Dan & Louis Oyster Bar, Portland OR
Portland, Oregon is small for a metropolitan city with a laid-back feel to it, but it boasts a thriving food community with something for everyone. In addition to haute cuisine, food carts, delightfully off-center establishments (such as Le Bistro Montage and Voodoo Doughnuts) and the lion’s share of coffee houses, Portland is also home to a handful of historic eateries with long and rich pedigrees like Huber’s Cafe. One of these antiques began humbly as an oyster bar back in 1907 in a time when Portland was a thriving port. Louis Wachsmuth originally founded Louis’ Oyster Bar to sell oysters his family harvested out of Yaquina Bay (about 100 miles southwest as the crow flies on the Pacific Coast). Wachsmuth’s operation became so popular that he was able to expand into the Merchant’s Exchange Saloon in 1919, adding additional seafood dishes to the menu.
As additional dining rooms were added, they were designed with standard nautical motif befitting a seafood house; Wachsmuth took this concept one step further in 1937 when laying out the main dining room, giving it the look and feel of eating in the belly of an old ship (complete with portholes). Louis’ Oyster Bar was a thriving family business that felt the impact of losing Wachsmuth’s son Dan to complications from the flue in 1938; as a tribute, the business was christened “Dan & Louis Oyster Bar”, which it maintains to this day and is still family owned and operated.
One of the menu items added during the initial expansion in 1919 was a simple, yet rich and elegant dish that remains Dan & Louis Oyster Bar’s most popular – the oyster stew. The brew is so ridiculously simple, yet decadent and flavorful; no reduction of this or shaved that or oak barrel aged oil of whatever – just Yaquina Bay oysters, milk, butter, salt and pepper. For the full effect, enjoying this warming concoction is best experienced in the main dining room. As the gleaming metal bowl is brought to the large, wooden galley table the thought crosses your mind that you may get doused as the room pitches on the waves, but the only risk of that happening is if the Willamette River floods its banks again. Taking in the steam rising from the stew makes you appreciate what you don’t smell – the oysters are shucked fresh before being cooked and although a sightless person could easily identify the seafood dish the aroma lets you know you’re in for a treat.
Large, whole oysters are submerged in the opaque, yellow broth; each spoonful yields plump, firm and moist mollusks that necessitate savoring slowly. The ingredients are expertly blended – there’s the perfect amount of salinity, the black pepper doesn’t burn away the flavor, and the butter that separates at the top lightly coats each oyster to create an experience similar to dredging steamers through drawn butter. The rule of thumb at most restaurants is not to go crazy with the carbs when the bread comes out, but you’re going to want to retain some or at least have some oyster crackers at hand to sponge up the creamy aphrodisiac.
Of course, don’t pass up the opportunity to sample regional oysters on the half shell. Although the Yaquina Bay oysters Louis Wachsmuth became famous for are now in short supply (what hasn’t been over-fished is supplied to higher paying customers on the East Coast), Dan and Louis still rotates a decent variety of the local mollusks. Whether by the half or full dozen, these pearls of the sea are shucked at the old bar in the front window, with the list of the day’s selection written on the chalkboard behind the bar. I recently tried the Deer Creek, Gigamoto, Nisqually, Penn Cove, Snow Creek and Tillamook Bay shellfish. Each was relatively small in comparison to other oysters, with the diminutive Gigamoto’s shell being no bigger than a half dollar. Although the oysters were from either Oregon or bordering Washington State, they couldn’t have been more diverse in texture and flavor. While the aromatic and strong-flavored Deer Creek and Tillamook Bay seem to be the most popular, and the Gigamoto (a cross between the Kumamoto and Pacifica) is mild with a low salinity, my favorite was the Nisqually, striking a nice balance of salinity, sweet flavor and firmness.
Portland has a plethora of unique and often historic eateries that serve food perfect for the cool, damp clime of the Northwest, and experiencing this hidden treasure tucked away on a narrow, quiet street is like finding a lustrous pearl hiding in the rough recesses of a shell bed.