With winter weather refusing to release its grip on Portland*, I’ve been doing my best impression of the heat miser. Working from home means I basically spend 12 hours in a fuzzy robe and have a never-ending mug of hot tea by my side.
The few times I did leave the house last week, it was to pick up these cocktails, so I couldn’t be mad at having to leave my cocoon. The intimacy of good conversations tucked away in a corner booth or next to a friendly stranger is something most of us bar-goers surely miss right now, but these trusty establishments make sure that you can still stay drinkin’ good in the (King and Concordia) neighborhood.
*By the way, Stumptown Fil is the only weather forecaster I trust.
The team at Keys aims to please. On top of an absolutely stacked lineup of Keys’ signature cocktails that are available online, a second menu of brunch cocktails is also available to-go if you order in person. “If you do want a classic cocktail to-go as well, as long as you’re ordering a substantial food item, you can get up to two,” says bar manager Joel Lee. Hear that? We stan a place that provides choices!
With last week’s weather steadily creeping towards one of Portland’s shit show snowpocalypses, I was drawn to Keys’ selection of hot cocktails, an offering most other Portland bars have decided not to dabble with for their to-go programs.
I look on as Lee freshly brews some coffee in a French press. The coffee, supplied by Killingsworth neighbor Red E, is then combined with Gosling’s dark rum and Lolita’s coffee liqueur. A healthy dollop of whipped cream, a float of allspice dram, and grated nutmeg are the finishing touches to Keys’ “Carribean Nudge.”
Admittedly, the Nudge isn’t the greatest beverage for traveling. By the time I got home after a pit stop at the grocery store, the whipped cream had melted into the hot drink (shocker). This was entirely my bad, though. “I usually ask the guest when they get here, especially with hot cocktails, if they want me to make the coffee or if they want to make it at home,” said Lee. In hindsight, I should have gone for the make it at home option for optimal freshness.
A sister bar to nearby Radio Room, Keys occupies a historic building in the King neighborhood. Long neglected, the former locksmith building was lovingly restored over 50 years later, with the team preserving as much as possible. If you’re longing for a taste of “Old Portland,” you’ll get it at this neighborhood watering hole. The storefront and historic signage remains intact, and some of the locksmith’s contents were repurposed, including hundreds of old keys displayed under the clear bar top.
Keys Lounge, 533 NE Killingsworth, (503) 719-7409, keyspdx.com
About a mile down the road, another neighborhood joint is running with half their regular staff. On a frigid Wednesday afternoon at 4:30, I was surprised but heartened to see Wilder’s large outdoor seating tent at capacity. Owner/bartender/Jack of all trades Ben Preacher walked briskly in and out of the restaurant, multitasking and attending to his customers.
Preacher’s first job upon moving to Portland was a stint at Ringside, “ages ago.” Wilder, he supposes, is his second. What a glow up. The restaurant has been open for seven years this past November, and Preacher’s credo of doing “good, simple things” has seen him through to success.
At Wilder, I found a different type of “hot” cocktail. The “Tamarind Fuego” marries Serrano infused tequila with tamarind purée, honey, and lime. Each ingredient goes in knowing the specific job it was called to do, and the drink is greater than the sum of its parts. The cocktail brings the perfect amount of heat; enough to give your tastebuds a pleasant little kick, but not on a spice level that will have you sweating like a celebrity in the Hot Ones hot seat.
A few bar standards are joined by Preacher’s creations to make up Wilder’s cocktail list. “These are all reflections of what I like to drink, and hopefully other people do too,” says Preacher. When asked if he had a favorite, Preacher chuckles. “It’s like picking your children, you know? It really just depends on the day.” Every one of his children at Wilder is made of healthy stock; each bottle contains two servings of cocktail. Another of his brainchildren, the “Count of Clermont” sounded like an interesting brew of bourbon, dark chocolate, pomegranate, lemon, and bitters.
I have to pat myself on the back for pairing the spicy cocktail with Wilder’s fried chicken. The hearty portion of chicken breasts is crunchy and juicy, and the mashed potatoes are some of the creamiest I’ve ever had. If the rest of the items on the concise food menu are hit on the head with this kind of precision, I can see why they stick to doing a few things and doing them well.
Wilder, 5501 NE 30th, (971) 710-5428, wilderpdx.com