Review: Helser's on Alberta | 1538 Northeast Alberta Street | Portland, OR
19 Jan 2010 · by Brennan Storr · Be the first to comment!
Flying is idiotic. Not all flying of course, I'm well aware that without the power of flight bumblebees, herons and the like would have a hard time getting around. Human beings however were not born with the benefit of wings and are not particularly aerodynamic so we've spent the better part of our history tottering about on two legs, trying not to fall from high places and doing just fine. A pack of maniacs who women tend to avoid decided that their free time would be best spent trying to defy nature and eventually, after much tribulation, we had the aeroplane. The start of the airline industry meant that ordinary folks like you and me got to experience the immediacy of mortality courtesy of a flimsy metal tube hurtling across the sky at 500 miles an hour. Because government bodies thrive on misery the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was passed, which gave airlines & passengers carte blanche to stop caring about anything.
From then on ordinary folks like you and me still got to experience the glory of the Skycoffin but now with two hundred other people dressed in sweat-pants, all with whooping plague, enjoying the same level of comfort offered in a cattleyard. Add in turbulence and the looming possibility that some resentful virgin who spends too much time on the internet has hidden explosives in his underpants and air travel for fun makes as much sense as trying to kick a bear in the testicles. The only time I will consent to air travel is when time is short, such as this weekend past when Nicky & I visited our friends Rose & Scott in Portland.
Flying in the Dash 8 aircraft used by Air Canada for short hops like Victoria-Vancouver & Vancouver-Portland is to feel like you've been packed into a Port-a-John and launched by catapult. I'm not normally a religious man but but if the almighty has an answering machine then by the time I got to PDX I'd filled the tape. It was all worth it though, to see good friends, have good times and eat good food. Portland eateries have almost never disappointed me and Helser's comes in at the top of what was already an esteemed list.
Like Victoria, Portland has a wide variety of breakfast joints whose will fans swear that their spot is the best in the city. If we'd been unaccompanied it would have been far too easy to walk into the Portland equivalent of the Swiftsure but thankfully with Rose & Scott to hand we ended up in Helser's, which runs more to the "Blue Fox" end of the scale. Entering the restaurant I wasn't very impressed; the decor is bland, the ceilings high, lots of light, big windows and though it wasn't very busy noise was getting ready to become an issue. The waitress who sat us made us feel right at home though and once I saw the menu my opinion change completely.
I was impressed by the variety of things on offer that went past the usual omelettes and benedicts; for example, as of this writing one of their weekly specials is "Grilled Chorizo & Jalapeno Polenta". Maybe you can't handle spicy food for breakfast but I think it's reassuring to know that Helser's caters to people who can. People who love hot food are slightly mad and almost always from the south which means they're a temperamental lot who are guaranteed to be armed. Having them in one place might seem like a bad idea but in reality no good ol' boy is ever going to stop eating long enough to draw one of his eight guns. It's when they start playing cards that you need to keep one eye on the door.
Almost choosing the Black Bean Chili Scramble, I instead went with the Pear & Havarti Pie ($7.95), "Bartlett pears and havarti cheese baked in an egg custard served with crème fraiche, fresh fruit and a toasted crumpet" with a scotch egg on the side & Nicky had the German Pancake ($6.90), "Whipped eggs, flour and milk with lemon zest. Oven baked until golden brown". The pie was magnificent, warm, not too sweet and with a great texture. The separate tastes of pear & cheese worked well together and combined with the custard was quite unlike anything I'd tried before. The scotch egg? Delicious and everything that a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage can be.
Nicky's German pancake looked like a large Yorkshire pudding and tasted light and sweet. The lemon and sugar inside set it off perfectly and she loved every bite. As texture goes it seemed to be halfway between the usual, IHOP-style pancake and a crepe although I never actually got to try a piece so I can't say for sure. My fork made a brief pass in the direction of Nic's plate and I nearly lost a finger, so I took the hint. The pressure is now on for me to cook this at home. Good thing I've recently installed new batteries in the smoke detector.
Travel is en vogue now, you can't throw a rock without hitting someone who's been, or going on, a round-the-world trip. Even some of the most extreme tourists are starting to lose their cool cachet as more and more people write books about how they backpacked Angola while wearing only a codpiece made of wattles. This can only be a good thing - as Mark Twain said, "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime." Sure, on this occasion we didn't venture very far out of our corner of the world, hell we didn't make it out of the Pacific Northwest, but we did end up with some broad, wholesome views of a great city and its food. Helser's was just the beginning and it set the bar high. Next week we'll be back in Victoria with a review of one place or another. I'll be as surprised as you. See you then.