The best time I’ve had so far at OK Omens was sitting on the patio with someone I really like, polishing off a bottle of funky Italian rosé and two exquisite hamburgers between us, while honeybees buzzed softly in the herb garden nearby.
There’s been a bumper crop of awesome wine-focused openings lately, from Enoteca Nostrana by the legendary Cathy Whims to Bar Norman from wine-goddess Dana Frank, but I’m digging the more robust menu along with the awesome pours at OK Omens, despite its kinda dumb name.
The former Café Castagna space—rebranded by Castagna owner Monique Siu, chef Justin Woodward, and sommelier Brent Braun—was remodeled to feel more open and sleek on the inside. That means the noise levels are up a notch or two from the former space, known for its burger and butter lettuce salads. While the vibe is certainly more fun and casual, it’s a bit of a Trojan horse for easy-eating food with high-end pops and a wine list that is seriously very good.
Glass pours like a 2000 Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley are described “like slip ’n’ sliding through a wet cave,” while an entire section of Braun’s beloved Alpine wines is called “Juice for Skiing: Swiss herbs, glacier water, smoke & yodeling.” Bottles run the full gamut of prices, while by-the-glass options go from $8 to $17. I loved an $11 lightly chilled natural red (for ease of chugging) from California made with varieties of grapes I’d never heard of, such as Carignan and Valdiguié.
I was dying to try a 2017 Washington “Strawberry Mullet” wine from Cutter Cascadia Wine, as it was harvested following the devastating wildfires in the area last year. The result was a smoky rosé, but for me it wasn’t a good burn going down, and they comped the $12 glass after a few sips. But props to Braun and his team for adding such a bold option.
Food options include another iteration of Portland’s never-ending love affair with fried chicken, this time brined in buttermilk ($14) and given a generous dusting of green Szechuan peppercorn (seriously, there’s a soft chartreuse hue!) that numbs your mouth without burning. A burnt beets and steak tartare combo ($14) is almost off-putting in its strangeness, but it’s the kind of culinary high-wire that Woodward can balance.
It’s easy to drop $160 on drinks, small plates, and tip for two people; while it’s fun to sample a single slice of toast spread thick with puréed eggplant and half circles of tomatoes ($12) and a summer-to-the-nth-degree dish of corn and sorrel greens in a light lemon verbena hollandaise ($12), there are a few ways to rollback the tab.
First, hit the 10-pm-to-midnight happy hour, which also runs all day Sunday, where some very clutch bottles go for $28, and $6 pours promise to be some of the best cheap wines by the glass ever. Happy hour also has loaded fries for $10 and their excellent Caesar salad, with a satisfying salty dusting of corn nuts and cotija cheese topped with sliced peppercorn fried chicken for $12.
But when I go back I’ve got a plan: Two burgers with fries and a bottle of whatever’s cheapest on the staff picks list. There are a lot of fancy-ass burgers in town, but this one nears perfection.
Here goes: It’s a 4.5-ounce beef patty grilled with salt and pepper. Then it’s topped with zucchini pickles, caramelized AND raw white onions, crisp iceberg lettuce, white Tillamook cheese AND American cheese, oozing a burger sauce made with smoked beef fat (cribbed from another Castagna dish) and juice with each bite. (Normally it’s $14—and can make it an Impossible burger for $4 extra, but why?) Packed between an olive oil griddled Grand Central potato bun and served with a hefty portion of beef tallow fries on the side, the first bite is kind of life-affirming. It’s a lot, but the textures and flavors are all on point.
I know the burger is probably only there because Café Castagna’s was so iconic, but I kept making literal “nom nom” noises as I ate, and stopped only to sip my natural wine. It’s a good portent for the future at OK Omens.