IN THE PAST YEAR In the past year or so, many a restaurant in Portland has begun to tout its cuisine as “American” or “New American.” What qualifies them as such I’m not quite sure. Apparently anyone who has a steak on the menu, one or two pastas, maybe a whole roasted chicken, and a beet-and-Gorgonzola salad meets the basic requirements. If that’s all it takes, then, from my perspective, American cuisine has become quite boring—reduced to a ho-hum interpretation of rustic European fare. Whatever happened to real American cuisine? You know, chicken pot pies. Fried oyster po’boys and lobster rolls. Melt-in-your-mouth mac and cheese.
Enter 50 Plates—a play on 50 states—the latest eatery to hit the Pearl District. From Carolina pulled pork to Cincinnati-style chili to a Miami-inspired Cubano sandwich or New England clam chowder, this upscale eatery has managed to fill its menu with classic dishes from every region.
It’s the kind of comfort food that used to be served in diners, but with an elevated twist: Instead of buffalo wings, it was a whole buffalo bird (a poussin, or baby chicken) when I visited, served with blue cheese-celery slaw; or it’s mac and cheese with chicken and fennel. Or calf’s liver-’n’-shallots served with a bacon-mustard sauce and green apple scrapple.
Despite the fare, there’s little about the place that feels like a welcoming, mom-and-pop, comfort-food diner, save for the low, leather booths that line one wall. (Although the eminently prepared cocktails—especially the mint julep—are tried and true American classics.) Nonetheless, there’s nowhere else in town that will satisfy my craving for green goddess salad or tamale pie. And what could be more American than having choices, so many choices it’s hard to decide—which, let’s admit, is really emblematic of our way of life.