The Southland Whiskey Kitchen has been open for three months and is the latest project from the group that also operates the seven-strong Casa del Matador chain of restaurants. It's a slick and professional production that already feels like part of its own branded chain; it's right at home alongside the posh and glossy storefronts of Northwest 23rd. The food on offer is BBQ and Southern standards, and a menu of around 150 whiskeys—nearly the entire OLCC catalog, plus special orders—supports the name.
One-half of the duo that opened Southland Whiskey Kitchen is a restaurant designer, and a talented one. The spacious and refined Old West-themed dining room is lit throughout with the low, warm, amber glow of wagon wheel chandeliers and handsome period fixtures; walls and tables of exposed-grain wood create a masculine feeling of sturdiness and quality. It's an idealized recreation taken to the brink of the concept without seeming clichéd or corny. Waiters are many and knowledgeable, and fully attentive even at peak capacity.
You'd better not open your doors in Portland without a competitive hamburger, and Southland's BBQ Burger ($11 with fries, a great value) is a strong offering. It's a tall, loaded, photogenic stack of meat that threatens to eat like a mess but handles fairly well. What feels like a half-pound patty of house-ground sirloin is cooked to order (mine came a perfect medium-rare without being asked, actually), thoroughly juicy, tender, and tastes of genuine fresh beef. The kitchen builds it with thick jack cheese, crisp battered shoestring onions, lettuce and tomato, generous bacon, and some truly good, spicy housemade dill pickles. It's a great burger, though I'd like to ask the kitchen to figure out a way to keep it from sitting in its own juices on the plate—the bottom bun was already sogging through when it arrived, so I had to sit it on a napkin like a priss.
Southland's fried wings are smoked first—a rare treatment of this ubiquitous dish—and their version is excellent. Sweet, sticky, fully-rendered brown skin pairs with deeply smoky jumbo wing meat for a stand-out house specialty. Fried chicken ($14 for two pieces) is perfectly cooked, with juicy meat and a crunchy, dry skin that holds well. The dredge is very plainly seasoned, in line with what I suspect is Southland Whiskey Kitchen's tricky corporate directive to please all but offend none.
Their BBQ items also aim for broadest appeal, which, in a town with this much good BBQ, is underwhelming. Brisket ($13-17) was thoroughly smoky but wan and dry, and like the mushy pulled pork ($12-16), had a nondescript rub. One could be forgiven for thinking the meats are kept plain in order for customers to simply dress them with the six light-bodied house-branded sauces on every table.
A surprising number of details were curiously amiss with the sides. Their horseradish slaw had zero horseradish, and tasted mainly of unseasoned mayonnaise. The Smoked Cheddar and Tasso Grit Sticks ($4-7) were crisp with a creamy interior, but lacked the smoke, spice, and richness of either named ingredient. The Smoky Baked Beans ($4) were loaded with bacon and a sweet, spiced sauce, but the beans were undercooked. The Collard Greens ($3) were generous with bacon but heavy with grease.
Desserts are made in-house, and the Key Lime Pie ($6), with its intense sweet/tart curd, tender marshmallow meringue, and rich, crumbly graham cracker crust, is the best of them. The crust of the Sweet Potato Pie ($6) was tough when served cold, but the filling tasted of real, pure, lightly spiced sweet potato (when brought to room temperature at home, the flavors became several shades more distinct and the crust softened considerably).
You are, of course, clearly meant to drink here—and to drink whiskey. You aren't going to learn any new names on the respectable fifteen-item single malt Scotch menu, but the eighty-item American bourbon menu is a connoisseur's playground. For those who wish to get educated and tight at the same time, nine flights of three labels each are available, in categories like "Oregon," "Bourbon," and "Top Shelf" ($16, $20, $97). Most pours are priced fairly, but some higher-end items seem marked up at a more aggressive rate than others.
Southland Whiskey Kitchen is a reliable source of fairly priced, accessible, archetypal Southern fare that satisfies but—with a few exceptions—does not wow. It is a place to enjoy good whiskey in a flawlessly attractive, upscale-casual setting, but not for those seeking food with a distinct personality.
Open Sunday-Thursday 11 am–midnight, Friday and Saturday 11 am–1 am. Happy Hour 3:30–6 pm, every day. Kids' menu available until 9 pm.