They say that good things come in small packages. I’d always assumed that was just something you said to make the scrawny kids in gym class feel better when they got picked last for dodgeball. But after paying an extended visit to a tiny blip on the map at the intersection of Northeast Killingsworth Street and 30th Avenue, I now understand its true meaning.

Located within easy walking distance of the art, food and good times that can be found on Northeast Alberta Street and just barely out of reach of the looming shadow of the McMenamins Kennedy School, this four square block micro-neighborhood—known as Fox Chase—is part of the larger, vibrant Concordia neighborhood. When you peer more than a block down the street in any given direction, however, it has the feel of a tiny island in the middle of a suburban ocean. But this island is bursting at the seams with a smorgasbord of celebrated restaurants and a unique assortment of retail and service offerings. Gilligan never had it so good.

Add a dash of spice from the diverse personalities that can be found here to the eclectic flavors and creative energy that drive this neighborhood, and it all comes together in one small intersection to create arguably the most interesting and dynamic destination, block-for-block, in all of Portland.


A New Beginning

“The rent on that restaurant is $800 a month—my cell phone bill is that much!”

I’m sitting with restaurateur extraordinaire Micah Camden at Fats—the fourth restaurant he’s launched at this intersection in the last four-plus years—and the man should get some sort of door prize, because he’s just given me the one millionth money quote of our interview. Camden is referring to the relatively cheap cost of doing business at his third such enterprise, the elegant and understated DOC, co-owned with developer Dayna McEarlean. And while I’m tempted to suggest that Camden consider one of those $99.99 unlimited cell phone plans, the more relevant topic at hand is the value that first attracted him and several other prominent business owners to move in, renovate and apply a proverbial spit-shine to the intersection. 


Fats, Milagros and Hail Mary at the corner of NE Killingsworth and NE 30th Avenue

“When we opened up, I was taking down barbed wire and bars,” recalls Tony Fuentes, owner of specialty parenting boutique Milagros, and the neighborhood’s longest-tenured resident at about six and a half years.

Mary Tapogna, who opened the mini-gallery Hail Mary—which features her wonderfully unconventional mosaics—shortly after Fuentes moved in, recalls a payphone attached to her space that was a magnet for drug activity. “I did everything I could to have that taken off,” she remembers, adding, “I think that now this has evolved into a nice little spot.”

“People are no longer afraid to come to this neighborhood,” continues Camden. “It’s not the ghetto. It’s the next up and coming neighborhood.”


NE 30th from Yakuza looking north

 

The Camden Empire

While credit for this transformation is equally deserved by business owners like Fuentes and Tapogna, and an overall revitalization of the broader area, it’s the bold, brash and brilliant Camden who undoubtedly serves as the face of a neighborhood that has become perhaps the most critically-acclaimed restaurant row in the city.

Camden’s first venture, Yakuza—also co-owned with McEarlean—opened in 2006 and is easily the most expansive and visually impressive of his restaurants, featuring red woods, clean, sophisticated lines and an overarching obsessive-compulsive attention to detail that applies not only to the intricate design accents of the space itself, but also the presentation of the inventive, Japanese-inspired culinary creations.

“My inspiration for Yakuza was coming from places like Nobu in New York,” explains Camden. “No restaurant in town really brought that kind of feel and the elements of design and space like that. It was a huge hit right off the bat.”

The seasonal menu at Yakuza features a variety of flavorful small plates that are designed to be shared and an excellent selection of sake. But surprisingly, it’s the Yakuza Burger—made with Durham Ranch kobe beef, topped with piquant goat cheese and ribbons of crispy shoelace fried potatoes, spiced with a mixture of orange zest and chili powder and barely contained within a Pearl Bakery brioche bun—that is its most celebrated item, having been dubbed the city’s best burger by Portland Monthly.

After opening a second successful restaurant with chef Naomi Pomeroy in 2007 (we’ll come back to that later), in 2008 Camden took a swing at the triple crown.


DOC

“At that point, I felt like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” crows Camden. “I felt like I had the golden ticket, because it was working, and we were making huge profits, and I was just like, ‘Wow, I wanna do this again.’”

The result was the aforementioned DOC. This tiny and intimate Italian-inspired dining destination—which boasts an impressively diverse wine list—emits elegance and romance with glass chandeliers and soaring ceilings, and is made all the more unique by its open kitchen, which resides in the front of the house for all to see. Camden calls it his version of “dinner theater.”


Chewing the Fat

Just as we begin to discuss Fats, Camden’s most recent addition to the neighborhood, a healthy sampling of the British-style gastropub’s delicious bar treats are placed on our table. We both do what we do best; Micah continues talking, and I get down to eating.

Camden explains how Fats speaks to a broader audience than his other restaurant offerings: “Why? Because I have a bunch of beer, fish and chips, and bangers and mash. It’s what Portland knows, and it took me four years to figure that out.”

“There aren’t a lot of gastro-pubs in this town,” continues Camden. “There are a lot of foodies out there who love beer, but they don’t want the food served at beer places because they put the food second… Food and beer go well together. They go just as well together as wine and food… So why not study beer a little bit more, start looking for the more obscure brands, start pairing them with food and build your beer list like you would build a wine list?” 


Clockwise from top left: Mowbray Pie, radishes, Angels and the Little Big Burger

All I can do is nod in agreement as I stuff my piehole with savory bacon wrapped oysters dubbed Angels on Horseback (lightly dusted in Malt-O-Meal, sautéed in a mixture of garlic, butter, oil and lemon juice and topped with a creamy horseradish sauce), a dish called a Mowbray Pork Pie (a combination of free range pork, cooked apricots, mustard, pickles and various spices encased in a scrumptious housemade dough made with lard for extra tasty goodness), and the undeniable star of the show, Camden’s version of a Scotch egg (boiled, wrapped in bacon and briefly fried so the yolk is still soft and flavorful).

Finally I’m introduced to a thick and juicy little hunka beef called the Little Big Burger, which is, of course, delicious. Camden reveals that a new restaurant named after the burger—this time his take on an old school fast food joint—will open in the Pearl District this summer, offering simply the burger, fries and canned beer or soda, all at a budget-friendly price-point.

It doesn’t take more than a few bites at any of his restaurants to realize that Camden is damn good at what he does. This mogul in the making is quite simply a restaurant-creating machine, and the formula is the same every time: acquire a space, develop a theme and menu, get rave reviews, smile for the cameras, make money, put good people in place to run the day-to-day operations, start the next project. Rinse. Repeat.

“I build the structure and the format, and say this is the concept and these are the parameters you can work within—now go create,” he explains, adding, “But at the same time, people hold me accountable. I will not let my restaurants slip.”

 

Into the Belly of the Beast

But Camden isn’t the only celebrity chef on the block. Two doors down from where we sit, Naomi Pomeroy is simultaneously slicing, dicing and calling out instructions to her crew in anticipation of the day’s first seating at Beast, which is less than two hours away.


Beast

The door is open so I pop my head in, introduce myself and then take a step back to observe the frantic scene. Beast is a truly unique space, dominated by two communal tables and a chalkboard-covered back wall with random scribblings on it, all juxtaposed by subtle elements of class—in other words, quintessential Portland.

Earlier Camden had told me that after opening Beast with Pomeroy as chef in 2007, he eventually brought her on as a partner, and later gave her the option to buy him out, which was just recently completed. “I realized Beast wouldn’t be what it was without her,” Camden revealed.

The music is blaring, knives are flying and Pomeroy looks way too busy for an interview, but I inquire anyway, because I know this will be my only chance. She looks at me like I’m crazy and declines, but then sweetly smiles and offers to schedule a time to talk. I nod my head, thank her and head for the door, knowing full well how this scenario will play out. The phone call and subsequent email I’ll send the next day won’t be answered for a couple weeks. I will then receive an email instructing me to call her, which I will, and, of course, the call won't be returned. Pomeroy likely doesn’t remember, but this isn’t the first time we’ve done the phone tag tango. Unlike almost every other chef I’ve interviewed over the years, she could care less about me or anybody else with a pen, pad and tape recorder—and for some odd reason, that only makes me like her more.

For Pomeroy, nothing matters but the food. Beast offers two communal dinners at 6 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. Your job is to show up, take your hands off the wheel and let Naomi take control with her weekly rotating, multi-course French bistro style menu. There are no substitutions and no vegetarian options, just a meat-dominated culinary journey complimented by meticulously selected wine pairings. You will eat it, and you will like it.

And in the end, the press thing seems to be working out just fine for Pomeroy. Beast was named restaurant of the year by the Oregonian and brunch of the year by the Willamette Week in 2008, and the same year Portland Monthly pegged Pomeroy chef of the year. She's even featured in the May 2010 issue of O Magazine (that’s right, the one with Oprah on the cover every single issue).

My biggest regret of this article is that I didn’t have the opportunity to pay proper tribute to Oswaldo Bibiano, chef and owner of Autentica. Perhaps in the future I’ll have the opportunity to give this much-lauded Mexican restaurant a proper review. Until then, I’ll have to take the word of more than one chef, including Camden, who have heaped high praise on Bibiano’s flavorful and authentic small plate creations.


NE 30th north of NE Killingsworth includes Blackbird Tattoo, Autentica and DOC

 

The Day Shift

All the aforementioned restaurants open between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. But during the daytime hours, the intersection of 30th and NE Killingsworth is a whole different world. An old school breakfast and lunch joint featuring a run down but cozy interior, colorful green and orange walls, and mismatched tables and booths, Cup & Saucer stands in stark contrast to the chic and celebrated restaurants that the neighborhood is known for.

You likely won’t find their chef written up in the newspaper, either, but don’t believe the lack of hype—this unassuming spot serves up some of the finest pancakes in the city. In need of a little comfort food after my rejection from Pomeroy, I settle into a table with one leg shorter than the others and order up a stack of flapjacks that are literally bursting with boysenberries and walnuts. The pancakes come out slightly bigger than the plate they are served on, necessitating a series of relief cuts in order to keep the syrup from running onto the table—it was an equally refreshing and satisfying experience.


Cup & Saucer

Cup & Saucer has been in the neighborhood since BC (Before Camden), and much like the Great White Shark, they’ve never had to evolve. Checks are handwritten, customers pay their bill up front at the register, and everybody leaves happy, full and with plenty of cash still remaining in their wallet.

As I leave my server informs me that I need to check out Extracto, a hipster’s coffee haven across the street. I amuse myself with the thought that you can’t visit a single neighborhood in Portland without running into a coffee house—even one that consists of only four blocks. As I open the door, the rich smell of roasted coffee beans instantly hits me. It turns out that they roast their beans right on-site, and the hypnotizing scent literally lifts me off my feet like a Looney Tunes character and draws me in. Extracto offers all the things you’d expect from a Portland coffee house, including a variety of tasty looking bagels and pastries, a rotating display of local artwork on the walls and, of course, an assortment of hip and likely unemployed 20-somethings with laptops in tow, mooching off the Wi-Fi and working on their next big screen play.

 

Hidden Treasure

But this neighborhood isn’t just about the food. Show up in the morning or afternoon and you’ll find a handful of very browse-worthy retail spots that are as unique as the restaurants that dominate the intersection at night.

Upon seeing the enchantingly bizarre artwork and knick knacks displayed in a small shop window right next door to Fats, I’m instantly drawn into Hail Mary, where I meet owner Mary Tapogna. Tapogna specializes in intricately pieced together mosaics made with tiny pieces of reclaimed glass and other materials, but plys her craft to light fixtures, crosses, vases and all manner of things—some of which take her months to complete.


Mary Taponga's mosaic work at Hail Mary

“I take a lot of different directions with the mosaic work that I do, just to kind of keep myself interested, motivated and energized about it,” she explains.

Tapogna was once a photographer for the Oregonian, and started out using bits of glass and other recycled materials to create mosaic frames for her photos. Fifteen years later, she’s still going strong. It’s hard to describe all the excellent oddities you’ll find at Hail Mary, so my best advice is to simply discover it for yourself.

Making my way back across the newly constructed crosswalk—a big deal to business owners tired of watching their customers play the real life version of Frogger every time they cross the street—I next head over to Community Resale.

This jam-packed shop owned by Kyle and Lindsay Aronson is stuffed with all manner of junk, hidden retro treasure and everything in between. The way it works is, people can come in and sell various items on consignment and receive 50% of the sale, or donate that 50% to Mercy Corps.

“We take furniture, clothing, art, knick knacks, music, jewelry, just about anything,” explains Lindsay. She notes that business hasn’t been great thanks to the economy, but adds, “We stay here for is our neighbors, really. They’re awesome.”

Kyle informs me that the oddest items brought in include a tarantula encased in acrylic and an exorcism kit, complete with cross, holy water, Bible and a script of what to say. I ponder that oddity for a moment before conducting my own search. The highlights included an assortment of old board games, CDs, DVDs, tapes, records, comic books, framed pictures, jewelry, clothing, kitchen appliances, clocks, lamps, and all manner of books. I snicker at the odd sight of Sense and Sensibility sitting right next to The Black Arts.


Milagros Boutique

Finally it’s on to Milagros, a popular parenting boutique that features all manner of natural and locally made products, including cloth diapers, baby slings, toys and clothing. As a single guy who last changed a diaper, well, never, I instantly become disoriented and confused. Fortunately, owner Tony Fuentes breaks things down for me.

“Our products tend to be environmentally friendly as well as fair trade,” he explains. “The overall nature of it is to try to support this kind of parenting known as attachment parenting, which involves baby wearing, cloth diapering and a lot of very traditional ideas with regard to parenting that have gotten lost in our consumer culture.”

The longest-tenured business owner in the neighborhood, Fuentes notes that this is the first time he can recall that every single storefront has been occupied. The only thing he laments is the loss of several prominent African American business owners who several years back came of retirement age and ended up closing shop, leaving a void in both leadership and mentorship for the nearby African American community.

“I think that what you lose from that is role models for future entrepreneurs who don’t necessarily look like me,” explains Fuentes, who is Mexican American.


Blackbird Tattoo

Fuentes proceeds to drop some more neighborhood-related knowledge on me, and then it’s on to explore the rest of the area. The more I look around, the more perplexed I become by the patchwork of unrelated businesses. Milagros, a parenting shop, is right next door to Fats, a pub, and across the street from the ever-popular Blackbird Tattoo, which is just down the street from The People’s Yoga, which is right around the corner from the office of an architect, which is right next door to two high end hair salons, Studio Thirty and Roots, which is right across the way from a family wellness center—and positioned in just about every other space, there’s a top-notch restaurant.

On paper, it doesn’t make any sense. But then I think back to my time at Cup & Saucer, staring out the window as I enjoyed another berry-bursting bite of my pancakes. I saw the bright colors and unique design of one storefront transition into the next to create a complex patchwork canvas consisting of all manner of distinct flavors and artistic energy. It’s then that I realize that without such a diversity of talents, this little intersection wouldn’t be the unique and vibrant destination that it is today. It's about this time that I also realize I'm ready for another round of pancakes. Waiter!

View the slideshow for more images of Fox Chase or visit our Flickr gallery:


Photos © 2010 Kenneth Aaron, Neighborhood Notes