Russell Street Bar-B-Que

Few things help inspire the struggling amateur food blogger like a good night of barbecue, so it's not surprising to see my long-standing funk (which has generally shut down all writing) shattered after tonight's trip to Russell Street.

Context first. I love barbecue. L-O-V-E it. I've tried to make my rounds to Portland's better BBQ establishments over time, because if I have any genres that demand my loyal devotion to schlepping about and taking in new places, BBQ is at the top of the list (the other genres that push me out to try new places are sushi and breakfast).

To this point, I have been very clear. My favorite BBQ place has been Cannon's (33rd and Killingsworth) for quite some time. At one point I was a Big Daddy's devotee, but they've changed over time so that now I'll go to them in a pinch (and now that I've moved, those pinches are guaranteed to be fewer and farther between). In my opinion, Cannon's is in its own class, with Podnah's Pit coming in a very solid, but distant, second, and then a bunch of also-rans including Clay's and Campbell's, both of which have a better reputation than they deserve (in my book). There are two places that have been on my list of must-visits for some time, based on word-of-mouth: Yam-Yam's (which I've still entirely failed to get to), and Russell Street.

My mother-in-law told my pregnant wife that she wanted to take us out to dinner, to Russell Street, tonight, and fortunately for me the plans were made without my even being consulted. We met at 7:00, prime dinner time in most Portland restaurants.

From the outside, Russell Street is inviting. taking up several street-front windows near MLK, it's a bigger place than I imagined (how had I not seen it before?) and its clean appearance gives you the feeling that these people are beyond trying to affect a down-home environment to fool you into liking the food; they let the food stand on its own. As you walk in, the clean and open space sends the same message.

One of the things I always try to mention in my posts is the appearance. Sometimes being dingy or cramped or what-not is fine, if there's a reason for it. But, generally, I trend toward enjoying open spaces with good flow and a polished feel, and that's what you get at Russell Street. Visually, the only real distractions (not meant in a bad way) are a variety of pigs set up in the middle of the restaurant in a wall area, which are cute, and a neat display of hotsauces that is interactive, in that you can go and grab some for your table, if you wish.

The menu is impressive. Generally, there are the appetizers (I was tempted to try the hush puppies, but didn't want to spoil my appetite for the main event), salads (which I don't really believe in at a barbecue place, but c'est la vie), and the real stuff. The real stuff comes in platters (with corn bread and 2 sides), or you can have the daily special, which comes with one side. There's also a kid's menu, which is always appreciated but, frankly, wasn't expected here.

My general first meals at a barbecue place are either the brisket, because I love it, or else the pork ribs, because they're a staple and most everyone does them well. Tonight I chose the brisket with the optional 3 ribs added on for an additional $4. The sides with my platter were the greens and the barbecue beans. My wife chose pulled pork and got some cheese grits on the side. My mother-in-law chose the blue plate special (the daily), which was a shrimp dish along with grits. My daughter had the mac and cheese.

The service in general is great at this place, which is always a plus, and the extra perk here is that the food is quick as well. After ordering, our beverages (they serve a good variety of beers, mostly local micros, including the more-ubiquitous-by-the-day HUB tap) were out within 5 minutes, and our meals were served within another 10.

In terms of the food, I'll discuss by item. The beans were tasty. Not too sugary and thick enough to almost hold my spoon up, with nicely sized beans that pleased very well. The greens were ample; most places skimp a bit on the greens, but this serving was mostly greens with a bit of broth instead of the other way around, and they were prepared just right, well-cooked without being soggy and limp. To finish discussing the various sides, the grits were serviceable, but I expect cheesiness out of cheesy grits and these were sorta blah, for lack of a better word. My daughter had the mac and cheese, which is offered as a side, and it was home-style. Not creamy, which is great, and firm-noodled with a flavor of real cheese which was okay, but I've yet to find a mac and cheese at a Portland restaurant that is cheesy enough to justify the purchase. My daughter's mac and cheese came with fries, which are another of the sides offered, and they are serviceable but nothing special. Which, I suppose, is a good thing for fries to be; they don't hijack the meal, and they don't ruin it, they just fill it out nicely.

The meat was exceptional as to the meat itself. The ribs were meaty, the brisket was thick-sliced and plentiful. There are several choices of sauce, and I chose the classic, which is someone spicy but not anything designed to distract you from that which it's designed to highlight. The ribs were a bit over-cooked in my opinion; I like them to fall of the bone, and these were just a little too firm and dry in my opinion. They were good, but not Cannon's good. The brisket was the best I've had yet in town, though. It was cooked so that it was literally falling apart on the plate, the texture was lovely, and the flavor of the meat itself was smoky and sweet and good. My main criticism with the meat is the lack of extra sauce; on the brisket it was drizzled on top and running a bit off the side, but with the ample serving provided the sauce sort of ran out and I was left wanting more, which either highlights an over-dependence on my part or an under-provision on theirs. Altogether, the meal was filling and good.

Price-wise, it wasn't bad either. The blue plate special is $12 every day. My brisket platter was $12 and my pint of HUB Pale Ale was another $3.75. Kids menu items are about $3 each. So, for the four of us, we got out for a total of about $50, a great value.

All-in-all, Russell Street is a great place, and one I'd recommend highly. For the sheer enjoyment of the food, Cannon's still tops my list of Portland barbecue, but it's hurt by the lack of a real brick-and-mortar restaurant dining experience. If you're looking for a place to go and have a night out, this place is definitely one of the better options out there.