Old Fat Republicans Eat the Best

If you’re new to Portland (or have the misfortune of living elsewhere in the US), vote democratic, are under 55 years of age and 250 pounds of weight or are, most unfortunately, a vegetarian, you may have never been to Tad’s Chicken and Dumplings. A situation that you will soon need to rectify.

When you enter Tad’s, the nostalgia envelopes your senses like your own mother’s breath on your infant face. The brass, the wood grain, the canvas- shaded table lamps and, most importantly, the red gingham checked curtains. Forget the Sandy River view, those dirty hick children can frolic out of my sight, I want to be immersed in the setting that Tad so thoughtfully envisioned. Okay, so Tad is long dead and the location of Tad’s now was opened by subsequent owners in the 1940’s.

There is a bar, which is fabulous, but is unfortunately manned by youngsters. Some of these youngsters have proven capable, but there is no substitution for experience, or at least the appearance of such. I really wish they would get rid of all those kids and hire some stiff old men who wear bow ties and who know many cocktails but only dispense a half dozen or so. But I cavil.

What’s good about the place is its seamlessness. One is seated courteously, then brought a “relish tray”, which is a silver serving dish filled with raw vegetables and a little paper cup of creamy dill dressing which could use a little acidity and salt. Whenever I see the term “relish tray” on a menu I envision watermelon rind pickles, chow chow and green tomato jam. Alas, I am almost always disappointed. The service is prompt.

I have ordered many things, my favorite is razor clam cakes. Well seasoned, tender and well executed (that is to say, fried), they are the signature appetizer. The fried chicken livers are routinely terrible (what a fucking crime it is). The onion rings are fairly good and the bay shrimp cocktail is (inexplicably) hit and miss.

So skip the appetizers and head straight for the mains. Who needs ’em when you’ve got a rocks manhattan in your hand anyway? The green beans are standard, you can have as many as you like, and you will like many. They’re not, um, how do you say in your language? al dente. Which I must assume means bland and crunchy. They are, as we say in my language, stewed. With ham.

The chicken and dumplings is very large. It is rich and fatty. It is almost seasoned well enough. Unlike many restaurants in the metro area, salt is on the table. Is this what is meant by the colloquialism, the salt of the earth? I remember sitting down to my first meal where a salt dispenser was not in evidence, it was at a restaurant called “Mint” (capital M, lower case m? the website makes it unclear. This sounds like a job for my wife). What was certain was that the food required salt.

The dumplings are dumplings. They are steamed, they are heavy, they are white. They make an excellent accompaniment to gravy. The fried chicken is also good. It lacks the colonel’s secret blend, but who can compete with the Colonel of the Food Scientists? Certainly not I.

In summary, if you ever find yourself out on the Old Columbia Highway near Troutdale, hightail it to your nearest KFC. They have a seven piece meal deal going on right now for ten bucks or something like that. They don’t have drinks, or ambience, and the clientelle and staff are largely ignorant and/or addicted to drugs. But they have managed to, through the genius of food science, transform chicken feces into an incredibly crispy, deliciously spicy, fried nugget that, when dipped in honey mustard sauce, resembles fowl in flavor.

Shaped by Shish Kabob

I remember a certain variety show from the early 80’s called “Evening Magazine”. Nobody else, except my own family, seems to know what I’m talking about. On this show, there was a chef guy who in retrospect probably wasn’t very good, but he was my hero. His name was Chef Tell and he made all sorts of (to my young eyes and palate) exotic and fancy foods. I remember shish kabob was a favorite and you can see what a boss Chef Tell was at preparation here. I begged my mother to make the food that Chef Tell made. I wanted sirloin tips skewered with cherry tomatoes and peppers so badly I could taste them. Chef Tell probably served them with rice pilaf, as cous cous was probably not yet available in this country.

I don’t remember liking Julia Child, but apparently she was a childhood favorite as well. I do remember buying my mother a copy of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” in probably 1987. I don’t remember ever once having “Chilled Shrimp and Cucumber Soup” nor even “caviar dip” (which includes cream cheese). This book now sits on my shelf, and I’ve never prepared any of these dishes either. My closest brushes with the “fancy foods” of the eighties were lobster (from Red Lobster), chicken liver paté, and medium- rare T-bone steaks with my grandfather. Come to think of it, he ate more like the sixties.

I thought that my chances of regularly enjoying the Yuppie foods that graced the tables of the cognoscenti, the Seavers, the Keatons, The Strattons of my childhood had passed into obscurity. I mean I’m not gonna cook that shit, I’ve had those ideas beaten out of my conscious will through years of working in more “contemporary” restaurants (a thoughtless position that I’m strongly reconsidering).

It didn’t really occur to me when I saw it that it would dredge up so much nostalgia, but I knew what type of restaurant it was at first site. I knew from the font, from the first time I gazed upon the metallic geo-scrawl of a nameplate that crowned the wall rising above a heavily-foliaged veranda. This restaurant is a relic. The type of place that might unabashedly serve cultivated mushroom caps stuffed with seafood and bechamel, or a fancy stuffed baked potato, or a molten chocolate filled cake. I always knew that I would someday eat at Perry’s on Fremont.

And what awaited us on that patio was exactly what we might have expected. Families, the men in rugbys and polo shirts, the women in conservative floral print dresses, kids in their easter- egg colored gear, laughing under a giant Japanese maple (these people knew it was cool before it was really cool). The bar looked like a pickup lounge for Tom Selleck or Jack Lord, funky and Modern (note the capital M). I had a Manhattan, Leona had the “Champagne Perry” both truly wonderful, the Manhattan large and strong, the Champagne Cocktail bracing and refreshing. The menu informed us that the owners had previously owned a burger joint further up the road and that they had opened Perry’s in 1984, the same year  that The Police released Synchronicity.

I had the burger; it seemed to be their specialty.  Only one burger was offered, with blue cheese and bacon; weren’t fancy burgers invented in the eighties? It was delicious. The meat was hardly pattied, formed would be a better verb, the result was tender beyond my realm of understanding. The bun was… 80’s, soft, toasted, large, yeasty. What more could I want, toasted onions? Leona, at my urging, had a salad that included asparagus, chicken, hard boiled egg and lemon vinaigrette. It was the quintessence of simple and modern. It lacked salt and acid, yet was perfectly acceptable.
I was passing out by dessert, on account of the five shots or so of whisky I had consumed. But Leona insisted. So I chose the molten chocolate spice cake. What a revelation. So, this is what the college professors, the marketing exec’s, the TV advertising account representatives of the 1980’s were enjoying at their dinner parties. And probably still are. Asparagus, chicken and eggs found what they were looking for, were completed by: warm, runny chocolate and spice.
Say what you like, the ground work for “cuisine” in this country was laid in the nineteen eighties. Yuppies have become (to me anyway) the butt of every joke concerning nouveau riche pretension, but a friend of Leona’s put it best, “the yuppies were seeking authenticity”. Authentic to what, I honestly don’t fucking know, but my nostalgic yearning has been fulfilled.