A trip to Portland wouldn’t be complete without visiting one of our more eclectic neighborhoods. Typically, Alberta Street on the last Thursday of May through September would be the place to go.
On those days, 15 blocks of Alberta Street close to car traffic and fill with the sights and sounds expected of Portlandia. Grown men half clothed in tattoos careen in circles on kiddy bikes; barely clad women hula hoop as an art; people on stilts and double decker bikes tower above the crowd; and food carts with every imaginable cuisine from gourmet grilled cheese to maple bacon ice cream line the streets.
We did our best to offer our friends from Australia a full (though much tamer) Portland experience in mid-January. I had no idea just how much of the Portland experience we’d encounter by eating at Jam on Hawthorne.
Seated beneath large paper snowflake cutouts, we noticed neighboring diners and waiters alike cloaked in tattoos and piercings. “I can’t tell the waiters apart from the customers,” my husband commented.
We started discussing options for the weekend, including the snowshoeing trip we’d planned for the next day. In the middle of conversation about snow attire, our waiter ambled up to the table in jeans, a v-neck t-shirt, and thick, black-rimmed glasses. The tattoo murals lining his arms and a brillo-like beard accentuated his burly appearance.
I paused mid-sentence so he could take our order, but he told me not to stop on his behalf. So I went on sharing about the waterproof bib my friend could borrow and warning her she might feel a bit ridiculous in it.
“Oh yeah, those overall things?” our waiter asked. “They’re great.” He raised his eyebrows in mocking fashion.
“But they work, right?” I pushed back.
“Oh yeah, they work,” he said. Deadpan silence followed his response. “I hate snow.”
“Really? Even in Portland?” I asked. “How can you not like getting away to the bright white instead of the rainy grey all the time?”
“I hate snow. It’s cold.”
“It is cold.” I gave a slight nod to affirm his statement.
“You know what to do in an avalanche?” he asked.
“Kind of. But we’re not going somewhere where we need to worry about avalanches.”
“Well, if you did get caught in an avalanche, you can just keep moving your arms so you stay on top of the snow.”
“I’ve heard that,” my husband said. “It’s like you’re riding a wave, right?”
“He knows what he’s talking about,” the waiter replied.
“Or you could get an avalanche backpack,” my husband said.
“They make avalanche backpacks?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” the waiter replied. “They’re really expensive. You don’t need one of those though. If you just keep moving your arms, it’ll make a pocket of air so you won’t suffocate.”
“I’ve heard you can spit to figure out which way is up,” my husband added. “’Cause gravity will always make spit fall.”
Our two Australian friends looked on in wonder.
“We’re not going anywhere that has avalanches though,” I assured them.
“How do you know all this about avalanches anyways?” I asked the waiter.
“You snowboard? I thought you said you hate snow.”
“I was joking.”
“So you don’t actually hate the cold.”
“No, I hate it. But if you have good gear and layers, it’s not cold.”
“Yeah, layers are key. So you’ll probably want those bib overalls,” I concluded, looking at my friend.
“I guess I should take your drink orders.” Our waiter shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other in preparation. “Have you been here before?”
“I’ve been here once. But they haven’t.” My husband nodded toward our friends. “They’re visiting from out of town.”
“Where are you from?” our waiter asked.
“Australia,” my friend’s husband replied.
The waiter rolled his eyes and walked away. After a few paces in the opposite direction, he returned to our laughter.
“What do you want to drink?” He never cracked a smile.
When it was time for my friend’s husband to order, he said, “I’d like a latté, but can I get that with only half the amount of milk?”
The waiter stared at him as though still waiting to hear his order.
“I just don’t like how much all the milk waters it down,” our friend explained.
The waiter continued to stare at him.
“I’ll be back,” he finally said. “And you’d better be ready for me.” He walked away without ever having answered the question.
The four of us started laughing at his departure, uncertain of whether to be appalled by his manner or won over by his dry sense of humor.
When he returned with our drinks, he sat a demitasse-tea-cup-sized latté in front of my friend’s husband with satisfaction.
“Take that,” he said. “What do you want to eat?”
I spoke up first, sharing that I was torn between the oatmeal chai blueberry pancakes and the lemon ricotta maddie cakes.
“I’ll surprise you,” he said.
Normally I’d love such a response. But in that particular moment, I had a preference and was looking to have it confirmed.
“Well, can you tell me about them?” I asked.
“I’ll surprise you.”
“Well…then, I’ll have the maddie cakes.”
“That’s what I was going to give you. You ruined the surprise.” He shrugged and moved on to the next order.
“I’ll have The Other One,” my husband said. “And an oatmeal chai blueberry pancake on the side.”
“You won’t need it,” the waiter informed him.
“Well, what if I want it?” he asked, matching the waiter’s snarky tone.
“Alright, but I’m not gonna talk to you anymore.” He turned his back to us and focused on our friends.
“I’ll have two poached eggs on toast, with a side of ham,” my friend’s husband said. “I wanted to make sure though, are the eggs laid by fairly treated, free range chickens?”
“They actually even grow their black beans themselves,” my husband commented. “On the roof of the restaurant.”
“Yeah, and every time someone uses the toilet, the bio-filtered water sprays the bean plants,” the waiter added. “It’s a great system.”
With that matter settled, my friend placed her order – a simple one for the Grand Marnier french toast we had all eyed at some point.
Once the orders were in, the waiter let the food do the talking.
The maddie cakes stole the show (as much as could be stolen from such a comical waiter), and not just because I was the one who’d ordered them.
They had the perfect amount of ricotta and lemon, neither dominating the overall taste. The ricotta lent extra moistness to the fluffy pancakes without retaining any lumpy texture, and the lemon perfectly tied in the blueberry compote. They were delicious even as leftovers the next morning.
The oatmeal chai blueberry pancakes were not a far off second. Hints of the creamy spiced tea were as uniquely complementary to the hearty batter as I’d hoped.
The Grand Marnier french toast far outdid the others in presentation. It arrived in thick, hearty slices topped with berries and drizzled in fruity compote. The flavors didn’t blend quite right for me though – a bit heavy on the orange cognac undertones.
After two attempts at Grand Marnier flavored food that weekend, I think I may simply not like the taste of the liqueur, so this could very well be an absolutely superb dish for those who enjoy Grand Marnier.
Both of the egg dishes were pretty standard, though delicious for what they were. And the side of honey ham our friend ordered was a thick, juicy, perfectly salted slice that had been browned to perfection. It was by far the best breakfast ham I’ve had.
We enjoyed our meals, but apart from the maddie cakes, they couldn’t rival the atmosphere created by our waiter.
Later that day, while having dinner with friends who live in the area, we recounted our Jam on Hawthorne experience.
My friend’s husband described the waiter who’d served us as “being the most insulting but friendly server” he’d ever had.
“I think we’ve had the same waiter!” our other friend said. “Did he have a beard and was kind of heavy set?”
“Yeah. And he had a lot of tattoos on his arms.”
“We had the same guy,” our friend confirmed. “You’re right – he’s rude but somehow friendly about it. It was so funny.”
It only took three words – Jam, insulting, and friendly – to place the waiter in everyone’s minds.
We had succeeded in offering a quintessential Portland experience.
Because fact and fiction seems to get blurred so often these days, I wanted to note that I made up some of the details of this story due to memory failure at the ripe age of 30.