When you talk about titans of the Portland restaurant scene, one name generally pops up somewhere in the top three: Bruce Carey. As the owner of four reputable Portland eateries, Carey rightly claims the mantle. Today, we pay a visit to the second of his five restaurants, Saucebox.
The Wild Child
Situated just off of Broadway and Burnside in the heart of downtown Portland, Saucebox has a reputation for offering up some of the most innovative pan-asian and pacific island cuisine this side of the Willamette.
First opened by Carey and chef Christopher Israel in 1995, the name came from a search through the thesaurus. As Carey puts it, “I think Chris looked up minx and there we saw saucebox, defined as a wild, untamable child. That seemed fitting for what this rowdy place would be like.”
Fitting indeed, though hidden within its rowdy nature is a quiet refinement. Saucebox is separated into two distinct sides. On one side sits a bar and dining area. A colorful red lighting fixture snakes across the room above your head as soft lighting illuminates an artfully painted wall. It’s a lively scene accompanied by big smiles and boisterous laughter.
Enter the second side and you’ll be greeted by an elegant space of white table cloths, softly flickering candles, and elaborate wall paintings. A single tree sprouts up from the center of the room and large windows provide for ample people-watching as busy Broadway bustles.
Although there’s a classy quietness in the dining room, once it’s full, it sheds all pretense of delicate sensitivities. Saucebox’s rowdy nature returns and the murmur of conversation accompanies the clinking of silverware as the night flies by.
South American Influence
Ensuring your meal is one to remember is Executive Chef Alexander Diestra. For over five years now Diestra has been infusing his own distinct cultural style into the meals he creates at Saucebox. For him, being at the helm of one of Bruce Carey’s restaurants for half-a-decade represents a dream achieved.
Having come to the United States from South America at the age of nineteen, Diestra got his first job as a cook. Although he had thought he was “going to be a computer nerd,” he loved cooking and was good at it.
Before long, Diestra found himself working with some big names, such as famous Indonesian Chef Richard Van Rossum. In 2001, Rossum hosted a James Beard dinner in New York City with Diestra at his side. Chef James Porter of Petite Maison in Scottsdale is also mentioned as a big inspiration.
Diestra skillfully draws upon his heritage when constructing culinary masterpieces. “I’m from South America and there’s a lot of influences, from Chinese to Japanese,” he says.
The evidence of those influences can be seen in in the first course: Soft shell crab steam buns. A warm airiness of the bun accompanies the freshness of blue soft shell crab, cilantro, pickled onion, aioli and red pepper. It’s a starter that sings the praises of proper dim sum while innovating on the concept.
After drawing upon his base inspirations, Diestra employs a number of different techniques to elevate his meals. “We try to play around with different flavors and use a lot of slow-cooking methods,” he says.
Take the beef cheeks. After being slow cooked in the oven at low temperature, they are quickly smoked and bathed in an in-house adobo sauce. Once plated, they are set atop a carrot puree, aji Amarillo and coconut milk. Fennel escabeche, which is a Peruvian vinegar onion mixture, sits perched atop the epicurean sculpture. The meat is tender and juicy and almost melts in your mouth. The intense smoky flavor serves to balance out the spice of the aji and adobo sauces.
It’s an explosion of flavor and texture made possible through the use of quality ingredients. Whether you are at Saucebox or another one of Bruce Carey’s restaurants, his food philosophy shines through. “We try to keep it as local as we can,” says Diestra.
Ensuring you taste the unexpected, Diestra doesn’t stop at the food. “We try to mix a combination of flavors in your mouth,” he says. It’s a philosophy evident in Saucebox’s cocktails.
Take the Jade Scorpion, for example. Excellence shines through as house-made Thai chili
infused vodka accompanies a house-made ginger infused vodka, basil, grapefruit and citrus juice. The darker Thai chili infused vodka separates out and awaits stealthily at the bottom of the glass. As you bottom out, prepare for a gentle kick as the heat pops in your mouth.
Having been serving Portlanders a bright and flavorful mix of food, two synergistic dining rooms, good music and a welcoming mix of customers and staff, Saucebox represents itself well in the heart of downtown Portland. “We want to serve always clean and bold flavors. Only the best for our customers,” Diestra concludes.
Saucebox is located at 214 SW Broadway in downtown Portland, Oregon. Join them on some nights when they have a live DJ blasting groovy beats. Otherwise, they are open 4:30pm – 12:00am Tuesday through Thursday, until 2:00am on Friday and Saturday and are closed Sunday and Monday. For menu information click here or give them a call at 503.241.3393
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.