I have traveled far from my roots, but have never forgotten the lessons I learned about what makes a good burger back when I was a child. For the past few years, I’ve been searching for a one that could take me back to those days. I’ve tried countless: Higgins, Stanich’s, Skyline, Helvetia, Carafe, Bluehour, Wildwood, Ringside and even Giant Drive-in, but none brought back the taste I always remembered. Then I went to Café Castagna.
Café Castagna opened as an offshoot of the main restaurant Castagna. The room is oddly shaped, austere bare concrete floors and open tables: no fancy booths here. One wall is taken up by the bar and kitchen, another by a large wall of windows looking out onto Hawthorne Boulevard. During the warmer months, a small patio area with five tables is open next to the front door.
Cocktails are well made – balanced, with freshly squeezed juices, with the Kentucky Gingersnap (Makers Mark, ginger & Lime) and im-pear (Ginger vodka, Clear Creek Pear Brandy & Lemon) as two standouts ($11). Juices are fresh squeezed. A good wine collection, with mostly French and Italian varietals, is available with about eight pours by the glass. The servers have a pretty good knowledge of the different characteristics.
Appetizers are mostly simple in style. The list hasn’t changed much over the years, with regular dishes always available. There is a soup (usually a bit small); this week I enjoyed a cauliflower version with prawn salad and chives ($9). I rarely pass up the excellent Caesar salad which is always on the menu. It’s well-balanced with chopped fresh romaine and Parmesan, not a garlic bomb like so many these days ($12). Crispy arancini (fried risotto balls) arrive oozing with Fontina and Mortadella, reminding me of Southern Italy ($9).
The large butter lettuce salad, with chives, tarragon, and vinaigrette royal, is from the main restaurant next door and is an excellent choice for those who appreciate subtlety. I suggest a pause to pay attention to the composition ($11). Scallops are usually excellent; my favorite, sautéed with shaved fennel and preserved Meyer lemon ($14.00), are lovely, always fresh and tender, cooked just enough. Calamari changes with the seasons. Right now it is stuffed, roasted with peas, scallion, and mint, another time roasted with green almonds, limp parsley and garlic. The portion is of a nice size, not rubbery at all, giving gently as you bite ($12).
Then there are the entrees. Cafe Castagna serves what I consider to be the best hamburger in the area ($14.00, add $2.00 for cheese and another $2.00 if you want to add bacon). The house-made bun is perfectly toasted to a slight crunch. Pickles, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce are served on the side, to add as you wish. The pickles are homemade masterpieces; even people who don’t like pickles rave about them. Onions are sweet and fresh, snapping cleanly as you bite into them, and the meat always arrives cooked as ordered, with a consistent grind, juice running out the back and onto your plate when you tear into it. One bite and I am back on the ranch in Waxahachie, Texas, the brass bell echoing across the pastures calling the cowboys to lunch. The entire ensemble arrives with a huge mound of excellent, crisp, salty shoestring fries.
The pizzas have always been unusually creative. Current options include crimini mushroom, Taleggio and scallion, and an unusual, but excellent, salt cod, spring onion and black olive ($13). On my most recent, visit the basic tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella pizza came with a good crisp crust. When I initially did this review, it had some major issues. Still, this pizza is one that will always be best in the height of summer ($13).
Some version of baked penne with gruyere is always on the menu. Basically an upscale macaroni and cheese, it’s fine but not the best thing on the menu, and it isn’t worth the price. The crust on top is right, but the béchamel seems a little weak. It just doesn’t satisfy me like a more cheesy version would. Chitarra pasta is currently on the menu, with gruyere, cheddar, and Parmesan. I like this type of pasta and assume they make it themselves, though the combination of it pasta with so much cheese doesn’t really work for me. I prefer a lighter sauce with chitarra, but that’s my personal preference ($14).
Sautéed King salmon changes with the seasons. Currently, they are serving it with sauce gribiche, green beans, and roast charlotte potatoes. Gribiche is a mayonnaise-like French sauce, made with hard-boiled egg yolks, mustard, pickles, capers, chervil and tarragon. It’s quite good over the salmon, and I’ve never had any fish here that wasn’t cooked properly. They occasionally run a version with French green lentils and a horseradish crème fraîche, which I really enjoy. The horseradish is not so strong it overpowers the fish, which gives some subtleties to the dish ($30).
A more pedestrian but tender flatiron steak is always available, grilled to order, currently with arugula, red wine-shallot vinaigrette, and a mound of those perfect shoestring fries ($27).
Desserts are hit and miss. The current strawberry house-made sorbet is excellent, with loads of flavor, without being overly sweet. A blueberry and raspberry crisp with vanilla ice cream is also a good effort, and the IBC root beer float is worth the calories. During mid-summer, they sometimes run a peach tiramisu with about six layers that knocked my socks off. I’d pass on the gelato affogato – vanilla ice cream drowned in espresso.
I have always enjoyed my dinners at Café Castagna. I do, however, have complaints. One issue is the noise level. On crowded nights it gets difficult to have a conversation. Additionally, if the restaurant is busy, service from the kitchen can be very slow. This seems to have gotten worse over the years. There have been times I would have ordered another cocktail, or maybe dessert, but was unable to get the server’s attention.
There have been times when I’ve had wonderful meals here, and other times where service issues and problems with consistency from the kitchen have discouraged me from coming back. However, the hamburger always calls my name.
- Phone: (503)231-9959. Reservations for parties of 5 or more.
- Address: 1758 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland OR. 97214 Google Map
- Hours: dinner nightly at 5 pm, happy hour Tue – Fri 5 – 6 pm and 9 pm-close, 5 – 9 pm Sunday.
- Website: CastagnaRestaurant.com