Food Porn Friday: The Monte Cristo at Portland’s Sunshine Tavern

Posted on
Feb 10, 2012

I loved carnivals in my youth.

I loved the way cheap outdoor lighting reflected onto hay cast that world in sepia tones. I loved the smell of the air – of grease and old wood and cotton candy.

There would be twinkling lights, and music, and rides. Enormous, horribly-constructed stuffed animals hung above the rigged games on the midway, as they had for years, because no one could ever win them. Children walked by, sticky from giant swirled lollipops that never tasted as good as they looked. Men in cowboy hats and boots; women with teased hair and pink lip gloss, their names airbrushed across the front of their shirts in rainbow colors. As a child, I wanted nothing more than a shirt like that. Sartorially speaking, I suppose it’s best that I never got one.

There was a darker side to it, too. A side show that featured a headless woman (in retrospect, it must have been animatronic. At the time, though, it was real and scarring). Rides with names like The Zipper and The Gravitron which left me curled up and moaning. At times like those, I couldn’t help but think that maybe, maybe, that night would be my last. It may have been the hastily-assembled rides, operated by stoned teenagers, or the copious amount of junk food now clogging my virgin arteries, but something  made me realize, even at the tender age of  10 or 11, that I would not roam the earth forever.

It was horrifying and glorious.

I have not been to a carnival in decades. County fairs have eluded me, along with their state-wide counterparts.  But I have had dinner at Sunshine Tavern in Portland. And believe me when I tell you: it is the same thing.

Our friends Matt and Kim took us there at the end of summer, in the wake of my birthday, when we drove through town en route to Ashland. When it comes to gastronomical debauchery, they are good partners in crime. Matt drives the getaway car. And I can only assume that Kim has killed more men than she’s brought into the world.

The restaurant had a warm sepia glow, courtesy of low-watt lightbulbs. The air smelled of grease and booze. And as I sat there, slightly hypnotized by the lights of the blinking arcade games that lined one corner of the restaurant, I thought: I know this place.

We had drinks and pored over the menu. The four of us decided to share food, though Kim weighed in with one request.

“I want the Monte Cristo.”

“Oh god,” Matt replied, his eyes wide. “That thing is like a carnival.”

SOLD.

We ordered an entree of fried chicken and waffles to accompany it, and a side of poutine. At the last minute, we added a salad to our meal, its sole purpose on the table being to serve as a counterexample to our gluttony.

The siblings from the deep fryer arrived at the table together, golden and crisp. The poutine was ladened with sausage gravy, and our waiter brought it to us with a side of liver pate, his own excessive addition.

That’s right: we dipped fries in a smooth terrine of duck liver and fat. It was as wrong as it was brilliant. Which is to say, very.

The chicken and waffles were tinged with sweetness. The meat was juicy, the waffle crisp around the edges, light and tender inside. They mixed together, and my tongue could not decipher the riddle going on inside my mouth. Was this madness breakfast or dessert? Sweet or savory? In the end, there were no answers and it mattered not.

The salad, too, was there, attempting to hold its own among the decadence (I took no photo. I do not waste film on vegetables). And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give credit where it was deserved. They were all good. They really were.

But that Monte Cristo stays on my mind like an old lover. I remember every inch of it. The battered crust, the color of a field of wheat at the end of summer. The sprinkle of powdered sugar on top, like the dusting of snow on a winter’s night. The fried egg balanced above it all.

Oh, good. More fries.

This was no mere sandwich. This was birth and death. Love and hate. It was both ephemeral and eternal.

Afterwards, I wanted a cigarette.

When the table was finally cleared, Rand and Kim left to try their hands at the arcade games. I stayed seated and talked to Matt. I think we discussed The Royal Tenenbaums, and the meaning of life, though I can’t say definitively about that last bit. I pointed too much during our conversation, was perhaps a bit too excited and a bit too loud, but Matt let it slide. I was drunk on half a margarita and one quarter of a fried sandwich.

We eventually left the restaurant, and the noise and lights, making a slow retreat towards the car. The sun was still setting late, but a chill had already crept into the air, and we tried to ignore it. Summer was ending. Time was passing.

I was sick with over-indulgence, with the nausea that accompanies any meal cooked by taking a dip into a vat of boiling oil. My heart constricted just a little, and I thought for a fleeting moment that perhaps I might die, then and there. That perhaps that night would be my last.

It was horrifying and glorious. It was a carnival.

Oh, and then, like, ten minutes later we went and got ice cream.

 

Leave a Comment

  • Dylan

    “virgin arteries” is an interesting combination.

  • Geoff

    I like it that ‘sepia’ is the word-o-the-day. It has a carnivalesque feel to it….

  • Katherine See Calacday

    Yum! yum! tsk! tsk! Tsk! Fried delicious foods. “Horrifying and glorious!” What a unlikely combination.

  • OMG. This looks so horribly good! Duck-fat Poutine is my ultimate treat everytime in Montreal…

  • Lisa

    Fantastic piece, you’re amazing. “I do not waste film on vegetables” and “Afterwards, I wanted a cigarette” made me chuckle. And I rarely chuckle.

    • Everywhereist

      Rand and I were talking yesterday about a recent trip to the Germany, and how he gave a presentation, told a few jokes, and no one laughed. My reply? “Well, the Germans aren’t really known as being gigglers.”

      Your comment reminded me of this. 🙂 Thanks for the kind words, Lisa. Glad I could make you have a rare chuckle.

      • Lisa

        You know I think you’re right, I cannot recall ever having met a German giggler (and if I ever did I would be highly suspicious). They do chuckle though. Quietly. You can’t hear it. Much like misunderstood moths.

        Happy weekend!

  • Christina

    I love everything about this post. The fried food, the fat, the gravy, the sweet, coming so close to the precipice of death due to artery clogging oil and fat. I love it all. This is what I call living.

    • Everywhereist

      And, indeed, it felt like living.

      Actually, it felt like death at first, but after that, it TOTALLY felt like living.

  • I feel full just looking at this post. I think I need a nap now.

  • Jen

    Guh… I had no idea. And now I do. And I work just blocks from Sunshine Cafe! Now I’m going to be thinking about that sandwich and its proximity. It’s going to be one of those cravings that I let go for a while (I like to call it my pseudo-willpower), but nothing will taste that good until I finally just succumb. And then when I do, I will shriek with delight, which will be just barely audible due to my very full mouth (think dog whistle). And then I will proceed to go into a food-coma for a solid 12 hou…days. So I guess I’ll see everybody in March!

  • haha, that is ridiculous. All of it is crazy but I’m still stuck on the idea of eating fried chicken and waffles together! Glad you survived!

  • Matt

    I was thinking the whole article “I CAN’T BELIEVE WE WENT FOR ICE CREAM AFTER THIS”. Then I read the last sentence.

    They have brunch now with a breakfast pizza: http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2011/09/daily-slice-sunshine-tavern-portland-oregon.html

  • Chris

    Next time you are in Portland and want to get ice cream after a meal like that, I would go to FlavourSpot and get your breakfast/ice cream all in one! http://flavourspot.com/menu/fremontMenu.html

  • Liz

    Friends Matt and Kim like the band Matt and Kim? The same people? Because that would be amazing.

    • Everywhereist

      They are amazing in their own right, but they aren’t the kids from the band. Though they did go to see Matt and Kim in concert, explaining, “We went because … you know.”

  • That looks deadly! Love me a Monte Cristo but Oh Man, this looks like I wouldn’t be able to conquer even half of that massive sammie!

  • Pat, or, Jim

    I’m glad I stumbled upon this blog of yours, which is very funny and charming by the way, because the second I finished reading this post, I proceeded to make a Monte Cristo with the few available ingredients at the house. Suffice it to say, it was nowhere near as monstrously lovely as the one pictured above, but part of the joy of eating food comes from the satisfaction of having made it, right?

    • Everywhereist

      Absolutely! I recently insisted that we have chocolate cake and salad for dinner. Which made absolutely no sense, but it was wonderful. And I’m convinced that the desserts you make yourself are inherently less fattening than the ones you buy. 🙂

      • Pat, or, Jim

        Yep. I can make a mean peanut butter on a cracker, which must be infinitely less fattening than, say, an eclair. I’ve never really been the type of person that takes calories or fat grams into account when I eat – I have my own mantra of eating and doing what you love, even if it makes you fat. But if I can be inadvertantly health conscienciouss, while thinking that I’m doing what makes me happy, I might as well be healthy. More peanut butter on a cracker for me!

  • Leah

    Unrelated to the post (and WICKED late), but why is every Matt either dating or married to a Kim? My best friends are Matt & Kim (and that’s her second Matt). My sister-in-law, Kim, has dated 2 Matts. Is there something special about those names that such people find each other and know that it’s meant to be? It must be nice to be named that and just KNOW that you have a counterpart.

    • Everywhereist

      But … what if there are an uneven number of Matts and Kims? What if there is not a Kim for every Matt, or vice versa? That’s a terrible thought.

      I can only hope that there is a Rand for every Geraldine. 🙂

      • Leah

        I think it’s Newton’s less publicized 4th law. For each Matt born, there is an equal Kim born as his counterpart (new mothers say things like “I never liked the name Kim before, but I had an overwhelming urge to name her that…don’t know why”) Clearly that solves the problem.

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