(Random Order has now closed)
There is a really good bakery just down the street from my house. The thing is, you’d never know it was there unless you were to go inside. You see, it’s not a bakery. It’s a coffee shop. But aside from croissants and scones brought in from Pearl Bakery, all of the items are made on-site, daily. A far as I’m concerned, that amounts to a bakery, whether it says so on the sign or not.
Once you do step inside, however, there will be no mistaking that Random Order’s sweet and savory morsels indeed originate from their own kitchen. The air is thick with the sweetness of warm butter and brown sugar, interplayed by heady whiffs of the Savory Gallette (spinach with golden raisins is a standout) or the 3-cheese Spanikopita Roll, depending on what might be emerging from the oven at the moment.
Random Order opened in August 2004, having taken over from the previous occupant: Groundswell Café. Owner Tracy Olson has provided a combination of items baked in-house as well as from local bakeries from the start, but since hiring lead baker Kate McMillen a year and a half ago, the output from the café’s small kitchen has steadily increased. Staple muffins include Blueberry Buttermilk and Raspberry Coconut Bran, with rotating seasonal flavors such as Organic Rhubarb with Cinnamon and Brown Sugar with Fresh Organic Blackberries. There is usually one non-sweet muffin on the cake stand: cornmeal with Tillamook cheddar, Beeler’s (hormone/preservative-free) bacon, and mild green chilies. I tend to veer towards the sweet stuff (correction: I always veer towards the sweet stuff) but am never too shy to steal bites of cheesy, spicy corn muffins when my coffee companions’ backs are turned. So I can tell you these savory muffins are top-notch, even sans a lovely sweet streusel crumble topping.
Pies range from classic apple, chocolate cream, and lemon meringue to more specifically seasonal varieties; rhubarb cherry and rhubarb cardamom were recently on the counter, available by the slice.
Raised in a family of bakers, it was McMillen’s grandmother, a reportedly legendary pie maker, who schooled her in the art of this particular pastry. Even though I love a good pie, I rarely order it because finding one with a Crisco-less crust is somewhat of a feat. I detest the taste (or lack of taste) and waxy residue imparted by Crisco, and for the life of me cannot understand the insistence of bakers who stand by its powers of “flakiness”. What good is flaky if it tastes like nada? No good at all! So, anybody who “gets” the undeniable superiority of a butter crust wins big points in my book, and McMillen clearly gets it. (Robin Rosenberg of Half and Half and Acorn here in Portland is the Dean of the School of Butter Pie Crust, FYI.)
McMillen first began baking professionally at Bernice’s Bakery in Missoula, while a college student at The University of Montana. She was a “loafie” (bread baker) and also put in a good deal of time with bars, cookies, and frostings, all present players in the Random Order daily line-up. At R.O., McMillan is given the creative freedom to branch out with experimental recipes and has found the clientele receptive to her forays into Lemon Thyme Bars and Chipotle Brownies. (I’ve personally made this foray as a taster of her wares, and have never been disappointed.) The aforementioned lemon bars are one of the most buttery, flavor-intense, and generously sized I’ve eaten, and until you try the chipotle brownie, unwrinkle your skeptical nose. They are really good, the heat from the pepper
providing a zingy foil to a dense, rich, and non-cakey square. The Chocolate Button cookie is duded-up with the addition of dark chocolate chunks and slivered almonds along with the semi-sweet chocolate buttons. A satisfyingly substantial organic apple pecan bar is both vegan and wheat-free. The Molasses cookie is soft and chewy and…well, molassesy, not hard and pale as some versions tend to be. The Chocolate Raspberry Loaf Cake with a ganache glaze looks amazing, but not being a fan of the raspberry/chocolate combination, I can only speculate. The Banana Bread is moist and unsurprising, the way it should be. Banana bread, it must be said, exists in the same class of comfort carbs as a good PBJ; its raison d’etre need never be justified. Have you noticed that you can find banana bread, in some form or another, in just about any country you visit? This is no coincidence. Banana bread is good eatin’.
Timing your visit to Random Order can be tricky. When the joint is full, it can be a bit chaotic, loud, and cramped. At these times, the general din of coffeehouse noises will rise exponentially, but not too high to drown out the ear-piercing echoes of “mommy, mommy, mommy, can I have some, can I have some, can I have some, eeeep, eeeeep, eeeeep”. If that’s your bag, cool. But if you seek a more serene ambiance, late mornings and afternoons are usually quite calm and pleasant.
It is remarkable, McMillen notes, the amount that they are able to produce from their tiny kitchen with only one baker at a time. (I checked out the kitchen this week for the first time, ever. It is downright microscopic – seriously teensy, like an NYC apartment kitchenette – for real.) Subsequent to hiring McMillen, Olson brought in two additional bakers; Kaelie is a graduate of the patisserie program at Western Culinary Institute, and Lauren, a food stylist, photographer and recent Portland transplant, was hired only a couple of weeks ago.
Random Order offers a variety of thoughtfully composed sandwiches; the “Don Rickles” is roasted eggplant, olive tapenade, provolone, fresh basil and roasted red peppers on Pearl Bakery’s wheat levain; the “Beet Down” is roasted beets, goats milk cheese, toasted walnuts, red onions and baby greens with orange-sesame vinaigrette on Pearl’s ciabatta
roll. Meat options include salami and a nitrate-free Applegate ham. Olson has made an effort to incorporate local and seasonal produce into the menu (including the baked goods), sourcing from Dancing Creek Farm and other area suppliers as much as possible for greens, rhubarb, berries, etc. The breakfast sandwiches are ample enough to fuel you for then entire morning (the popular “B List” stacks a fried egg, Tillamook cheddar, caramelized onions and chipotle aioli on a toasted ciabatta roll), and the Erik e-STRATA (a savory bread pudding) offers a protein-packed break from the ubiquitous bagel and cream cheese.
Coffee is Stumptown. A full menu of espresso drinks is available, in addition to iced toddy coffee, lavender lemonade and mulled cider (seasonally), Dragonfly Chai and a variety of fruit juices.
After both Cinnabon and The Wonder Bread Thrift Shop showed up in the results of a recent Google search for “Bakery North Northeast Portland”, I feel compelled, in the name of bakery justice, to sing the praises of Random Order. This is an easily missed bakery that certainly should not be missed.
Random Order Coffeehouse
Phone: 503 331-1420
Address: 1800 NE Alberta St., Portland OR. 97211 Map
Hours: Daily 6:30 a.m. – 11 p. m., 8 p.m. Mondays
Works by local visual artists rotate monthly.