Portland, Oregon’s Dining Month was designed to encourage customers to eat out and try new restaurants during March, a particularly dreary winter month in the restaurant industry. Like many cities, PDX’s Dining Month, where customers enjoy a three-course pre-fixe menu at a bargain price, has been a smashing success. This year’s Dining Month drew 125 participating restaurants from classics like Ringside, Jake’s Grill, and Paley’s Place; new American/Northwest regional restaurants like Aviary and Higgins; seafood restaurants such as Salty’s, Olympia Oyster Bar, and Ringside Fish House; and ethnic eateries, including Gilda’s Italian, Little Bird (French), Pono Farm Soul Kitchen (Asian), and Taqueria Nueve (Mexican), among many others. We had the opportunity to dine at the new South American restaurant, Lechon. and, frankly, RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I were wowed.
Lechon, which means piglet, is located on Naito Parkway in downtown southwest Portland in the historic Italianate style Smith’s Block Building (built 1872), across from Waterfront Park and the Willamette River. The restaurant’s long, narrow space is intimate with décor that combines historic exposed brick walls with industrial chic—open kitchen, small wooden tables and booths, a large salt water fish tank, rough wood bar and wine racks, and open framing on the ceiling. The night we visited, a Tuesday, the restaurant, long bar, and the larger party tables in the back room were all packed and the place exuded a comfortable hum. We had a reservation and were immediately seated at a booth. Service throughout our meal remained attentive and friendly.
Smoky South American Food
The restaurant, under the capable leadership of Executive Chef Jaco Smith, combines dishes from Argentina, Chile and Patagonia with the smoke of wood-fire. They serve brunch, lunch, and dinner as well as late-night dishes that include offerings like ceviche, slow roasted lechon (roast suckling pig), charred 28-day dry-aged ribeye, grilled octopus with chorizo, and piquillo pepper and brisket empanadas. They offer both tapas plates and entrée-sized dishes.
Chef Jaco began cooking at an early age with his mother who often catered theme events at this childhood home. The experience introduced him to world cuisines and he fell in love with foods from around the globe. In addition to the South American fare he regularly cooks at Lechon, once a month, the chef offers pre-fixe Sunday Suppers from places like Hong Kong, New Orleans, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, among others.
During Portland Dining Month, most restaurants offer a couple of choices in each of three courses. Lechon offers its customers six pre-fixe courses—starter, salad, a bread-type dish, two entrees, and dessert all served family style. We began with two, delicately crispy Piquillo pepper empanadas filled with melty Monterey jack cheese and caramelized onions, topped with a smear of salsa verde and served with creamy, delicately spicy ancho chili aioli. It was a great start!
Next came a huge bowl of arugula and radicchio salad with house-pickled rhubarb, candied hazelnuts, and micro-greens, dressed with sweet onion vinaigrette. It was one of the most interesting and delicious salads I’ve enjoyed in a while. The salad offered a cascade of textures and flavors—the bitterness of the greens, a sharp punch of vinegar from the pickled rhubarb, delicate chewiness of the micro-greens, sweet crunch of the nuts–all of it lightened and lifted by the sweet onion vinaigrette. This is a chef who loves to layer both flavors and textures and his dishes are as beautiful as they are delicious. I ate two big bowls of this delightful salad and loved every chewy bite.
Humita, a cooked corn tamale-like dish that originated in Central and South America, came next. Served on a cornhusk, this humita (there was only one for two of us) consisted of soft, cooked ground maize filled with Jack cheese and topped with salsa criolla, fresh cilantro, and thinly-sliced red onion. The humita’s maize had a pronounced corn flavor and a soft, grainy texture that was complimented by the melted cheese. The onions, however, were strongly flavored and didn’t add to this dish.
An entirely successful course was the braised pork belly, two thick slices of pork with a perfect ring of fat topped with aji rocoto, a slightly spicy red Peruvian chili sauce. The juicy pork sat atop a sweet, silken parsnip puree and a pile of al dente sautéed spring vegetables—asparagus, leeks, and snow peas—accented with vinegary, house pickled onions.
My favorite course was the Chilean tri-tip skewers. This gorgeous dish came with two skewers of plump, juicy beef cooked medium-rare, charred cherry tomatoes, and tiny sweet-hot red and orange peppers resting on a smear of parsley-fresh Argentinian chimichurri. The skewers were topped with tiny fresh micro-greens, thin slices of radish, and pickled onions. The meat was tender and moist, the peppers sweet and rich, and the chimichurri fresh tasting. My mouth was singing!
By the time dessert came, both of us were completely stuffed and happy. I was glad to see the creamy, silky Suspiro de limeño was served in a tiny, cube-like dish. This rich Pervuian dessert, whose name means “sigh of Lima,” consists of a layer of creamy dolce de leche (milk, sugar, egg yolk, and vanilla) and a layer of soft meringue topped with chunky cinnamon-sugar. The texture of this dish was satiny-creamy-dreamy with the cinnamon adding a lovely crunch. It proved a perfect end to an entirely enjoyable meal.
Real Bottom Line: Our Portland Dining Month meal at Lechon was one of the best meals Editor Anne Weaver and I have enjoyed in some time. The flavors were rich and complex; the layers of textures exciting and interesting. The dishes, while exotic, were approachable with a wood-smoke twist that beautifully elevated the food to another delicious level. We can’t wait to come back to Lechon and dive into some of Chef Jaco’s other dishes on their regular menu.
And mark your calendars for March 2018 to explore Portland’s Dining Month. You never know what treasure’s you’ll find. – Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; photos by Anne Weaver, RFT Editor