A few blocks back from the Portland waterfront sits 2-story
eatery/drinkery East Ender—known by some as the joint with the beef
cheeks burger, by others as the joint that used to be Norm's East Side
Grill, but by most as the joint next door to Duck Fat (otherworldly fries) that you hit when
the line's too long. The lower level looks like a diner gone
retro-modern, with clean lighting, seats mixing bauhaus with farmhouse and a view into a semi-open kitchen. Upstairs, the retro-modern
continues with contrasting wooden tables and striking black and white
booth upholstery that could use a cleaning. A larger, more traditional
bar with more stools claims the corner opposite the stairs. Open windows at the front and rear draw in a refreshing ocean breeze. Outdoor seating is available in warmer months.
Just as at its predecessor Norm's, East Ender offers barbecue options ("Slow Smoked BBQ") but that area of the menu takes a back seat to the upscale mix of appetizers, salads and entrees that include the requisite seafood representation. Their beef cheeks burger shares the sandwich section with a lobster roll and a surf & turf hybrid that combines the two. But back to the barbecue: choices include a full rack of pork spare ribs ($21), a beef brisket platter ($21) and a Cornish game hen ($19). There are no half racks, no half birds and no 2- or 3-meat combos. Pulled pork makes an appearance as sliders on the bar menu. We're talking full commitment here, and at full price.
I visited East Ender with my young bride for a Sunday lunch during a holiday weekend.
Sausage: Served in a bowl with cole slaw, a single link ($6) cut on the bias had several immediate flaws: no pink smoke ring, only the most token outer coloring and no juices even trickling, never mind gushing. There was moistness, but the unwanted kind—they couldn't possibly have immersed more of the surfaces of both halves into the cole slaw juices if they tried. The first bite brought a mild, hammy flavor that was appealing on some basic level, but this was for the most part a dry and flavorless exercise.
Ribs: The full rack of ribs ($21) arrived as three stacked 4-bone sub-slabs,
squeezed into a bowl to make room for the beans, slaw and cornbread.
After the pale sausage, the ribs' drab exterior wasn't a surprise, but it was no less discouraging. A neutral-colored sauce barely managed to hide the lack of crust and rub while I barely managed to hide my disappointment. The bite was another non-surprise, as the exterior had nothing different to offer from the soggy meat near the bone. Both also had the same chalky texture and blandness buoyed by only the lightest of smoke. The ribs were neither underdone nor overdone, but they were certainly under-reheated: at least three of the ribs were cold. I can't give you the exact total of cold ones, but between the two of us we only forced down four total, purposely cut from two different 1/3 racks. These ribs are billed as smoked, but stewing might have accounted for much of their soggy consistency (and the stacking probably didn't help). Regardless of the methodology, they just seemed old.
A mini ramekin of extra sauce accompanied the ribs. This thinner-than-typical brick red number combined marinara-like tomato with molasses and vinegar.
Cole slaw: I've always said that it's never as good the day you make it as it is the next day. The next week? Well, that might have been what I had here, because the cabbage was totally broken down. At least the condiment still had some punch to go along with the creamy-runny consistency.
Beans: Large, soft and coated with the same marinara-meets-molasses sauce as the ribs, these were probably the greatest success of the meal.
Cornbread: A Twinkie-shaped, Twinkie-tasting version had lots of moistness and lots of sweetness.
Collard greens: This add-on side ($4) brought a very simple treatment that seemed to be a quick cook with some butter thrown in at the end. No meat was included, but that would be way down on my wish list behind some additional salt, some spiciness, some brothiness and at least a few extra minutes of cooking time.
The Bottom Line
East Ender came up short in almost every area: smoke, rub, sauce, doneness, texture, flavor, temperature, sides, freshness, flexibility and value. If there's a line at Duck Fat, just gut it out and wait. Ordinarily I'd be wondering about that beef cheeks burger, but as interesting as it sounds, I'd sooner try worthier joints around Portland.
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