I went to Helser’s once when I had been driving around Oregon for days, hosting a friend from Switzerland, staying in fancy hotels and eating rich food. I was ready to settle back into my Portland routine and calm down, eat something simple and tasty. Manuela was still looking for a place to eat breakfast in America where she could get only what she wanted – pancakes and fruit – and not leave a meal’s worth of feed behind. She said it made her feel guilty.
So we walked into Helser’s, and I got a Yukon gold potato hash with some simple poached eggs: just lightly-seasoned potatoes with an edge of crispiness and the eggs just right. Perfect. Manuela asked about the pancakes, was told there were four to an order, asked if she could have only two, the waitress said absolutely, and she got a side of yogurt and fruit. Ate the whole thing. We spent $10 each. Perfect.
Another time I went to Helser’s when I was heading out for a hike, and I wanted something filling. I was there before 9 and got the single portion of smoked salmon benedict, the fish moist and the sauce creamy. I paid $3.95 for it, walked out feeling just a little stuffed, and didn’t eat a thing during the walk. Perfect.
Another time I just wanted to feed my sweet tooth, so I walked over and got the full portion of the brioche French toast, sliced thick and soaked in vanilla cinnamon batter. I walked out with a little buzz working. Perfect.
Everybody I know likes Helser’s. And other than the usual internet wackos, everybody I’ve heard from likes Helser’s. It’s either the benedicts (they also come with Zenner’s ham or spinach, crimini mushrooms and tomatoes) or the French toast or the specials (one time it was maple breakfast bread pudding) or the warm pear and havarti pie in an egg custard with crème fraiche.
Helser’s is one of four breakfast places in the Alberta neighborhood, and it’s right in the middle of them in every way. It’s not trying to save the world and help everyone eat better like the Vita Café – nor does it have the Vita’s occasional stoned-feeling service. It’s not trying to be young and hip and “Alberta Arts” like the Tin Shed, but it also doesn’t have the Shed’s outdoor seating. It’s less of a locals-only place than the Cup and Saucer, but it has more exciting food. And its wait on weekends is longer than Vita’s, shorter than the Shed’s.
Helser’s just seems very simple, in a good way. It’s borderline Zen. Wood tables, comfortably spaced from one another. Wood chairs that are wide and comfortable. Tall ceilings. Plenty of windows and light. A few flowers on the table. Some bamboo. Beige walls. Servers wearing black and white. Simple light fixtures. Soft jazz playing.
It’s local and it’s classy. I sit there on weekdays and watch moms with babies, people on their way to work, people actually working, hipsters being hip, folks on the street waving to folks at tables, the staff greeting regulars and still taking care of everyone else. I feel at home, and I feel impressed.
As for the food, the complaints I’ve heard boil down to two things: they’re trying to do to much, or “I don’t like how they do their (fill in the blank).” Usually, the latter complaint is focused on the Scotch eggs (hard-boiled eggs wrapped in bratwurst, lightly breaded and fried) or the Louisiana Hot Sausage Scramble (two eggs, fried onions, spicy smoked sausage wrapped in tomato flour tortilla with cheddar cheese and scallions) or the Dutch Baby, which is not as fluffy or filling as at Zell’s or the Original Pancake House.
Well, here’s another way of looking at it: How many places in town have a Dutch Baby, Scotch Eggs, and three kinds of sausage? Russet potato pancakes and Yukon gold hash? And mushroom hash? And pepper bacon hash? And three benedicts? And tri tip steak and eggs? Absolutely, they are all over the map, and maybe they don’t have the best-in-town of anything, but their average is darn high in my book, and it’s been fun exploring the menu.
And yes, I’m biased, because I live about five blocks away and have a crush on half the wait staff. Consider that your disclaimer. All I know is that every time I go to Helser’s I’m in the mood for something in particular, and they always have it. And if I get there before 9, I get it for $3.95, which might be the most sensible thing in town. Breakfast shouldn’t hurt!
Breakfast should be relaxing and sweet, or filling and meaty, or fruity and warm, or friendly and local, or a destination and special. It should be what you want, when you want it. Helser’s has always been all of that.
- Address: 1538 NE Alberta, Portland OR. Google Map
- Hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.; breakfast served throughout
- Phone: 503-281-1477
- Payment: Visa and MasterCard
- Reservations? No
- Large groups? Yes
- Wait: Up to 30 minutes on weekends
- Price Range (typical meal with coffee and tip): $9-11
- Other drinks: Mimosas, Good Earth teas
- Wi-Fi/Internet? No
- Feel: Open
- Seating: Around 40
- Changes/Substitutions: Easy
- Portion Size: Average for Portland, but smaller and cheaper before 9 a.m.
- Feel-goods: Pure maple syrup for $1.25 extra.
- Health Options: Egg substitutes and meatless options for no charge