Denny’s of Iniquity
Across our land, late-night diners and restaurants provide sustenance for cops, shift workers and insomniacs. Growing up (to the extent I can say I have), the end of an unsuccessful night out would invariably be the late-night pizza stop. We’d sit on stoops with folded slices and have spirited discussions of one another’s intellect, fashion sense and, of course, sex life.
This is all well and good: every town needs a place for people to sober-up on greasy food and coffee before hitting the bridges and turnpikes. For this informal survey of late-night Portland eateries, I awoke at midnight on four consecutive weekends and set out — with the good judgmentof sobriety, some morbid curiosity, a little envy, and a growing sense of disgust — to find the drunken diners and eat what they eat.
It felt like second-acting a bad play.
Bill’s Pizza: Commercial Street
Walking into Bill’s among the glassy-eyed college kids, bachelorette parties, and guys with nose-blood on their shirts is akin to social Ritalin. But whether it was my clear head or my dry liver, I just could not rally myself to mingle among the dense, drunken crowd stumbling on the cobblestones to Commercial Street. I spent most of the time contemplating the effects of pizza grease on heaving mammae, which everywhere seemed poised to engulf me. One young man treated me to an angry diatribe about his true feelings toward other races, but mostly I just stood around with the vague sense I was about to be punched in the side of the head.
Which is not to say the ambiance at Bill’s is bad: sex, danger and unchecked prejudice provide an electrified setting no interior designer could ever achieve with a CAD program.
The late-night bill of fare covers up the regular menu of toppings and subs. The placard advertises only plain and pepperoni slices, at a tariff rate of $4 and $4.75, respectively. But after so many suggestively named cocktails, no one seems particularly daunted by the prices or picky about the food.
To make a freshly cooked combination of dough, cheese and sauce taste bad takes some effort, but Bill’s seems determined to try. It is apparent that Bill’s uses the ubiquitous SYSCO-brand frozen pizza dough and inferior cheese (cheddar, at least according to a Brooklyn-born pie man I met at the bus station). On the other hand, anything else would contradict the overall logic of the place: If you have mediocre food at high prices, who else can you sell it to but drunks?
I thought over twenty bucks was a lot for a breakfast and a burger, but then again, Denny’s has table service and an FPS security guard with his own car.
Save for a thick glob of undiluted concentrate in the bottom of my orange juice, I have nothing bad to say about the food at this Denny’s. The eggs, grits and bacon were all fine, and the hash browns — shredded, pressed flat and caramel-crisped on the outside, but still tender in the middle — were exceptional. My companion said he enjoyed his Moons Over My Hammy (a ham and egg sandwich with Swiss and American cheeses; invented, by the way, at a New Hampshire Denny’s), I took him at his word. The service was friendly and, refreshingly, not obsequious.
Denny’s doesn’t try to wow you or get fancy with trendy ingredients like chipotle mascarpone or truffle-oil margarine. They stick to simple fare and do it competently.
Although this Denny’s has some regulars, like the Oakhurst workers at the counter, the weekend scene is pretty much the same as Bill’s: a line of kids spilling out the door and into the ad hoc smokers’ area/parking lot.
Denny’s: Brighton Avenue
Fans of high-period Howard Johnson architecture will get a kick out of the interior here: an A-frame-ish ceiling and lots of stainless steel.
We ate a couple of desserts — a Caramel Apple Crisp and a slice of cheesecake — which were good, but I felt vaguely resentful about ordering off a pictorial menu. The crowd was a bit mellower than the one at the Libbytown location, as though the urban impulse to fight had succumbed to the more complacent, suburban urge to fart.
Lang’s Express: St. John Street
Legend has it that in some vast cellar in New York’s Chinatown there’s a huge map pinpointing every struggling restaurant in a sub-prime locale east of the Mississippi. Whenever such a place goes out of business, a dispatcher yells the address to an awaiting family (“1515 Main Street, Youngstown, Ohio!”) and they go scurrying off to set up shop. (Legend also says a similar operation exists in San Francisco, in a warehouse that once stored railroad ties.)
Whatever type of restaurant Lang’s now occupies, it’s clear the dining room was designed not for comfort, but for turnover, and was left completely unchanged during the transition. Thus, most people get take-out, and those who stay don’t linger.
Lang’s serves bog-standard Chinese food. The bone-in pork ribs ($3.95 for three, $7.25 for six) were a little too fatty and gristly, but could still hold their own against most other barbeque pork in town, despite the pervasive red food coloring. The House Special Chow Mai Foon (thin noodles with chicken, shrimp and barbeque pork; $4.95/pt., $7.95/qt.) was all one might expect, though I prefer the dish Singapore style, with Indian curry.
Although Lang’s food is passable, the setting doesn’t rate; you may as well eat in your car.
The Wok Inn: Morrill’s Corner
The Wok Inn is a no-nonsense operation. An army of cooks prepares the food quickly, while a fleet of drivers (one of whom politely declined my request for a ride-along) delivers it.
I ordered Triple Delight and hazarded an order of the seemingly Thai-influenced chicken curry with pineapple and coconut sauce (both $6.95). The curry was palatable, but lacked the richness coconut milk usually imparts. The Triple Delight was better, with a generous portion of succulent meats and semi-crisp vegetables served over a dubious fried rice (I can’t help believing all fried rice is made from leftovers off other people’s plates). This dish had a slight chemical aftertaste, but was still better than, say, the special of oxtail risotto in an inch-thick puddle of orange grease Ribolita once served my dad.
While I ate, I watched the drivers settle up with the tough-but-fair Chinese counterwoman. One of the cooks explained to me the cycle each weekend follows. Referencing a large man who ordered the #5, he said, “He drives a cab, and he is always the last customer. When he comes in, we know that the night is almost over and we can go home soon.”
Come two o’clock, I was promptly kicked out.
— Zachary Barowitz