint-at-sundown effect was brought to manic proportions by a hyperactive Cuban backbeat blaring from hidden speakers. Considering we were the only people in the place on a Monday night, the frenzied energy felt a little forced, but we sat in the bar area anyway, denying the much quieter, subtler dining room to get the full experience.
A longhaired, sexily accented server brought us fluffy house bread with succulent mango butter, and "Ti' Punch," a light, tasty infusion of Mt. Gay dark rum, sugar, and lime. The music was intrusive, and we considered dancing on the spacious hardwood floor. But fearing that the staff would take our terrible moves as a mockery of the music, we didn't. Indeed, with an extreme ambience maybe a half step removed from Salvador Molly's epic gimmickry, Callaloo has set itself up for jabs. Fortunately, it lives up to its flamboyance with food that is almost startlingly delicious.
Ignoring the Portland restaurant scene's fixation on locality, Callaloo head chef Tyler Williams utilizes exotic ingredients from around the globe—to stunning effect. The island fruit salad is a dense, gooey cylinder of fresh mango, papaya, avocado, jícama, and sapote (tastes and feels like an avocado/mango hybrid), with a garnish of fried coconut chips . The conch fritters are fried mollusks accompanied by a crackling tamarind pineapple sauce, and the "Rasta rings" are a sizeable portion of fried calamari served with both cilantro chili aioli and cocktail dipping sauces.
For entrées, we dined on pan-seared snapper, and the restaurant's namesake, callaloo stew. Each Caribbean island takes pride in its own version of this stew, made with large, edible callaloo leaves at the base. This eatery's version was creamy and smooth, with pleasing chunks of Dungeness crab, pumpkin, and okra. It was great, but the snapper was really fantastic; a perfectly cooked, crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside slab of fish atop a sweet potato layered cake that sailed down my throat and into my stomach like a luxury yacht heading into the sunset. This multi-tiered dish was beautiful to behold and one of the best things I've tasted in this town, ever.
None of the dinner entrees are particularly cheap ($18-35), but this is some of the most dynamic food to be found in Portland, so suck it up. Or come at lunch, when you can get flying fish and other sandwiches in the $6.75-7.75 range. There's also an awesome happy hour ("Island Time") with food specials, $2 Red Stripes, and $4 rum drinks. With those prices, you can afford to drink until you mambo.