When I was in New York City a few years ago I stumbled across this tiny Italian joint in Soho called Pepe Rosso To Go. I wandered in about lunch time and saw they had about six tables absolutely crammed together. Pastas were listed on the blackboard above the counter, directly behind which was the kitchen. It was cheap, I think around seven or eight bucks for a good sized plate of very well prepared noodles in various configurations. I remember thinking "This is the kind of spot that you'll never find in Portland." And I haven't....until last Monday. I'd been hearing some buzz about and had spotted this place called Taste Unique right next to another of my favorite places to hang out, Bar Avignon, on SE 22nd and Division. Rumored to be the home of ridiculously good and cheap pastas, mostly to take home, but also with a small eat-in opportunity. I'd read this piece in our local fishwrap a few days ago, and it was a reminder that I needed to get in and see what's coming out of the kitchen.
Monday at lunch I was on my way home with the days shopping and found myself driving right by. A quick stop and I was walking in to owner Stefania Toscano's shoebox sized dining room and kitchen. Looking up to the left I saw their menu board with what was fresh and good that day. Lots of pasta sauces, lasagna, and focaccia with some very tempting sweet stuff to take out, with a few choices for eating in. I grabbed one of the five stools at their (kindly put) cozy eating bar and ordered a plate of spinach cannelloni from Stefania's husband Lawrence McCormick, who was not-so-quietly working the register. Eight bucks. After all the good vibe out there about this place, could this be the PDX answer to Pepe Rosso (without the grit, cockroaches, and deranged looking kitchen staff)? As I sat at the counter pondering these possibly earth-changing possibilities a plate of thin slices of focaccia (above right) appeared before me via the friendly hands of Lawrence. Oh man, this was focaccia that doughy dreams are made of. Perfectly chewy, salty, with a light sheen of fruity olive oil. Instant addictive possibilities. As I chewed my way through these, trying desperately and with limited success to save some, a small Taste Unique-style amuse bouche also came sliding in front of me. Stefania apparently had a few extra of her orecchiete with ricotta and pancetta (pic left). House-made pasta ears, with a light dusting of fresh ricotta and piggy bits. The perfect nosh before my cannelloni. Then this appeared....
A gorgeous, eye-catching plateful of traditional Italian comfort food. Perfectly textured pasta tubes filled with a spinach mixture that tasted so fresh, topped with a piquant tomato sauce, and surrounded by a lush, creamy, and rich pool of bechamel. Wow! Talk about exceeding expectations. This wasn't an undersized portion. In true nonna fashion Stefania seems to have made it her mission that no one walks away hungry. And I didn't. But as I waddled up to the counter, I wasn't so full that I couldn't take a dish of her homemade tiramisu to share with w for a surprise after dinner treat. This too...of course....was amazing. Light, moist (but not too), sensual....mmmmm! The portion size of the tiramisu is ostensibly for four, but once we started in it seemed all too easy to finish between the two of us. I mean really, how are you supposed to stop?
So it is with some hesitation I write and highly recommend Taste Unique, because I'll live in fear that with about ten seats in the whole place I may be sabotaging my future appetite reduction plans. But again, this is all about love and information, right? Just make room when you see me walking in!
**Also noted on my way out the door that they have an OLCC app in process, so hopefully we will be able to sip some vino rosso and bianco soon with Stefania and Lawrence's fabulous offerings. BTW-the pic behind Stefania (from the Oregonian) is of her mother, her mother's siter, and their aunt making pasta. You can tell the roots run deep here!
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Last Sunday w and I took a quick day trip to Hood River to get out of town with the ultimate goal to drive up the Hood River Valley to get some apples orchard direct. When we got to Hood River we wandered around this über-outdoorsy feeling town (if you're not driving a Subaru with a rack on top with some sort of outdoor gear strapped to it you feel like kind of a pussy) and stopped into Celilo for lunch on the recommendation of a friend who has family in the area. There w had a very good eggplant and mozzarella sando, and I had their burger which I have to say is...and if you know me you know I don't say this lightly...near Castagna Café quality. Maybe even as good. A fresh, not-too-lean hand formed patty from local beef with some white cheddar and a cross of applewood smoked bacon. Perfectly medium-rare on a soft bun, this had it all. Great fries on the side by the way. A burger that by itself is almost worth the trip. They also have a nice beer and wine list happening (for very affordable prices).
After that bit of satisfaction we drove up the truly beautiful Hood River Valley where we got some amazing apples (at $.59/lb!!) at Kiyokowa Orchards where there was no one in the sales room, but there were huge bins of various apples and pears, a scale, and a little slot in the wall where you pay on the honor system. Ah, small town America lives on! A quick stop at Double Mountain Brewery for a quick pop to steel my nerves for the drive home finished off an incredibly satisfying Sunday outing.
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A story today on the incomprehensibly bad Oregonian website about the soon-to-open Olympic Provisions, the pork-centric love child of Clyde Common owner Nate Tilden, Clyde chef Jason Barwikowski, and former Castagna chef Elias Cairo. Nate and Jason will be in charge of the restaurant and wine side, and Elias will be living his force meat dreams running the salumeria side, where all manner of meat curing will be happening. The restaurant will have an informal menu with nothing topping $15. I for one can't wait to get my hands on some of Cairo's cured pork products, and Tilden always provides a comfortable place to get your food and drink on. Look for it to open sometime next week!
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Just heard about the best pizza deal in town: at Mark Doxtader's fabulous Tastebud Pizza at 3220 SE Milwaukie Avenue, every Sunday from 5-10pm for $15 a person it is all you can eat pizza fresh out of his wood burning oven. He's pushing the tables together for a communal food fest, and his super fresh farm-to-table locavore's dream pizzas and a couple of salads will be available to those in the know who are fortunate enough to grab a seat. Don't bother calling me for dinner for the next couple of Sunday nights, 'kay?
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More national PDX food cart love, this time via msnbc where some tattooed hipster chick reporter does a story comparing the Portland and New York food cart scenes. New York?? Get the fuck outta here. They got nothing on the PDX scene when it comes to kick ass food carts. Just sayin'!!