I SEEM to be doing a series on carts that go brick and mortar—but that's life in Portland lately. Lardo just happens to be another restaurant-quality spot that grew too big for its britches early on, and now has two locations, one on SE Hawthorne, and a new spot in the West End. They specialize in the sort of sandwiches one imagines Mario Batali might make, if he were feeling naughty, and chef Rick Gencarelli has the experience to pull it off: a veteran of San Francisco's Rubicon and One Market, as well as devastatingly handsome* Todd English's Olives, his CV shows a man who's not messing around.
I stopped by their latest spot on SW Washington a half dozen times over the last two months to see how Gencarelli's latest shrine to all things pig was getting along. It's a hard, polished space with floor-to-ceiling windows that fill the dining area with daytime light and nighttime cityscape. At peak hours the music and the bustle of shoulder-to-shoulder diners threatens to strain conversation, so don't go there if you're throwing a whispering contest with a bunch of priests, but otherwise it's what you'd expect from a busy downtown sandwich joint. Order at the counter, grab a draft from the respectable list of heavy beers for heavy foods (they've even got nitro taps for a couple)—perhaps order a cocktail from the full bar if you truly have nothing to do later—and your platter will, without fail, land on your table with a gratifying quickness.
Gencarelli's ballsy and unapologetic food is, for the most part, a genuine pleasure. His smoked coppa Cubano ($9) tops their best-of list. With the house's thinly sliced roast pork and salty coppa, provolone, dijon, and pickle, it's roundly flavored and spiced, and the tender grilled ciabatta roll helps the sandwich eat cleanly. The pork meatball banh mi ($8) has the emotional presence of a half-pound burger, but features large, smoothly textured sliced pork meatballs with Sriracha mayonnaise, as well as the traditional accompaniments of cilantro, pickled daikon and carrot. Rounding out the top pork items is the griddled mortadella ($8), which pits one of the least-loved but most-deserving classic salumi against marinated peppers for a surprisingly dynamic combination.
If you want to eat here more than once a week, two lighter options are the Italian tuna melt ($8) and the rotisserie chicken ($9). Lardo's albacore tuna salad favors a citrusy tang over mayonnaise (though it has both), and the generous serving is brought to life with Mama Lil's peppers, a salty olive tapenade, and a little shaved fennel. At the heart of the chicken sandwich are large, warm shreds of a beautifully roasted bird under melting white cheddar, brightened with pickled onion and a delicate horseradish aioli.
If the chef came out from the kitchen and asked me to edit anything—which doesn't even happen in my private fantasies anymore—I'd have the following to offer:
The double burger ($9) is clearly a new contender for top honors in town, but it has an Achilles' heel. Two lightly packed, juicy patties of Cascade Natural beef are cradled in a tender brioche bun with melting white cheddar, lettuce, and "Lardo sauce," a seasoned aioli. From top to bottom it's perfection in flavor and texture... save the emblematic slice of pork belly, whose dull and chewy nature sapped the strength of the deeply caramelized beef. The Korean pork shoulder ($8) had the opposite problem: The flavor of the meat couldn't stand up to the outsized dose of strong house-fermented kimchee (though frankly, I don't know what could).
Sides are sized for sharing. I've never gotten even halfway through the Lardo fries ($4, fresh cut potatoes, seasoned nicely with parmesan and fried sage/rosemary), let alone the excellent—in a flagrant kind of way—dirty fries ($7, tossed with chopped hot peppers and big pork-belly lardons). Vegetables do exist here: a hearty, delicious salad of winter greens ($7) balances kale, quartered egg, radicchio, a mild house giardiniera, hazelnuts, and cider vinaigrette. I'd order that before the relatively plain escarole Caesar ($7) with its trio of white anchovy filets and faint dressing.
The West End slapped me upside the head this winter by outpacing even the aggressive restaurant development on SE Division. If you're looking for something fresher than coelacanth à la meunière at Jake's, Lardo is a solid destination for robust, satisfying food that makes no apologies.
Open Sun-Thurs 11 am-11 pm, Fri-Sat 11 am-midnight. Table, bar, and communal seating available. The Corazon/Pinot American Brasserie curse is broken!
* I just looked him up to see if he's still handsome. Oh, my.