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.

 

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