f you’ve met her, it’s immediately apparent that Chef Maya Lovelace cares so damn much about the Southern food she makes: a tribute to her grandmother, to hot summers in North Carolina, and to telling a story through a simple benne seed.
(Full disclosure: While Lovelace and I have formed a food-based friendship, as always my allegiance lies with my readers, and I applied the same lens to reviewing Yonder as any other restaurant.)
Lovelace catapulted into Portland’s consciousness in 2015 with her pop-up, Mae, a parade of platters culminating in heaps of chicken fried in three kinds of fat and dusted with a secret blend of spices that Col. Sanders would commit war crimes to get his hands on.
With Yonder, Lovelace and partner Zach Lefler have brought the bird to the masses via a counter-service restaurant in the former Delphina’s Bakery space on Northeast 42nd.
At Mae, Lovelace told anecdotes about each dish, pairing her pickles with a tale of finding preserves under her grandmother’s bed. As Yonder moves into a neighborhood spot, the food has to tell its own story.
The personal touches are more esoteric: The ceiling is painted the haint blue of Southern front porches, there are vintage glasses and serving trays, and framed family photos rest on the bar.
But it’s the food that really sings. We’re there for the chicken, and Lovelace tripled down. Along with the much-crowed-about original, there’s now a Nashville-style hot chicken and a North Carolina vinegar-based dipped bird. The Nashville is a medium-spicy blend that allows you to still taste your food—spice bros need not apply. The dipped chicken is intriguingly tangy, and best layered with bites of pimento mac and cheese ($7), baked to gooey perfection with a potato chip crust.
I’m still a stan for the OG bird, though, be it in the form of a single wing ($3) or an entire to-go bucket served with two large sides and four heaven-high angel biscuits ($57). It’s still crunchy on the outside and burstingly juicy inside, slightly sweet, and entirely perfect.
Here’s the thing though: It’s never been just about poultry. In fact, the fried catfish ($12) may be the city’s low-key best fillet, flaky and moist with the perfect coating of crisp batter. If you ask nicely, you may be able to get it as my favorite sandwich in memory, with American cheese and iceberg lettuce on a benne seed bun. I could eat three.
While Yonder is touted as a meat and three, it’s a bit of a misnomer, as you order the mains and the sides separately. Go for the bacon-braised collard greens ($6), described as “cooked within an inch of their life,” and yet vibrant with a hot-sauced pot likker, either on their own or thrown into a grilled pimento cheese sandwich ($12). If you’re more than two people, add a large iceberg lettuce salad ($11), which is crisp and cool, with a pickled ramp buttermilk vinaigrette (suck it, ranch), sumac toasted pecans, and other goodies.
Don’t forget to add a slice of whatever’s on for dessert, especially the strawberry pretzel salad ($6), a cream cheese and local strawberry gelatin confection atop candied pretzel crust.
But this is Lovelace’s first go at a full-tilt restaurant, and consistency wavers. On my first visit, I had the country ham-braised baby lima beans over Carolina Gold rice ($6), and the creamy beans and sauce were so savory, they caused a three-spoon battle for the last bite. During another visit, however, they arrived too salty.
Yonder could also stand to tweak their counter-service method. The line snakes right in front of where the food exits from the kitchen, creating a tangle, and complicating matters when one orders a second round of drinks. And that’s a thing you should do: Try a charming Meemaw’s Tea ($20), featuring peach-spiced tea spiked with moonshine and served in a little pitcher for two, or the Hurricane Maya ($12), a blend of cacao nib-infused rum, passionfruit, and clarified buttermilk that sounds weird but works well.
Following her Mae pop-ups (which will be re-started as Yonder gets fully on its feet), Lovelace would often send each diner away with a hug. That’s not possible now, but thankfully, walking out of the sky-blue space with a belly full of comfort food, the effect is still the same.