Portland Reimagines the Drive-Thru Restaurant
At two of the city's most talked-about summer openings, you don't even need to get out of your car.
There are many ways in which Portland differs from other major cities on the West Coast, and one of them is that it is nowhere near the Pacific Ocean. In fact, Portland is a good hour or so inland, at the confluence of various rivers, lending the place a more familiar quality to anyone hailing from places further east. There are seasons here, winters get chilly, the leaves turn in the fall, and summer days can be extremely warm.
When the temperatures climb, there is no better quick escape from the heat of the city than the Columbia River Gorge, that area of outstanding beauty stopping Portland in its tracks, just 15 minutes or so, traffic permitting, east of the airport. When you see the signs for Troutdale, you're almost there, then I-84 crosses the Sandy River, and it's all over, pretty much, development-wise—for miles, it's mostly just trees, and waterfalls, popular beaches and all but secret hangouts, and happy people taking advantage of all of the above.
Before there was an interstate crossing the Sandy, there was the historic highway, which is still there, if you want to slow down and experience the Gorge without the fleets of speeding 18-wheelers; right where the road crosses the river out of little old Troutdale, with its cute downtown and Saturday farmers and artists market, right by the old bridge, where you can look down on the sunbathers and swimmers and selfie-takers, all enjoying the bright, summer afternoon, there is a modest gas station, built back in the 1920's, that has seen various uses, over time.
You will notice that the place is currently more popular than your average gas station, and that is likely because your average gas station does not serve, among other things, frosty little glasses of frosé, with edible flower decorations and environmentally-sensitive straws stuck in. The Sugarpine Drive-In, which made its debut just weeks ago, was one of the more anticipated openings of the summer, thanks in part to a rather impressive pedigree—the proprietors are Emily Cafazzo and Ryan Domingo, she of Naomi Pomeroy's Beast and he of Andy Ricker's Pok Pok, which, if you know Portland, is pretty good stuff; the notion that they would step away from very well-known restaurants to open a little drive-in restaurant and catering company, out by the Sandy River, well—people were definitely curious.
Lots of people, in fact; Cafazzo recently estimated that they were already serving roughly 800 people a day, no small feat out of that tiny space, with only outdoor seating to accommodate the hungry, and there are so many good things for them to eat. This is summertime food, but for the discriminating—a smoked chicken salad sandwich, shedding juicy grapes and crispy celery, is dressed with a lemon aioli and fresh herbs, romaine and radicchio, and served on a hunky Kaiser roll. There is a deviled egg potato salad, delicate green salads with green goddess dressing, an absolutely beautiful pulled pork sandwich where you can double up the meat, if you're super hungry after a morning of rock hopping along the river, or hiking in the Gorge, and of course, there is ice cream, almost frozen custard-like soft serve, and there are so many different ways to enjoy and appreciate it, from carefully-crafted (and very photogenic) sundaes, to a simple cup or cone of vanilla. On a recent visit during a very busy period, the place was running like a well-oiled machine, a thing that you never take for granted in a place like Portland.
Back toward town, in a very different kind of neighborhood, out past the invisible divide between the Portland many visitors frequent and where a large number of Portlanders actually live, there is another brand new restaurant that everyone has been talking about, this one from Micah Camden, the godfather of some of Portland's biggest names in casual food, like Blue Star Donuts, and Boxer Ramen.
On a sweltering afternoon, the vibe at SuperDeluxe feels more San Fernando Valley than Pacific Northwest, all hot asphalt and thumping bass and exhaust smells, except that the strip club facing the restaurant parking lot, overflowing with cars trying to get into the drive-thru, sports a cheeky sign, advertising "gluten-free lap dances." We are clearly in the part of Portland that finds the other part of Portland funny, which is a pretty big part of Portland and its suburbs, you soon discover, once you start hanging around here. Inside the only recently opened restaurant, there is a crowd patiently hanging about, trying not to let anybody see them bobbing their heads to the soundtrack of club favorites from five years ago, waiting for what Simpsons writer and known fast-food appreciator Bill Oakley called "the best burger I've ever had in Portland."
This will not seem like hyperbole to anyone who remembers Micah Camden's Little Big Burger, back in the very beginning, before it grew into a regional mini-chain and got sold off to an investment firm; apparently, whatever clause there was in the contract has now been outlasted, and Camden is back to reinvent the burger once again, except here, it turns out, he doesn't so much reinvent the burger as he does take a look at the burgers from In N' Out, stroke his chin thoughtfully and then set about making them even better. And better they are—the Double Deluxe, essentially a Double Double but served on the potato rolls Shake Shack uses, costs $5.75, a price that’s entirely justified, all things considered. On the strength of the burgers, and their soda-stomping Fruit Fizzy Waters alone—flavors change with the seasons, the passion fruit was absolutely delicious, as in, drink five glasses of the stuff kind of good—any lover of the genre would want to return to SuperDeluxe over and over again, for a very memorable fast food meal costing less than $10.
Not that there isn't room for improvement; at Little Big Burger, you could, and still can on a good day, drop by and just eat a pile of beautiful fries, with that whisper of truffle oil even truffle oil haters will likely not mind; here at SuperDeluxe, the Yukon gold potatoes are used, abused and pushed out on to the counter limp and lifeless, which is something of a travesty, a mistake that should be fixed, yesterday. The artisanal chicken nuggets (not their word, to be fair) are too expensive to produce, and too expensive to be bothered with at $4.50 for eight measly pieces that would leave nearly anybody hungry. Breakfast, though, you'll want to stop by for that—there is an avocado and egg sandwich on an English muffin for $3.75, there are hash browns too, or yogurt parfaits, if you are feeling virtuous. Throw in a Stumptown coffee, and you could still get out the door for $5 or $6, for a very fine fast food breakfast, because Portland already has pretty much everything else—why shouldn’t it have this, too?