Portland, OR – Hillbilly Bento

Fusion” cuisine, created in the US in the 70s, marries the foods and flavors of two or more cultures on one plate. An early example of this could be found in Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant “Chinois”,in Santa Monica, which wedded French and various Asian cuisines on one plate. Due to the decades long influence of the French in Vietnam, this wasn’t much of a stretch.

“Bento” is a Japanese word for a single boxed meal, usually to take away, comprised of rice, a single protein like fish, beef, or chicken, and a portion of pickled or cooked vegetables.

“Hillbilly” is a term for the people residing in rural mountainous regions of the US, particularly the Appalachians and Ozarks.

Put them all together and you have “Hillbilly Bento”, a small lunch room in downtown Portland, short on space, and long on flavor.

Choose a style of rice, and a type of meat, including chicken, bbq pulled pork, gulf shrimp, or chuck beef cubes, a traditional Southern side like black-eyed peas, mac n cheese, collard greens, and you’re off and running. Daily specials start at about noon and are available “until they run out.” There is a different special for every day of the week, including such Southern/Southeastern fare like catfish, gumbo, ribs, or, on Saturdays, Chicken Fried Steak.

The very affable proprietor arrived in Portland via North Carolina, and North Carolina has two types of “official” BBQ, “Eastern”, and “Lexington” styles. “Eastern’ is generally whole hog with a sauce made of vinegar, pepper, and sometimes mustard. “Lexington” tends to only use pork shoulder, and most often the sauce is a vinegar and ketchup mix. The latter seems to have the broadest appeal to most American diners, and its what Hillbilly Bento serves up.

Mrs. BDB and I had completed a swing through Portland’s fabulous Saturday market, and acquired a few new pieces trinkets, and were hungry for a little more fanciful fare than the market has to offer, although that’s all truly grand.

We wandered through the downtown streets lamenting the Saturday closures of most food carts, and spotted Hillbilly Bento on 6th Street, across from the US Bank tower. I had seen a few ads for it recently, and had sent out a Tweet to ask people if they had been, and the reports were very favorable.

And I’m all about any place that serves Chicken Fried Steak.

It didn’t disappoint. The friendly owner took the time to answer any and all of our questions, and help steer our indecisiveness towards ordering. He offered us small tastes of the bbq, which was totally delicious. Mrs. BDB ultimately went with the shrimp bento offering, and I with the Chicken Fried Steak with a side of collard greens.

All the food we had was good and in ample enough quantities. The intense flavors of the south have been muted a bit for the Portland palate, and that’s fine, because Hillbilly has a counter full of every possible southern hot sauce you can imagine. (Ask a typical Louisianan to choose between Crystal Hot Sauce and Tabasco Brand, and you’re in for a spirited debate!)

The steak’s breading was crispy and flavorful, the greens smoky and tender, the white gravy had depth and flavor, w/o any flourly undertone that one occasionally finds in this accompaniment. The gulf shrimp were perfectly seasoned and cooked, and the mac n cheese had a little kick in it that may have come from jalapeno cheese.

Mrs. BDB was treating, (left) and the tab ran to about $18, for two lunches, two sodas, and a piece of pecan pie (natch!) to bring home. A great value, in my opinion.

This is another place in downtown Portland I must have walked by a dozen times w/o ever noticing it. I’m sorry that happened. I’ll be sure not to let it happen again, I’ll be back! If you want to become an honorary hillbilly while you visit, print out this certificate, bring it with you, and the owners will sign it!

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