Helser's On Alberta
1538 NE Alberta

You're awake. It's Saturday noon. Your head is thumping. Your mouth is dry as a sandbox. You're dying of thirst and starvation. You stumble out to the kitchen for a glass of water. The sink is jammed with dishes and you can't maneuver your cup under the faucet. You panic. Your throat is so parched it's closing shut. You run to the bathroom and fill your cup up with nasty bathroom sink water. You drink the whole thing dramatically, as if you've been trekking the desert for weeks. Now it's onto the starvation. What breakfast pilgrimage will you make today?

On the weekends, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Often, in fact, it's the only meal you need, since a plate of eggs benedict, two cups of coffee, and a mimosa can fill you up until bedtime. But because breakfast is so crucial, and because Portland has so many great cafés, a restaurant has be particularly great in order to lure the crowds.

At this point, Helser's on Alberta is riding the line between classic breakfast spot and just another restaurant. I'm rooting for the place, because I like the sunny, uncluttered dining room, the friendly, unpretentious service, and the mimosas. Plus, having two breakfast diners on Alberta (Helser's and Tin Shed) makes for less waiting at both spots.

The reason I'm skeptical of Helser's, however, is the food. The cuisine is hearty, with European leanings, but the influences seem haphazardly scattered throughout the menu. There's the Scotch Egg and Potato Pancakes: "hard-boiled egg wrapped in bratwurst, lightly breaded and fried golden brown, served with potato pancakes." There's the German Pancake, the Crumpet and Egg Sandwich, and the bizarrely described Scrambled Egg and Spicy Link Wrap, consisting of "two eggs scrambled... and spicy smoked sausage rolled up in a tomato flour tortilla." Beyond that, there's the Mushroom Hash, which tastes good, but amounts to a huge plate of potatoes, mushrooms, and cheese. The dish lacks creativity, not to mention protein.

On one occasion, I ordered the Pear and Havarti pie, which was sweet and lovable--and served with exotic fruit slices and a crumpet. See, I don't understand the crumpet. I'm already eating a bready pie. Do I really want a bready, pancakey crumpet, too? I know I'm splitting hairs, but Helser's menu needs more focus. At present, it's all over the map (literally), which makes choosing a dish difficult and confusing, rather than fun and rewarding.

Granted, this spot hasn't been around long, and they do some things well. I enjoyed their spinach, Crimini mushroom, and tomato eggs benedict very much. The eggs were poached perfectly, the produce was fresh and flavorful, and the hollandaise was creamy, if a bit runny. The potatoes, on the other hand, were noticeably undercooked. While Helser's isn't as surefooted as, say, Zell's, Byways, or the Bijou, it has something good to offer--let's just hope that with a little more time and experience, the restaurant will assert itself--yelling your name from miles away.