I love Scotch eggs, have even tried to make them myself several times. They’re classic bar food in Great Britain. But they’re a perfect breakfast food too. I learn that at Helser’s on Alberta here in Portland, Oregon. Alex Helser serves them with potato pancakes. Mmm. I’m getting ahead of myself.
It’s actually raining pretty hard as we leave the hotel at 6:45 this morning.
Bob’s GPS guides us away from the interstate, down quirky and charming residential streets to our destination: Helser’s on Alberta.
The Alberta Arts District is a cool, hip, artful section of Portland, all along Alberta Street, a neighborhood that’s apparently bounced back in the last ten years or so from from seediness and slummy-ness to its current state of groovy-ness with small shops, galleries, co-op groceries, and popular breakfast places.
We get to Helser’s a few minutes after 7. It’s raining still. We meet Alex Helser. His hostess/waitress/coffee-maker/bartender Leah says she knew we were coming but didn’t know it would be today (!). There are 4 or 5 people already there waiting for food. Glenn starts to get the audio gear together. Bob and I head outside to get some exteriors of the place. The neighborhood is just waking up. An energetic bicyclist — even in the rain — a jogger or two, some walkers and an occasional breakfast eater.
Back inside, as the place starts to fill up, we set up and interview Alex Helser, the owner and founder of the place, a guy with lots of restaurant experience who happened to see this excellent space for rent at the corner of Alberta and 16th Street about five years ago, and he decided to leave high-end dinners behind for the world of breakfast. He says he doesn’t cook very much anymore (although he did all the hash-slinging by himself for the first year or two as he got established.) He says he’s just got a great crew now who keep the place humming. He cares about the food. We talk of sausage, bacon, local suppliers and salmon hash.
And we’re impressed. With both the food and the service. Leah handles all the tables by herself for the first hour or so till Emma arrives. The food looks beautiful. Perfect poached eggs. Bob has no trouble finding stuff to shoot. Leah pauses at one point to get her picture taken with two hot “Dutch Babies” ready to be served.
Me, I don’t know these Dutch babies. They are a sort of German pancake that I wasn’t familiar with, but lots of people here know them and love them. Served usually with lemon and powdered sugar (and syrup too if you’d like), they’re an unusual looking variation on a crepe. Sort of.
We alternate between talking to customers, trying to capture the scene and learning what makes this place special.
Shortly after 9, Paul Gerald arrives. He’s the author and publisher of Breakfast In Bridgetown (Portland is sometimes called the City of Bridges – ha!), he runs a website and tweets as “pdxbreakfastguy” (Portland often uses PDX, its airport code, as shorthand for the city.) He’s fun and quick, and he’s thought a lot about breakfast. He says he’s not a food critic at all, but a travel writer who learned to describe a place effectively by describing a meal, often breakfast, in that place. And he tells us how he quickly learned when he moved here from Memphis that Portland is a city that loves its morning meal.
We had planned to follow Paul to the studio where he tapes a podcast radio show, but there’s so much to shoot (and we don’t want to leave without eating something here ourselves), so I change our plans and decide to skip the podcast taping (even though it’s a show about breakfast!) and finish up here in style.
We spend a while in the kitchen watching the lead cook Mark and his Merry Men as they create all the beautiful plates. Mark is fast and efficient, and he makes me laugh. He isn’t hoping to be as wicked as Anthony Bourdain or as tireless as Bobby Flay or any of the Iron Chefs. He is just sad that he isn’t as smooth and sensuous as Giada DeLaurentiis! Oh, the Food Network!
It is a very busy day at Helser’s, the place is packed much of the morning. Bob and Glenn just shoot and shoot and shoot, and listen listen listen, climbing step-ladders for new higher angles, holding the boom above all the action, trying to capture some of the constant work both in the front of the house and in the kitchen. They are a great team.
[Sometimes Bob wears this utility belt, and today it sort of catches on his shirt, pulling up the bottom of his T-shirt, exposing some flesh on his lower back. It isn’t as revealing or gross as “plumber’s crack” or anything like that, but the goofy people at one table decide that Bob is their newest victim, and they start laughing and making merciless fun of our poor cameraman, even posing for mock Abu-Ghraib-style photos behind his back! Nothing is sacred these days, not even the mighty cameraman.]
When we’re nearly done, we stop to eat some breakfast. Those aforementioned Scotch eggs for me, salmon hash with poached eggs for Bob and spinach-mushroom-tomato Benedict for old Glenn.
Oh yes, the food here is good. We split a Dutch baby for dessert. Yes, this is the kind of restaurant that offers a variety of breakfast desserts, but we go for the baby instead.
We figure Leah is doing a bit of everything, so we ask her also to take our picture, sitting at the counter, our favorite seats in most of these breakfast places. At the counter, you get some of the making-of as well as the grub.
We set up some group photos of their crew too. A few of the shots are sedate and cool.
And a few are not so serious.
What could be better? Leah makes us a “nudge,” a coffee drink with brandy and creme de cocoa and kahlua, whipped cream and a wee bit of coffee. (She pronounces it not as “nudge” but “noodge” which makes it sound more potent, and she mixes a mean drink.) We split it three ways and go on our merry way, noodged out the door.