Being pleasantly surprised on a second or third visit to a place might be more satisfying than being pleasantly surprised from the get-go. Last week, with a small group of friends, I had dinner at Palomar, award-winning bartender Ricky Gomez’s slick Cuban cocktail factory on Southeast Division. Most of us had been before, so we knew we were in for great cocktails. My mouth was watering for a sherry-and-bubbly-coconut Jerez Highball and a blended daiquiri. I was less amped for dinner, having been disappointed in Palomar’s first few weeks.
But after a round of drinks, my fricasse de pollo arrived. It was less saucy and more neatly arranged than the mess of a dish I remembered ordering at a 24-hour Cuban diner in Florida earlier this year, but neither was it cutely plated, nor insultingly small. It was also legitimately delicious and impeccably cooked, falling off the bone at just a hungry glance ($17).
Around the table, similar reactions: The lechon asado grilled pork was tender and simply, but deeply, flavorful ($13); even the jackfruit, the least impressive dish on the table, was in a warm, citrusy stew that tasted better than simple vegetarian lip service ($11); and then the big show appeared on the table, the pargo frito, a whole trout minimally but noticeably seasoned and fried whole ($20). This too all but leapt off the bone, and fights were fought over eyeballs and cheeks.
Of course, a classic Cuban medianoche sandwich is on the menu, as well as oysters, empanadas, and dessert. Don’t miss the domino brownies (frosted with white chocolate and studded with chocolate chips, $6) especially if you’re into dessert for dinner—they’re so dense four of us didn’t finish our one order. But if you like dessert for dinner, you can at least get some protein by pairing the brownies with the cocktail menu’s desserty root beer flip, which has a whole egg in it as well as madeira and brandy ($10). Not into breakfast-for-dessert-for-dinner? Go à la mode with an Alexander made of gin and bananas Foster ice cream ($14).
Does this sound like too many cocktail options already? There are almost 30 on the menu. And yet even with almost a dozen variations on the daiquiri plus two more pages of swizzles and coolers and classics, none of these cocktails feels out of place—from a Manhattan with sherry and basil (don’t overthink it) to a rotating fresh fruit blended daiquiri, and semi-obscure classics like a Pimm’s Cup to an apple brandy and crème de menthe swizzle.
If there are missteps, they are minor: house peculiarities like a slightly muddy pineapple- infused gin or inconsistent carbonation on the house bubbly coconut water in what is regardless my favorite cocktail, the Jerez Highball. (This is actually widespread in the city. Note to Portland: Flat soda sucks!) But you honestly can’t get a cocktail that’s under- or overwrought, cutesy or gimmicky. Even that simple Jerez Highball is basically clear, yet still manages to look honestly beautiful amid Palomar’s endless-summer color scheme.
Speaking of those colors: Do you remember the months before Palomar opened? If you’re at all cued into cocktail Instagram, you saw the pretty pictures from pop-ups, the buildout, the gorgeous Miami-fresh pink and teal design. But hype is a complicated endeavor. The better you are at building it up with social media and press, the harder you have to work to beat it with actual product.
Immediate opinions were mixed. In the week following the bar’s opening, word of mouth made it to me before I made it to Palomar: great cocktails, so-so food. And it was true, at least at first. Despite exceptional, eye-opening cocktails, dinner at Palomar in the first few weeks was inconsistent and disorganized. But you have to give a place like this time to catch up to its own branding.
From that first visit, I most vividly remember the look and feel of the menus themselves: illustrated throwbacks to mid-century cocktail culture printed on expensive, richly textured paper and bound between hard covers. Even the pens you’re given to sign receipts are gorgeous. Here in Californiaphobic Portland, that kind of branding money is often an invitation for haters to complain about the Los Angelizing of our city—or in this case, maybe the Miamification. But here’s the thing about LA and Miami: They have a BUNCH of great bars and restaurants.