Review: Saucebox

Note: if a recent happy hour visit is any indication of what is going on in the restaurant, my rating would drop to 1 star. We tried five dishes and were served what can only be described as some of the worst food I’ve had in a Portland restaurant. Pad thai with the texture of baby food. Spring rolls that were worse than something you’d find in the freezer case of your local grocery store. Even an order of french fries had little flavor except for the box of salt that was dumped on them. The only decent item was a burger, and it wasn’t anything memorable. Even the cocktails were out of balance, obviously counting on heavy alcohol taste and not any finesse to make them popular.

I will go back and try the restaurant food shortly, but in the meantime, take this review with a grain of salt.

I updated my Saucebox review only three months ago. Since then I’ve been back multiple times for various parties. In that short time, the quality has gone up so much, I decided to give it a new review.

From the day it opened in 1995, Saucebox was a hit. Under the experienced eye of Chris Israel, the kitchen turned out excellent food with unusual twists for that time period. Drink concoctions by Lucy Brennan were remarkable, the atmosphere chic, and crowds flocked to it every night. Then, as time moved by, Lucy left to open 820, and after about five years, Chris left Saucebox and moved to New York City. Things slowly went downhill. Prices shot up, quality fell, and finally the crowds began to fade away. Then Nancy Rommelmann, a restaurant reviewer for Willamette Week, wrote a rather negative review. For the first time in years, someone actually dared to say in print what many people were thinking: Saucebox was a has-been.

Though there were denials of any flaw via vicious letters from the owners and staff, as well as an immediate positive review in the Oregonian, the chef soon departed to “spend more time with family”, and shortly thereafter, came the announcement that Chris Israel would be stopping in to “tweak the recipes”. He’s been there ever since, and over the past year, I’ve dropped in now and then to see how things have been going. At this point, it is easy to determine:

Saucebox is back, and so are the adoring fans

I think they owe Nancy a big thanks for the kick in the rear.
The space itself is comfortable yet trendy. As you enter, you’ll find yourself in a black room with a long bar. There are two different dining areas: one upstairs balcony, and another separate room all done in white, with an ‘interesting’ huge mural covering one wall. A neat little glass room showcases their various infusions, the seating is quite comfortable, and the space offers some of the best people watching in Portland. The scene is cool and chic, a place to see and be seen. In the late evening, a DJ spins a good mix of house music, a reduced bar menu is offered, and everything takes on a distinct cosmopolitan feel. One caveat: though the sound level is greatly reduced from when they first opened, conversation can be a bit difficult on busy nights. Still, overall, I’d say the environment is a success, as long as it’s your kind of thing.

Streetside Dining

Once again, the bar is superb, turning out some wondrous combinations. Recent standouts have been the “kickboxer”, made of house-infused Thai chile vodka, passion fruit purée and citrus juices, topped with raspberry purée ($8.00). I’ve always been a sucker for their “best drink”, gin muddled with mint, ice and lemon-lime, topped with ginger brew ($7.00). Another winner is the strawberry margarita which uses house-infused strawberry tequila, harlequin and lemon-lime for an unusual smoothness ($7.50). A twist on the standard sidecar, the “sour cherry boxcar” mixes brandy with sour cherry and citrus juices, giving a subtle, long, sour cherry finish. The cocktail list is huge, inventive, and it’s hard to go wrong with any of the choices. While prices once were some of the highest in Portland, everyone else has caught up, and now they are about average. The beer list is excellent, with 19 available by the bottle and 5 on draft. The wine list contains about 16 whites and 14 reds by the bottle, with eight available by the glass. The average markup seems to be about 120%, although the wine list is annoying in that it doesn’t specify a vineyard designation. Finally there are eight sparkling wines and nine sake.

Appetizer prices haven’t changed much over the past year, but under the hand of the new chef, quality has soared. Fresh salad rolls of rice noodles, fried tofu, cabbage, and mango are tightly wrapped with translucent rice paper, a dark green basil leaf showing through the first layer. All of the ingredients are first-rate, the different bright flavors and textures coming together perfectly. Two dipping sauces, one peanut, and one more standard sweet and sour, provide a perfect foil to the rolls ($7.00). The Thai beef salad is also a home run. It is a wonderful mixture of Misty Isle beef with shredded romaine, cucumbers, scallions, sparkling cherry tomatoes, mint and shallots. The beef is tender and flavorful, the mint a cool blast of flavor, a piquant perfectly balanced dressing, and finally a dusting of toasted rice powder that gives an unexpected crunchy texture ($8.00). There is also a duck breast and long bean salad in sweet soy vinaigrette, the duck cooked just to the correct point, the long beans snapping gently under your teeth, with crispy shallots and chopped peanuts giving additional notes of texture ($9.00). For me, the only big miss was the Saucebox: cubes of soft tofu with soy, ginger, scallions, and bonito. It was mushy, fishy, and I really disliked it. However, I have a feeling it just wasn’t my thing, and others might enjoy it more than I did ($6.00).

The appetizer menu continues to surprise with unexpected textures and flavors. Take, for example, tapioca dumplings. Three golf ball-sized spheres of warm tapioca filled with chicken, peanuts, cilantro and a drizzle of garlic oil dazzle with the complexity of flavors as your mind fights to process the unexpected savory burst. This is a terrific dish that showcases Chef Israel’s background in Asian cuisine, and his ability to merge it with other cultures ($8.00). Another excellent choice is the crispy sweet potato spring rolls with red lettuce, mint, cilantro, and a lovely sour lime dipping sauce ($7.00). Israel definitely likes to play with textures, and it shows in the pork sarong, deep-fried noodle wrapped meatballs with a tamarind sauce and cucumber salad. The meatballs are somewhat standard fare, though they pack lots of subtle flavors; but wrapped with noodles and deep fried, they become crunchy nuggets. My only complaint is they can sometimes be very close to overdone ($6.00).

Over the past few months, they have dropped their “raw bar”, and replaced it with a long selection of sushi. See the menu below for the complete list. One of my favorites is the classic hamachi – thin slices of raw fish, ripe avocado, and a drizzle of ponzu sauce, accompanied by pickled ginger and wasabi. It’s a bit expensive at $14.00, but very enjoyable. As a matter of fact, all the sushi I’ve tried at Saucebox has been good. Ahi tuna tataki comes as beautiful thin slices of stunning ahi on a thin bed of fairly subtle mustard sauce, with a small mound of bright green daikon salad. I’m still trying to identify the flavor that lingered on my palate minutes after I finished ($13.00). The SBX rainbow roll is typical in makeup, but freshness and presentation put it over the top. A long arch of colors against the stark white plate, it is a visually pleasing introduction to sushi: crab, black rice, avocado, ahi tuna, wild salmon, unagi, prawns, and wasabi ($12.00).

I could make a terrific meal out of a few drinks and a selection of appetizers, but there is also an interesting selection of entreés. There are some hits and misses, so one must pick carefully. Saucebox has always been famous for its Javanese salmon. Though it slipped for a few years, the quality is back and the dish shines. A lovely roasted fillet of salmon rests on a bed of perfect greens. The smooth and slightly sweet sauce of soy, hot pepper, palm sugar, lime and garlic is the perfect foil for the moist fish. A pile of crispy fried leeks decorate the top ($24.00). Another dish that has returned to its original excellence is the Korean-style baby back ribs. Marinated in sesame, soy, garlic, ginger and black pepper, the meat is moist and fall-off-the-bone tender; as you bite down, a nice, slightly salty blast hits your palate, just as it should. The dish has a large pyramid of ribs for $21.00. Torn between the salmon and the ribs? Try the SBX surf n’ turf which combines a portion of both ($28.00). Another winner is a grilled beef tenderloin. It arrived cooked exactly to order with a flavorful earthy shitake mushroom butter, some grilled spring onions, roasted potatoes, and a red miso sauce. I really thought it was terrific, though a bit expensive ($29.00). There is also a thick-cut pork chop on the menu. It looks great; a nice large cut with great grill marks, but was a tiny bit dry for my taste. Fortunately rhubarb-ginger compote on the side adds an unusual pairing that makes the dish interesting. The sides of roasted sliced sweet potatoes and sautéed sugar snap peas were perfectly cooked ($20).

In my last review, I complained the curries were just average. Obviously someone is still tweaking recipes; they’ve gotten much better. Over the last few months they’ve become thicker, and more balanced. I’d like a little bit more heat in mine, but they can stand up to most any other in town. The house-made green curry has gained depth and complexity, yet remained balanced, so improved from a few months ago, I went back and tried it twice. Moist bite-sized pieces of chicken are scattered throughout, tiny Thai eggplant and long beans lend texture, original issues with overcooking are gone. My only complaint is the price, but we are paying for all that chic here. I’m not saying they are perfect: for $18.00 it should be the best in town, and I’m not sure it is. The red curry with vegetables is also fine, and a good choice for vegetarians. The long beans, potatoes, mushrooms, fried tofu, zucchini, broccoli, and baby bok choy were al dente, and the curry flavors seemed more prominent than in the green curry. I’d like to see the heat kicked up a bit in this one too ($17.00).

The wait-staff is very friendly and familiar with the ingredients used in each dish. The “we’re so cool” attitude that permeated everything a few years ago seems to have vanished. It feels like the staff is happy to be working there. They are professional, there when you need them and invisible when you don’t. Six months ago, things often moved glacially slow. There were meals where we didn’t bother ordering dessert because we were afraid it would never come. Since then, for the most part, things have improved. I’ve had meals on very busy nights where dishes practically flew out of the kitchen, and all the timing was perfect. Still, more often than not, the kitchen tends to be a bit slow, with long waits between courses. Don’t go here if you are in a hurry.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with Saucebox. The appetizers are stellar, better than ever before, and with the exception of a few items, most of the entreés are pretty good too. If I have one complaint, it is the prices. Want a regular ice tea? $2.50. Want a refill? $2.50, except they don’t warn you. I drank three one night and the total was $7.50. Have a few drinks before dinner, a couple appetizers, maybe a glass of wine, two entreés, and desserts, and you’ve easily spent over $100.00. Still, if you like the chic atmosphere and choose carefully, you’ll have an excellent meal. This is also an excellent late night spot for the bar menu and the happening DJ.

  • Phone: (503) 241-3393
  • Address: 214 SW Broadway, Portland OR. 97205. Google Map
  • Hours: Tue-Fri 4:30pm-close, Sat 5pm – close. Limited bar menu until late.
  • Happy Hour: Tues-Fri 4:30-6:30pm, Sat 5-6:30pm
  • Website: Saucebox.com
  • Wheelchair accessible, but call ahead for a table downstairs.

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. cookforhire says

    what a shining review. hope if i can ever afford SBX it lives up to all this.

    Now, while I don’t work at SBX I would like to say something in defense of thier kitchen re: accusation of being slow. I think alot of diners/reviewers may not realize that thier watron is responsible for the timing of the meal. The kitchen can’t “fire” the food until the tron gives the green light. So, SBX kitchen may be slow, or the tron may not be confident/experienced enough to anticipate the firing time, which varies according to order and the volume of tickets the kitchen is working. A good tron should be able to time this well enough that the Kitchen doesn’t seem slow.

  2. Food Dude says

    If you order an appetizer, and watch the server go over and put it into the system, and then it takes an unsually long time to come out, I’m pretty sure it’s the kitchen, though your scenerio happens frequently at other restaurants.

  3. nate says

    I’ve been there a couple times recently for happy hour. While the regular prices are kinda steep, you can have a pretty amazing meal for under $10 ($20 after obligatory drink and tip) ordering a few items from the happy hour menu (prices on a wide assortment of apps and small-plates vary from $1-4 till 6:30 I believe). I can’t go without ordering the squid satay. So tender and flavorful. Also, I agree on the beef salad. Simply divine. Given your review I may have to go back for a full meal sometime after I’ve saved a few pennies. And maybe happy hour tonight…

  4. LadyConcierge says

    I was at SBX last night for a concierge mixer. They brought out plates of food to share family-style for us. Mostly apps. It was great! I especially liked the Spicy Dungeness Crab Cakes. They were spicy and full of crab, and very crisp on the outside. The sweet potato spring rolls were pretty good, too. And I don’t usually like sweet potatoes. One of my group liked the Pork sarong the best (the meatballs), another the tapioca dumplings. 4 stars for me.

  5. FoodBabe says

    Saucebox has most definitely improved recently.
    My compliments to the kitchen staff and management. Cannot go there without getting the tapioca dumplings. The new sushi menu also seems well thought out and the presentations are great.
    Keep up the good work!

  6. j ohta says

    We were very disappointed tonight. We ordered eda mame, squid satay, thai beef salad, crab cakes, and pork sarong. The squid was alright. It would have been better if it was grilled hotter so that it picked up some grilling flavor. Everything else had too much salt and/or sugar and/or vinegar. These flavors overpowered the main ingredients. Subtlety was an unknown quality in that kitchen.

  7. Food Dude says

    j ohta – thanks for the feedback. I’ve been wondering what is going to happen at Saucebox, now that Chris has moved up to 23 Hoyt. I hope this isn’t a sign that things are going downhill.

  8. joan stromberg says

    So? I have an out of town guest staying at a nearby hotel. Is Saucebox an option, or have things just gone down hill? Has anyone eaten there recently?

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