Southland Whiskey Kitchen Opens in Portland
by Cole Danehower – Portland-area ‘cue fans have a new resource to satisfy their smoked meat cravings. Southland Whiskey Kitchen is newly opened on Northwest 23rd—the bustling boutique quarter is now a barbecue destination as well.
The creation of Seattle-based restaurant entrepreneurs Zak Melang and Nathan Opper (who also run the mini-chain of Matador restaurants—4 in Washington, 2 in Oregon, and 1 in Idaho), the Southland Whiskey Kitchen is a Portland-riff on their recently opened Seattle ‘cue house Kickin’ Boot (in Ballard).
Barbecue is a kind of religion in some parts of this country, but in the Northwest it tends to be non-denominational. “I wouldn’t like to classify us by any particular regional style,” says Zak during a media preview dinner. “It’s a combination of everything we like. We toured the south extensively tasting different styles, from Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas—all those places.”
But when pressed, Zak admits “If we had to describe our style, I’d say it leans toward Texas.” Which makes sense, since the meats are all house smoked with mesquite wood, using a custom-built smoker from—where else?—Mesquite, Texas.
“We do a dry rub and make our own sauces,” Zak adds, “so if you want to go North Carolina or Alabama, you can do it.”
The decor emphasizes a southern comfort ambience. Located in what used to be the Clear Creak Distillery building, heavy use of brick, steel, and reclaimed wood lends an air of rustic sophistication. Zak designed the interior of Southland Whisky Kitchen himself, and did the build out himself—like at all the other Opper Melang restaurants. He uses the company’s own wood and metal shop in Seattle to design and fabricate the finishings.
So why Portland?
“I just love this city,” says Zak, “particularly this neighborhood around Northwest 23rd. I lived here for awhile and I have lots of friends here, and when we opened the Matador here it was wildly successful. There’s a continuing demand for quality restaurant and bars here, and when this space became available I knew it was perfect for this concept.”
While the emphasis is on house-smoked barbecue, whiskey is not far behind. A chalkboard listing of all the available bourbons, ryes, Scotches and whiskey’s whets the whistle for a whiskey expedition: it includes everything from local Northwest whiskeys, to ancient Pappy Van Winkle—including some names completely new to me.
Executive Chef Tim Fuhrman (who opened both Portland City Grill and Portland Steak and Chop House) manages a diverse menu that includes small plates, sandwiches, salads, steaks and seafood, fried chicken, sides (15 of them), desserts, and—oh yeah—ribs and barbecue.
At the preview dinner the spicy shrimp and grits were delectably creamy, smoky, and spicy, while the fried chicken leg was wonderfully moist with a crisp coating of goodness. The platter of mixed meats—pulled pork, brisket, and rib—was satisfying. I might have wished for a little more smoke flavor in the pulled pork and a touch more moisture in the brisket, but the rib was excellently flavored and fall-off-the-bone tender.
I enjoyed the saucing options. The HOUSE sauce is a runny tomato-based beauty that adds a subtle sweetness, the SWEET is more exotic with a tamarind and orange accent, the GOLD is a strong rendition of a North Carolina mustard sauce, the WHITE is the house take on a less frequently-encountered Alabama sauce, the SPICY is a piquant habanero-based sauce.
Interestingly, there is no Kansas City-style thick and dark, sweet/spicy tomato-y option. For those who balk at the possible spiciness of barbecue sauces, I would not be afraid to sample the Southland house sauces; they have very good flavor, but are not aggressive enough to pummel your palate. But since I prefer the punch, my favorite sauce was the house HOT sauce, also habanero based, with a potent enough kick of heat to widen your eyes, but not so killing as to overwhelm the spicy fruitiness of the peppers.
Other menu options include Louisiana catfish, a variety of steaks, hot links, barbecued chicken, burgers, fried catfish Po’boy, fried green tomatoes, seafood gumbo . . . you get the idea: plenty of choice!
Southland Whiskey Kitchen should be a welcome addition to the Portland scene, offering a friendly and cozy environment for sampling tasty Southern-inspired ‘cue.
Southland Whiskey Kitchen
1422 NW 23rd Ave, Portland, OR