Review: Cricket Cafe

I used to have this friend Bob, from back east. St. Louis, specifically, but in Oregon that’s “back east.” Bob was a Deadhead and a pot head, not generally a guy anyone called “uptight,” but Bob used to go berserk at the slow pace of the service industry in Oregon. We once got tossed out of the Montage because he couldn’t get anybody’s attention and finally yelled, “Hey (harsh obscenity), whose leg do I gotta hump to get a beer around here?”

I mention this because Bob also loved breakfast. He was one of those glazed-over cats you’d see around Southeast or North Portland about 11 on a Sunday, woofing down the last of a breakfast burrito before heading home to watch six hours of football. In other words, he was the kind of guy you’d see at the Cricket Café. Except that I think he might have killed somebody at the Cricket Café.
Near as I can tell, the Cricket is known for a few things: long waits, good food, big selection and portions, and slow service. I have seen all these in action time. Try it some time: ask somebody if they’ve been to the Cricket, and they’ll probably say, “Yeah, the food is good there, but I waited forever, and the service was comical.”Basically, I’d say the Cricket is like the perfect Southeast breakfast place: good ideas, good food, slow pace (for better or worse), good folks, a little rough around the edges. For example, the first time I walked in, I was greeted by a lovely person who seated me immediately (it was a weekday), and when I cranked open their immense menu, I saw four purely magic words: “build your own omelet.” Thank you, restaurant gods. I have always wondered why a place can’t just say, “Look, here’s what we’ve got back there, you tell us how you want it.”

And then a fly landed on me. I’ve been there three times, seen flies every time. Welcome to Southeast.

The Cricket is a little bit slacker, a little bit innovative, a little bit old-school, and a little bit rough. Consider:

Colorful artwork of baked goods and outdoor scenes adorn the simple, white walls. Bamboo blinds block the summer sun and Belmont traffic noise. But the ceiling and concrete floor are crisscrossed with cracks.

They buy from local growers and farmers, suggesting a commitment to health and community. They also serve a large list of “liquid breakfast” cocktails, and it’s Happy Hour all day Wednesday!

They bake from scratch and are known for absurdly good cinnamon rolls – but only make them on weekends. And that’s too bad, because whoever does the baking here is quite good at it. The apple bread, for example, is served warm, soft in the middle, and crunchy outside – rather like the whole place, now that I think about it.

I went there once on a weekday around 10, and the place was nearly full, suggesting fine slackerness. But on that occasion, there were five young, energetic people working the place, and they did a great job. Another time, on a weekend, we got there at 9 to beat the crowds and, thanks to seemingly overwhelmed service, didn’t make it out until 10:30 – by which time about two dozen people were waiting for tables.

Worker and creative types come in for the free WiFi internet, and you’ll also see the big sideburns, flannel shirts, and horn-rimmed glasses of the “hipster” set. One day the cook in the open kitchen had a classic Elvis swale of hair. They bill themselves as “pet-friendly,” too.

But the menu! It’s a Denny’s level of variety, but the food is much better, and they have two other wonderful touches: $3.99 specials before 9 a.m. and $3.25 to-go orders.

One thing they won’t do is leave you hungry. You can get combo, known as the Big Farm Breakfast, with potatoes, pancakes, and toast, if you want. The bacon is thick and just crispy. The pancakes are thin but very flavorful, and crisp around the edges, served with pure maple syrup. They also roast their own coffee, which is strong and smooth.

Sticking with the extensive-menu theme, they have homefries (simple, lightly peppered, with the smaller pieces crunchy) as well as crispy shoestring hashbrowns. The granola is excellent – of course. The bowl of fruit was large and fresh, but none of it had been peeled – again, just seems to fit the theme.

So the food is solid, but the real thing about their menu is the variety. There are 22 omelets, scrambles, hashes, skillets, plates and specialties in addition to the two build-your-own sections. You can create an omelet, scramble or potato dish from three lists of 12, 9 and 11 items for $1.55, $1.35 and 85 cents. It’s mildly overwhelming, actually, but a great idea that more places should adopt.

Still, what I am going to remember about the place is two things. One is the relaxed vibe that existed when it was both crowded and calm. On a solo trip, I just kicked back with the coffee and watched the cute staffers do their thing. The other was an interaction we had with the punk … I mean, the young man pouring water for us. There was some music playing, and we were discussing whether it would be called rap or hip-hop. (We’re very white.) Pitcher Boy mumbled loud enough for us to hear, in a voice dripping with disdain, “Just call it music.”

Then he walked off, and we all looked at each other for a moment, caught between shock and humor. Then we remembered where we were, shrugged it off, and dove back into our food.

Cricket Cafe

Address: 3159 SE Belmont, Portland, OR. 97214. Google Map
Hours: Summer 7:30 to 4, Winter 8 to 4.
Phone: 503-235-9348
Payment: Cash, Visa, Mastercard – no checks
Reservations? No
Large groups? Yes
Wait: Long on weekends after about 9:30. Some chairs and cover outside, very little room inside.
Price Range (typical meal with coffee and tip): $10-13
Coffee: Roast their own
Other drinks: Numi tea, Dragonfly Chai, Cocktails
Wi-Fi/Internet? Yes
Feel: Dude, this place is pretty sweet.
Seating: About 15 tables, some in a second-level room in back
Changes/Substitutions: Fruit or pancake for potatoes and toast; otherwise, the menu says “We have plenty of choices for you, so please, no other substitutions!”
Portion Size: Large
Feel-goods: Local fruits, veggies, cheeses, butter and meats
Health Options: Egg beaters or tofu in any dish for $1, vegan and vegetarian options

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. pollo elastico says

    I think I would have enjoyed hanging out with Bob.

    Pitcher Boy sounds like a real cultural barometer. I wonder if you were discussing Holden Caulfield and Hester Prynne, if he would have reductively declared “Just call it literature.”

  2. Paul Gerald says

    That’s pretty good. pollo. Maybe for each place I could have a “definitive character” say something that wraps up the whole place. Like at Pattie’s it would be “Hey hun,” or at Montage it could be “What the *&%^&* do you want?”

    And yes, Bob was entertaining. His outburst at Montage remains a high point of my life in Portland.

  3. says

    I like Cricket Cafe a lot. I’ve only been there once but had a cup of the best soup I’ve ever had — it was a carrot-coconut-curry or something like that.

    It’s definitely on our list of places to wander back to…but I can totally visualize the “pitcher boy” encounter you had. It seems like the exact type of place where that would happen. Oh well. Pass the soup.

  4. sarah j says

    i miss the cricket cafe. i moved away and often find myself wishing on weekend mornings that portland wasn’t 5 hours away. damn fine cinnamon rolls. the best. and about the wait…come on, its weekend breakfast, where won’t you have to wait. i think its worth it.

  5. Nate says

    I have been going to the Cricket for 6-7 years. I would even make the trek when I lived in N. Portland. I would say that 2000 to 2001 the food was good and the service was slooooow.
    This past year I have noticed a change. The food is really great and the service has notched way up. I am a huge foodie and small touches mean much. I think these guys make the best hashbrowns I have ever eaten (even if they are from Ore-Ida).
    My only gripe is the coffee….can we get some Stumptown please?

  6. sharon says

    This was an *awesome* article Paul! Loved your writing so much…

    Me and my friends are mushroom hunters, and the Cricket is a staple just for the fact we can get honkin huge breakfast burritoes to go at 7:30am on our way outta town.

  7. Laurel Barton says

    Despite this 2006 review we ate Sunday breakfast at the Cricket on our way to Portland Nursery. As westside residents, we don’t journey to the eastside for breakfast too often, and if we do, it’s to the Cadillac Cafe, conveniently close in on Broadway. But today, the Cricket called on our way to 50th and Stark. I’m glad we made the trip.

    At 0815 on a chilly August morning, there was no wait. A few two-tops were occupied, and a couple with a well-behaved child took the big window booth. We were greeted immediately and afforded the opportunity to choose our own spot. Coffee came quickly and was frequently topped off. The wait for our entrees was reasonable, and we passed it pleasantly with the Sunday paper. Our choices — both from the special “market” insert featured fresh local products and were quite inventive. My husband had the “huevos verdes y jamon” (gotta love the sense of humor): perfectly poached eggs on crispy tortillas with verde sauce and thinly sliced ham, served with home fries. My choice was the “shade and sun:” scrambled eggs atop potato leek cakes with crispy paremsan (Don’t you just love parmesan melted into crisps? Yum!), heirloom tomatoes and sliced zucchini. A bowl of freash seasonal fruits was served as a side.

    By the time we left at 0900, it was getting busier, but still no line. That may be due to light holiday weekend traffic overall. We will go back. It was actually worth the trip to find an extensive menu with delightfully different fare, carefully prepared.

  8. WillJongIll says

    I’ve been going to the Cricket on and off for years and the food is quite good.. somethings are even really special, including but not limited to their pancakes.

    The services is usually off. Sometimes there can be quite a wait. Sometimes the waiter messes up your order a few times and seems like he/she hasn’t slept for a while. Sometimes you’ll sit next to people you’d rather not. And sometimes the service is just fine.

    But when its bad, its almost never enough to bother me too much or distract from my breakfast to the point that I’m not happy.. and that’s saying a lot, because when I’m having my ritual breakfast, I’m easily/bothered upset by a lot of petty stuff. The food easily compensates for the weirdness.

  9. ordahl smithey says

    The Cricket..hmm, oh yes we all know it, love it, and have now tuned in finally to happened upon this bloody GARY, you got it right and so do they. Has ANyonE eVer tasted such an array of pickled magic in one pint? I insist you meander or whisk your dingy skateboard to the likes of this breakfast imaginarium and chek in on the bloody thing they like to do; plus a venerable plethoricum of downright mouth-defying dishes like the saints hash (best breakfast vote in portlandia!) and the fruit selectorium which is to say another great feat in beauty and flava. I cant gastro my way in or outta there without discussing it with all the rest of the foodies who take it to heart.. its like talking about the shrine of b-fast while waiting for elvis to arrive.. we love u cricket cafe and all that is brine laden, eggy, soupy, thick, rich, caffinated dreams, and sauced up just right, with crispy hash o flyin! oh yes we do.

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