During a recent trip to Portland, Oregon, for TikiKon, Mrs. Wonk and I obviously made use of the opportunity to visit cocktail bars – some new, some previously unvisited, and one prior favorite. Here’s my take on each of them. Keep in mind this list isn’t intended to represent a “best of Portland” list. Rather, it’s my observations on the (too few) bars we drank at recently.
Pépé Le Moko
Jeffrey Morgenthaler has built a name on the national cocktail scene as the bar manager at Portland’s Clyde Common. He recently opened a new, very different sort of bar in the same building, but just around the corner. Stand facing Clyde Common, head to the left side of the building, round the corner, and you’ll find what looks like a small storefront named Pépé Le Moko. Duck in, and you’re greeted by a small host stand and stairs twisting their way down into the dark and unknown depths of the building. As you enter the bar area, your eyes take a while to adjust to the darkness. Once they do, you’ll notice that despite the clever curved wall and ceiling paneling, you’re still quite obviously in small basement room with dark corners and exposed pipes. But a very stylish one at that.
Grab a seat at the bar and a menu–you may be in for a bit of shock. For one thing, it features only six drinks. And even stranger, the drinks on our visit included a Long Island Iced Tea, Amaretto Sour, and the Grasshopper. And that Amaretto Sour is $14. What the heck is Jeffrey is trying to pull over on us? Turns out there’s a certain brilliance to what he’s doing. There’s a certain class of cocktails from decades ago, frequently served in bad hotel bars, which aren’t well-regarded today among the cocktail cognoscenti. Pépé Le Moko aims to rescue some of those cocktails from the trash heap of history via cocktail craft and top-shelf ingredients.
For the cocktail wonk audience, Pépé Le Moko succeeds despite the initial shock. I started with the amaretto sour, which Jeffrey has blogged about making the best version of, so it was a natural first choice. All of our drinks were top notch, including the Grasshopper, which Ms. Wonk mocked me quite roundly for ordering. (Says Mrs. Wonk, “It may be Jeffrey Morgenthaler, but it’s still an ice cream drink. Gentle mocking deserved.”) Mocking aside, the Grasshopper was an ice cream extravaganza – rich, minty and filling. If you’re having multiple drinks, have the Grasshopper last!
While the drinks were on the spendy side, the bar snacks are a bargain: A $3 bowl of Hawaiian peanuts was addictive and big enough that we didn’t finish it in our two hour visit. For non-cocktail aficionados, Pépé Le Moko might be a tough sell. A few folks dropped in (probably because Clyde Common was packed), ordered wine and champagne, and left quickly, missing out on the whole point of this tiny craft cocktail gem.
While many craft cocktail bars consciously pick their décor to evoke an earlier era, Teardrop Lounge is unabashedly contemporary. Visually it’s a spectacle. Within the large teardrop-shaped bar area, three or more bartenders work their magic, often pulling bottles from a large clear shelf suspended via wires from the ceiling. On a large, high wall in the back, a movie is constantly playing. (On our visit: The last hour of “Body Heat,” with William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, not to mention a young Ted Danson. And then the first half hour of “The Blue Lagoon”…? Check, please.) There are just a few booths and tables – most of the seating is arrayed 360 degrees around the bartenders in the center, and that’s fine because it’s entertaining to watch them work, with the large set of tools and bitters at their disposal.
Teardrop Lounge is Portland’s indisputable Big Daddy of craft cocktails. The extensive menu of 20-plus cocktails covers a wide swath of the cocktail universe. It’s divided into three sections: House Originals, Classics, and Friends, which are cocktails that originated at other bars, in Portland and worldwide. There’s a punch selection (serving multiple people) on each of the three sections. For a cocktail wonk, the abundance of choice makes selecting a drink an arduous task, so it’s best to stay a while and work your way through. For those of you familiar with the Seattle cocktail scene, the closest approximation, cocktail menu-wise, is Tavern Law, in my estimation.
Our visit to Teardrop Lounge was on a Friday night, unfortunately the only time slot we had. Being located in the Pearl District, it was overrun by the beer/wine drinking 20-something crowd and the music was pumped up a bit too much for our taste. (Says Mrs. Wonk, “I’m too old for that crap. Unless it’s my music, then crank it loud.”) On a previous Portland visit, we took our seats at the bar around 5 PM; it was much quieter, and we had the opportunity to interact with the bartenders beyond just shouting drink orders. In short, Teardrop Lounge is a place worth soaking in, so time your visit appropriately.
Going into our bar crawl, Expatriate was the biggest unknown. Relatively new, and without a big name startender behind it, it’s located on the east side of Portland in one of the many residential micro-neighborhoods. From the street, you might not even notice going by, but then again, that’s true of a lot of exceptional bars.
Once inside, the space is a big, open rectangle space with the bar along the right-hand wall. A very large, Chinese moon gate dominates the back bar, and there’s a small kitchen tucked away in the back. The décor is sparse, but what there is tends toward that of Victorian-era novels – large heavy drapery, candlesticks covered with melting wax, and stacks of books, including the ever popular “Tropic of Cancer,” in case you’re up for a little light reading.
As for the provided cocktail menu, at eight items it’s a bit short, but every drink is original and thoughtfully selected, with a nice description of the ingredients. The drink styles are modern without veering into molecular mixology. All the spirits are named-checked. A good example was my first drink:
The No. 8
- Pierre Ferrand 1840 Cognac
- George Dickel Rye
- Dolin Genepy des Alpes
- Cocchi di Torino Sweet Vermouth
- Regan’s No. 8 Orange Bitters
Expatriate turned out to be the weekend’s happy find, and Mrs. Wonk’s new favorite. Highly recommended! But save us two seats at the bar, please.
In the two years it’s been open, Hale Pele has started to attract national attention as one of the country’s best tiki bars. Owner Blair Reynolds is also behind B.G. Reynolds syrups, previously known as Trader Tiki syrups. We missed visiting Hale Pele on a previous trip because they were closed, and circumstances were looking like we’d miss it this time as well, as we were about to wrap our weekend and head back north to Seattle. However, our plans took an abrupt turn when Iron Tikitender Jason Alexander messaged me that he was driving back down after his big win and heading to Hale Pele.
Walking down the street where Hale Pele’s located, you’d never guess that there’s an epic tiki bar tucked into one of the long, one story buildings. Once you’re on top of it, however, you notice a tiny pond and bridge that connect the street to the interior. Once inside, you’re assaulted by all the canonical Tiki visuals. The first impression is that of an oblong Polynesian hut, with a long bar taking up nearly all of the right side wall. Behind the bar you’ll find more than 200 different rums, so Tiki-wonks will immediately feel at home. Although there is plenty of booth seating, and a special, semi-private Chieftain’s Hut in the back, the bar is where you want to be, not least of which because many drinks are set afire. Who doesn’t want a front row seat for flames?
The cocktail menu is a large, laminated, illustrated, multi-page affair with many of the obligatory Tiki classics. The drinks naturally make extensive use of the many B.G. Reynolds syrups. I worked my way through five cocktails over several hours and found them a bit sweet relative to what I make at home, but still enjoyable. There’s an extensive Captain’s List of spirits, obviously dominated by rums. When you’re done with the Tiki and ready to sip your rum straight, there’s a ton of great choices. Drink enough different rums and you can join Hale Pele’s Loyal Order of Fire Drinkers, a club requiring you have 50 of Hale Pele’s rums for admission.
There are a number of good Portland cocktail bars we wished we’d had time to visit. First and foremost is Rum Club, a favorite from a prior visit. Others include Multnomah Whiskey Library and Kask. Between all the distilleries and craft cocktail bars, Portland is a cocktail wonk’s wonderland!