I’ve long wondered about Tad’s Chicken ’n Dumplins while driving back from various Gorge activities along the Historic Columbia River Highway, enraptured by its neon sign with only the letters “Tad’s Chic Dump” illuminated beneath a glowing outline of the restaurant’s titular dish.
According to Tad’s bookkeeper, Jen Heitzman, Tad’s has been around in some form since the late 1920s, first as a roadside stop by local fisherman Tad Johnson, who sold fish and chips and smelt from the river to travelers. The website describes Tad as a “rascal and a fisherman (in that order)” and, based on the photos I’ve seen, Tad could get it.
The current Tad’s, which has been around since 1947, is perched above the Sandy River, with two bars, a great view of the water, and a strong vintage vibe. Think a knotty pine interior, a life-sized wooden Native American carving, and a jukebox still loaded with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
It’s a longstanding classic, but it may not be around forever. The owner, Judy Jones, put Tad’s on the market last summer so she can retire. Jones, who’s in her mid-70s and greets guests at the door most nights, inherited the business from her mother and is ready to spend more time with family, Heitzman says.
In the meantime, it’s dinner service as usual, which equates to endless streams of the signature chicken and dumplings ($19.50) being hauled out on trays, a monument to carbohydrates and poultry. Served in silver bowls, giant silver serving spoons wedged into the soft dumpling and gravy pooling all around, it looks for all the world like a savory ice cream sundae.
This is not hip food. (Seriously, we arrived at 4:15 pm after a recent soak at Bagby and barely beat the 4:30 pm rush.) But everything, from the salad dressing to the smoked salmon, is made in-house, Heitzman says.
The format has remained unchanged since the ’40s: a small dish of crudite, rolls with wrapped pats of butter, soup or salad, and a heaping serving of tender dark and white meat, just-salty-enough gravy, and a big ol’ steamed dumpling. Lighter than matzoh balls and easily six times as large, they’re steamed separately before being placed atop the chicken and gravy for serving, our waitress told us. Extra gravy comes on the side, naturally.
We also ordered the pan-fried chicken ($22.50) with a dumpling (more gravy on the side). While the hearty half chicken portion was flavorful, the extra ginormous dumpling may have been a carby overkill on our part.
Jones and her crew have leaned into the fact that they just can’t keep the lights burning on half of their outdoor sign: They’ve made “Tad’s Chic Dump” their website (tadschicdump.com) and put it on merch, from magnets to T-shirts.
“The sign’s lights burnt out, so Judy called to have them fixed,” Heitzman says. “Well, the exact same spots burnt out again a week later. A couple customers noted this, told Judy, and she decided to keep it, simply as a joke.”
This is the kind of gold that I sure hope can stay. Just a few hundred yards down the road, the equally historic Shirley’s Tippy Canoe burned to the ground in January, in what investigators are calling “suspicious” circumstances, leaving Tad’s alone to carry the storied tradition of feeding folks headed along the old Columbia River Highway.
“I do want to say that summer here is so amazing,” Heitzman says. “On hot evenings, we open the floor to ceiling doors, let the breeze come in, listen to the river, and just relax.”
Come summer solstice, I plan on doing just that: posting up in the bar with a well vodka soda and a big plate of chic dumps. Here’s hoping that any buyers for Tad’s will keep it going.
Tad’s Chicken ’N Dumplings, 1325 Historic Columbia River Hwy, Troutdale, OR