You’d be forgiven for not mistaking Portland, Oregon as an epicenter for American Southern cuisine. But in a little hidden dining room on the city’s north end, North Carolina native Maya Lovelace and her barista boyfriend Zach Lefler are transporting diners to the Carolinas, cooking recipes from the coast and upstate Appalachia with a deep reverence for the food of her grandparents, including a DIY approach to coffee roasting.
Here when they put a bird on it, that bird is brined, dusted and fried, and the “it” is your lucky face. This is dinner & coffee at Mae PDX.
The pop-up is named for Maya Lovelace’s grandmother, whose cookbook she’s dutifully working through in a series of Monday and Wednesday night dinners in the back of Old Salt Marketplace, a butcher shop & bar / restaurant in Portland’s cool-as NE 42nd dining strip. Grandma aside, Lovelace’s kitchen bona fides are in order: she was part of the team that helped open Sean Brock’s original Husk Restaurant in Nashville, and more recently she’s served as sous chef at Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast restaurant here in Portland. Both Pomeroy and Brock have a clutch of James Beard awards between them, and both cook with a characteristic unfussyness and hyperlocal sourcing practices that have made their restaurants into much-loved destinations on either coast.
Mae’s family-style menu is locavore with exceptions—the greens and proteins are from Oregon, but the country ham comes from pork saint Alan Benton in Madisonville, Tennessee, and several of the starches are from rare heirloom varieties from the Carolina coast. The coffee, of course, is far-traveled as well, hailing from Carmo de Minas, Brazil. Zach Lefler’s role here is that of a supportive partner: he’s a waiter, a second hand in the kitchen, and has definitely washed some dishes, but he’s also roasting the coffee for Mae and brewing it up as well. More on that later—it’s ostensibly why I’m here, writing this article for a coffee website, but I am duty-bound to first talk about the food.
Starting off with a pitcher of pungent sweet sassafras iced tea, dinner at Mae PDX begins with a greens course more bouquet than salad, with lemon balm, violets, pickled mushrooms, and a red-eye vinegrette made with ham stock and coffee. To an accompanying soundtrack of Dolly Parton and Outkast, we’re served a relish plate stocked with fermented corn, pickled green tomatoes and green beans, pimento cheese, and the aforementioned Benton’s country ham with homemade Angel biscuits.
Dinner basically could have stopped here. Maya Lovelace’s biscuits, slathered with pimento cheese and topped with a slice of country ham, has no other point of comparison here in Portland. You could open a restaurant and just serve that.
But dinner did not stop here. Next was Lovelace’s “Potlicker” collard greens and green onion dumplings, served in a little bowl with braising juice. “Southerners are generally obsessed with this dish,” Lovelace tells us, presenting each dish personally with an anecdote or two, sometimes dropping off huge plates for sharing, other times distributing individual dishes to the guests.
Next, a rice and pea saps bowl is traditional coastal Carolina fare, served with sliced pecans for a bitterness that offsets the savory rice porridge. Almost like a Southern congee, so flavorful and savory and yet utterly composed, I doused my serving with Cristal hot sauce from the bottles Lovelace has placed liberally around her dining room.
Then another salad, this time a medley of substantive braising greens served with a peach vinegar, bacon fat and buttermilk dressing. (You know, for health.) This course was served with cornbread and sorghum butter, another major highlight. The cornbread—from a cornbread mould shaped like little ears of corn—is made without sugar and flour. “Grandma says that makes it a cake,” explains Lovelace.
I’m astonished in the moment to realize that there’s basically two people preparing and serving this entire meal. This is Maya Lovelace and Zach Lefler’s show, with occasional unseen backstage help from the restaurant.
The final course consists of Anson Mills grits with Sea Island red peas, chervil & potatoes with gravy, and a plate of fried chicken, buttermilk and hot sauce brined, dredged in smoked paprika, and fried in both lard and bacon fat. The chicken is good—damn good—made crazy flavorful from the buttermilk brine, light on its feet with that simple dredge, and served at a temperature optimized for scarfing. But it’s the grits that make me go for seconds. Maya Lovelace’s soft touch with dishes like rice, dumplings, biscuits, and these grits are unlike anything else I’ve had on this coast. There is a fluency she displays from these dishes that comes from some kind of deeper expression of her family’s traditional cuisine.
Stuffed, exhausted, and contemplating penance on the treadmill, we’re then served a post-dinner booze slushy made “to make things easier”, made with Old Grandad whiskey, blood orange juice, and clove bitters. Lovelace patrols the dining room, asking if there’s anything we need. Someone calls out, “I need a nap.”
But there’s one more course, and for our purposes the most important. Inspired by a method for cast iron coffee “parching” found in Mountain Cooking by John Parris, Lefler roasts all the coffee served at Mae PDX in his home conventional oven. “It’s pretty low tech,” he tells me, “but we were trying to find out everything we could about Appalachian food, and once we found this, it seemed like an obvious way to go.” Roasting in 150 gram batches, Lefler’s green coffee is purchased here in Portland through a shop called Mr. Green Beans that specializes in selling small lots of green coffee to home roasters. For dinner service, Lefler brews up the coffee in what he calls “large form French press”—a simple brew in which coffee & water are combined in a large vessel for four minutes, then poured through a filter into a waiting Cambro. “This is about the best way I can brew for 25 people,” he tells me, and the resulting cup splits the difference between “traditional coffee foodways” and something more progressive.
We try our coffee two ways: straight black in one cup, then sweetened & creamed up dessert-style in another. The undoctored cup shows lots of clean acidity and sweetness, served at the perfect temperature, with just a little bit of residual fines at the bottom of the cup. The doctored mug—this is how around a third of his guests take their coffee, Lefler guesstimates—is like a desserty hug, and a perfect accompaniment for our dessert of benne cake with sassafras icing and buttermilk whip.
I was fully prepared for this to be what we lovingly call a “…and the coffee was okay” story here at Sprudge, a narrative that’s about pretty much everything but the coffee part of the coffee story. Happily this was not the case at Mae. Zach Lefler’s oven-roasted coffee was not just not bad, but actually really good, complex even, showing the coffee’s provenance and offering layers of flavor. I have had worse drip coffee in fancy cafes. But what a wonderful way for Mae PDX to take its soulful, hands-on approach to every step of the dining experience, and carry that through to the coffee course. This is not some gimmicky hook I have to gloss over in order to do a bit of food writing; the coffee tasted good, everyone at my table dug it, and the concept works.
There is a pop-up restaurant or new kitchen like Mae PDX in a lot of places right now, each with its own soul and intention. Folks of a working age here in 2016, dutifully cooking through old family recipes, reinvigorating those fading cookbooks with high-quality local produce, meat, and other raw ingredients each with their own story to tell, often overseen by other generational emissaries of a bygone time. I can take dinner notes on an iPhone, but the dinner itself is tapped in to another era, and the cumulative effect is transportive.
And so too goes my gratitude as a diner at Mae PDX. These days we might say OMG or drop an Instagram laden with coffee and fried chicken emojis, but the sentiment remains the same, back a hundred years or more. Which is to say, dang y’all—thanks for dinner, it was delicious.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder and editor at Sprudge.com. Read more Jordan Michelman on Sprudge.
Photos by Elizabeth Chai for Sprudge.com.