By Chris Angelus (and a couple of the photos)
Photography by Katie Acheff
The PFA at Tasty N Sons on a cool Portland Autumn night was particularly special to me. First of all, as the third PFA at one of John Gorham’s restaurants, I knew that he and his crew go to extreme measures to create an over-the-top evening. While most of our dinners are 6+ paired courses, what John does is just keep the hits coming. And there was no doubt that’s what happened here, as you’ll see in Katie’s images. But what made it particularly gratifying is that my idea for Portland Food Adventures was sprung in the summer of 2010 at the chef’s counter at Tasty. During my first visit there just after it opened, I asked Chef John Gorham where he liked to go for breakfast. He reeled off a few, and of those, I went to Fuller’s, which I’d never heard of (and loved it), and the most charming little spot in North Portland called The Little Red Bike Cafe, which sadly is no longer open. It wasn’t a place that many people who lived in Lake Oswego (where I was at the time), had frequented, I am sure. Nor would one necessarily drive that far for breakfast even if they had.
While sitting in that cute little shop eating a perfectly cooked omelet presented aside artistically sliced strawberries and avocados – more or less art on a plate – I thought, “this is a cool idea. Chef’s telling you where to go.” And so I thought about a way to marry as best I could that experience of sitting at the chef’s counter and talking to the chef, and then going where they suggest you go. I called three chefs to see if they would like to try the idea with me. Cathy Whims of Nostrana, Jason French of Ned Ludd and I went back to see John. Here’s how cool Portland is: Cathy didn’t know me at all. She listened, liked the idea and got excited about it, and said yes. Jason not only said yes, but he called Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen and suggested we talk to each other. So I had the first three PFA events set. I really was winging it and I had no idea of where it was going to go, other than something new to try. (By the way, this is before everyone was doing events and had their own private space. I really had no competition for the event space then! And if there had been, I wouldn’t have known. Ignorance IS bliss.) So then I approached John. He was kicking ass with Toro and his new Tasty–both packed, and I presented the idea of doing a Toro Bravo dinner at Tasty at night (it was only open for brunch then). “Why don’t you get your feet wet and then we’ll talk,” he said.
Two years later, while conducting this interview for About Face Magazine, I posed John this question: “So, are my feet wet enough? 24 events. Is that enough?” He laughed, and then said, “OK. Why don’t you do the opening night at Tasty N Alder?” No hesitation, of course. That event was simply awesome. Then, this past summer, he and his lovely wife Renee, who runs the front of the houses at FOUR restaurants, and Chef Kasey Mills upped the ante with the opening of Mediterranean Exploration Company. Again, a huge hit. And then a couple of months ago, when I read in Eater that Tasty N Sons was changing its dinner menu and doing a complete renovation of the space, I picked up my phone and emailed John and Renee and wrote five words. “Tasty PFA to introduce new menu?” Five minutes later, came “Let’s do it!”
I consider myself humble to the point of over self-deprecation, but I can’t be more pleased and proud that over a few years from having nothing to do with the food business here, other than being the same kid in this incredible candy store that so many others are – by just eating my way around Portland – I took this little PFA thing from “getting my feet wet” to having the awesome opportunity and privilege to work with and become friends with people like the Gorhams. (Hear my Right at the Fork podcast episode with John and Renee here.) Super talented, gracious, passionate like no other couple (they feed off of each other), and for me even more gratifying because Toro and Tasty are ALWAYS at the top of my list for go-to spots in Portland when friends come in. To have done opening dinners at what are already legendary places (and I’ll throw in that PFA also presented the opening night at Ox for good measure), is something about which I’m really gratified. A few morsels of Portland food history. Just being there for me is a huge thing, but giving others that opportunity to enjoy Portland’s most engaging food parties and have those memories is even sweeter.
Cut to the present. The Saturday night prior to our event, I was invited to John’s birthday party at his house. Keeping in mind that the almost complete space renovation was to have taken place in the span of two weeks, John said to me, “This is the tightest we’ve ever come.” Ron Avni, John’s partner in the business, confided to me that three days prior to our dinner, he was fully expecting to get an Email saying we were going to have to postpone our dinner. I am so happy I didn’t hear that and John couched it to me in way more confident terms! And that’s because he knows his shit, and gets it done.
So when I showed up at 5pm to do my usual pre-dinner arrangements, it looked like the space was perfect. The maroon walls where now a tasty gray. The bar was brand new. New tables, new chairs. But there were no sign of any construction. Wonderful smells from the kitchen, and ready to go. We were to have the entire Tasty N Sons to ourselves for a raucous PFA party. And so there ya go. In two weeks, while not completely conspicuous to the uninitiated, the place had more work done to it than the MEC renovation in the old Riffle space But in weeks – not months – as John is happy and proud to point out.
The food? I will let the pictures tell the story here.
But before I do, here’s our format for PFAs if you don’t know already: As vast a sampling of a restaurant’s menu as one can imagine–and in this case, check out this menu.
They were serving us all of it! Second, getting to know the folks who run the restaurant. John and Renee Gorham welcomed everyone and talked about their visions. I introduced Chef Tynan Gibson with a little background info on him. He commanded quite a confident presence and getting to know him a little better this night was one of my treats.
While it’s almost impossible to evaluate that much food. On the first night ever putting this crazy amount of food out of the kitchen, what sticks out in my mind as I write this the morning after were the Yaquina Bay Oysters–perfectly tender and delicious, the cheesy grits, both salads, the pastrami (everyone was raving about that), the fried chicken, which was a variance on the other amazing variety at MEC. I also loved the meatloaf and the onion rings on top of them. By the time that came, there were dozens of boxes all over the room. About a bite is all that could be eaten of that meatloaf. But I’ll be back for more…
And so here you go … WE WERE SERVED 26 DISHES! And Katie, who has always done a marvelous job capturing these events with her awesome photography, informed me that she missed a few because the food was coming out so fast and furious, that she couldn’t keep up with it. That’s a first. You’ll just have to go see and taste it for yourself.
Above are the Low Country Hush Puppies with the All American Meat and Cheese Board.
Here we have Carolina Peel n Eat Shrimp, and below the Fried Oysters and Sliders.
Part of the From the Sea collection above, Mussels and Frites!
Crab cakes were amazing! Great food gets even better when amongst friends–old and new. And that’s one of the features of PFAs is the party experience centered around the awesome chefs and their food.
Above is the Raddichio salad and below the baked beans with fried chicken.
Above is the second salad, a super crisp iceberg and ranch. And below shows the corn cakes and savory bread pudding.
Below is one of the most delectable main courses (that was just as great boxed up for the next day) – the Cajun meatloaf with fried onion rings.
And of course there were more sides than we could count, one of the best being the cheesy grits (below, left) and the friend cauliflower and broccolini.
And then, as is the twist with our PFA format, chefs talk about some of their favorite places. In this case, we heard Renee and John give their reasons for loving Ringside Steakhouse as their favorite date night out spot — The little table in the back of the bar. And Little Bird as Renee’s favorite after work place. I included a bonus certificate for people to try Pronto Pizzeria for a white clam or shakshuka pie (the signature Tasty N Sons brunch dish is the shakshuka stew).
After the last of dozens of box-wielding happy people left to digest this wonderful evening, in true John Gorham fashion, he briefed me on his new project, Plaza de Toro. He was so excited about his vision for this test kitchen/event space/MORE. But what struck me about it is that it embodies all that can grow from this man’s heart and vision. He opened Tasty N Sons to give his Toro staff room to grow. He did the same with Tasty N Alder. Mediterranean Exploration Company was sprung as a way to give his long-time chef Kasey Mills and a whole staff of others yet another place to thrive. And Plaza de Toro will create opportunities to incubate talents from within John and Renee’s growing empire into new ventures for those under the Toro umbrella. And yeah, they’ll throw Portland’s best parties or two. It’s wide-open, in true Portland fashion, but it’s for the benefit of those in the Toro ring.
John embodies what is best about Portland and people. His imagination borders on ADD and while it would be impossible for all of his ideas to come to fruition (listen to the podcast above), enough result not only in crazy-good and dishes on many plates every single day, but exciting and solid careers for talented professionals. Think of how many people on any given day are having the best 90 minutes of their day at one of John’s restaurants. It’s really remarkable. But that’s external. As a small businessesman, he’s put all his heart and soul into his people and his passion like no one else I’ve ever met.
That’s got to leave a Tasty feeling with you no matter how you slice it.