(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.
I like your comments about Crisco, and the butter flavor Crisco is nasty as well.
I didn’t realize that random order baked their own stuff. Thanks for the review!
Regarding Crisco use in pie crusts, I’ve used Crisco or butter+Crisco for many years. Keeping the crust as thin as possible is the best way to avoid the bland Crisco-industrial flavor. Using butter only introduces too much water to the crust and makes it tough. The real solution here is to use lard! The crust flakes nicely and the flavor is fine. Of course, just don’t tell anyone who is eating it since the word “Lard” has so many negative implications.
Reflexblue: I’m glad you liked it, thanks. Crisco-less pie crust awaits you…
Grapedog: Yeah, I’ve heard that butter=tough crust argument a hundred times, and I don’t buy it. There’s a reason tart tatin is so goddamned good…and it has nothing to do with Crisco (or lard, I don’t think). I’ve never had a tough all-butter crust, but I guess toughness is in the eye of the beholder. Thin and flakey doesn’t do me any good if it’s waxy and flavorless. But given a choice, I’d rather eat tough butter than light and flakey Crisco. Butter… fresh, creamery butter….aaaahhhh.
I agree. “Flaky” is overrated (look at Hebberoy, previous thread, for the definition…)
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
The thing I like about Random order is that it is open until 9PM, 8PM on Sundays.
I also like their sandwiches a lot.
Finally, they have, hands down, the best iced coffee in Portland.
I’m happy to see a review on Random Order. It had big shoes to fill when Groundswell closed–and it’s done extremely well. I too love the baked goods here–and am ecstatic to know the owner once baked at Bernice’s in Missoula–a place that has a special place in my heart. Good article!
Nikos: So true. But now you’ve got me wondering what pastry-describing adjective would be used to reference me? I’ll go with: chewy and Molasses-ey. Just ‘cuz.
Cuisine Bonne Femme: Yeah, I forgot to mention how cool it is that they stay open late, a rarity amongst coffeehouses, strangely. Good to know about the iced coffee – thanks for the info.
Pederson: Thanks. I’m glad to have made a sweet bakery memory connection for you.
the trick to making a butter only pie crust is to add a bit of acid to the dough (my preference is for a tablespoon or so of cider vinegar, but I’ve seen other additions such as sour cream.) you get the best of both worlds that way – flakiness minus the crisco.
shirley coriher’s book (Cookwise) has a great breakdown on pie crust.
Like the writer I mostly don’t order pie in restaurants because the taste is disappointing at best – not so at Random Order. I can say for certain that they bake the best pies in the world. As far as the crisco vs butter debate all I can say is I would not think about putting crisco on my toast.
Kate's Aunt Susie says
I’m so thrilled Katie is receiving well-deserved recognition for her baking skills! Kate bakes with the love and passion her Grandma Jean did. She’s very proud of you Katie and would have delighted in reading this article!
Whoo–best pies in the world? Park Cafe in St. Mary, MT has the best that I’ve had.
the cobra says
the cornmeal, bacon, cheddar muffins are pretty much out of control. i’ll allow myself one per month, but i think about them much more regularly.
I love the blueberry muffins at Random Order. (although i do wish they would have kept Groundswell’s walnut rosemary roll with brie and apples. that was the best breakfast ever!)
Cuisine Bonne Femme says
Geez, how many of you Portland Food and Drink readers hang-out at Random Order anyway? Maybe we should print the “I’m with Food Dude” t-shirts so y’all can start recognizing each other?
I’ll definately have to go there to check out those savory muffins.
As far as the crisco vs butter debate all I can say is I would not think about putting crisco on my toast.
I would also recommend not making your pie crust with jam in it…
Food Dude says
phttp~ Mom’s in Sebastopol California has the best pies ;>)
Dick: Ooh, I’m going to use your Crisco/toast argument from now on. Good one!
Kate’s Aunt Susie: Awww, that warms my heart. Just like Kate’s gingersnaps!
Pederson and Food Dude: Maybe a pie round-up/head to head… facilitated by Fed-Ex?
The Cobra: To put the savory cornmeal muffin even more out-of-control, try adding maple syrup! Just a thought…
Vespabelle: That rosemary pecan panini (pretty sure it was pecan, not walnut) was from Pearl Bakery – so you could always resort to a d.i.y. version. I love those, too – perfectly toasted pecans with the room temp brie and crisp apples. The best.
CBF: Does Food Dude really want to claim us? That’s a lot of baggage.
amy k. says
nice review. I also love the baked goods there and had forgotten about them. . .and I found this interesting history of crisco here. I always have wondered why bakers use it-because I think it’s horrible. I can see it as a lard substitute, but I would rather have the real thing. that said, I have had apple pie with a crust made with part bacon drippings and thought I was going to hurl, so there you go. I’m an all butter girl, myself.
My grandmother said she thought crisco was horrible too, but it was popular because of the butter rationing during both wars. . .I think it just stayed in recipes after that, huh?
thanks for the review. i’ve lived down the street for two years, i pass by it all the time. now i’ll bother to go in!
All this talk of pie has me missing Quality Pie. Not the best pie in the world, but the best pie at 3:00 a.m. for sure.
QP (Quality Pie) – blech – microwaved Danishes and Portland piggies cruising 23rd with lights on for free food.
Yep. Cops, drunks, bums, cab drivers, lost souls and folks looking to avoid going home for a little while yet. Early bird fishermen and the hospital folks. You may call it funk, I call it atmosphere. So where does Cognos go for a 3:00 a.m. pie fix?
Amy: Yeah, I’d always assumed that Crisco (and margarine) were used in wartime and The Depression during times of butter dearth. So why use it unless you have to? It’s like reaching for mockolate when a big block of 72% Valrhona is sitting right in front of you. That’s the way I see it.
Unclesally: It’s worth the bother.
Sidemeat: I remember a time, long long ago, when finding snacks at 3am was of relevence to me. What about (gasp) Montage? (yep, I’m dating myself.) But I remember they had some good bourbon bread pudding. Maybe pie, too? There’s always Bannings (24 hours), but it’s a bit of a drive- out on HWY 99. Certainly no artisan baking affair, but it is on the same Mel’s Diner tip as Quality Pie. Just a thought.
I am never up at 3 AM any more. In the days, that I was dealing with all the on-call crap and getting woken up to go into work in the middle of the night to deal with whatever, there wasn’t anything open in this neck of the woods at 3 AM.
When I lived in NW in the late 70s, I wasn’t awake at 3 AM because I had to be at work at 6:30 AM. And truth be told, unless it’s damned good homemade pie, I am not much of a pie person. Years ago there was a place in town with a killer chocolate pecan pie but the name escapes me (another sign of middle age).
their strata is also infreekincredible. so light, yet the crust is perfect. it’s freak of nature good.
I date myself a lot as well. I share the same interests as myself, and we keep the same hours. I just have to think ‘PIE?’ and my better half is looking for the car keys.
We haven’t been to Montage in years. Too much effort to be that hip.
We used to get late night/early morning pie at Waddles, but now that it’s a Hooters ….
Cognos: Is the chocolate pecan pie from a place that still exists?
Sidemeat: I do not condone Montage. File it under: “How in the Hell is this place still in business?”, right alongside Old Wives Tales and Vita Cafe. I’d rather eat at Hooters (Not that I’d know what their food tastes like, of course. But I hear it’s not half bad, in a TGI Friday’s/Red Robin sort of way…uhhh, okay -never mind.)
Doctor Stu says
Regarding Crisco use in pie crusts, I’ve used Crisco or butter Crisco for many years. Keeping the crust as thin as possible is the best way to avoid the bland Crisco-industrial flavor. Using butter only introduces too much water to the crust and makes it tough. The real solution here is to use lard! The crust flakes nicely and the flavor is fine. Of course, just don’t tell anyone who is eating it since the word “Lard” has so many negative implications. [/QUOTE]
I’ll go with a combination of about 2/3 lard and 1/3 butter. Crisco is just gross.
joanna – I believe the chocolate pecan pie place is long gone.
Dr. Stu: Thanks for the ratio tips. You just reminded me of a self-righteous hippie melt-down I wintessed a few days ago at La Sirenita when a dude with about 20lbs of (blonde) dreadlocks piled on his head freaked out when he found chicken in his “veggie burrito”. I thought he was going to ERUPT, seriously. Which is why I didn’t have the heart (or nerve) to explain to him that even without chicken, his veggie burrito piled with lard-laced frijoles is FAR from vegitarian. I can’t wait to run into him again so I can invite him over for a nice slice of homemade pie…heh heh… made with your crust guidelines, of course.
Cognos: You could always pick up a little Bama Pie (my dad’s fave) at a Plaid Pantry and top it with a square of nice chocolate bar. Okay, not the same thing, I know, but at 3am, you could do much worse.
Speaking of self-righteous hippies: I love it when people posture about such things. Nearly all sugar & cheese, for example, are full of animal products. Or when people proudly proclaim they are vegetarians and then admit they eat chicken & fish. WTF?
On the other hand, I see just as much railing by meat eaters attacking vegetarians. Oh well…
Food Dude says
This thread is getting pretty far from the original review, so I moved a post by Doctor Stu on pie crust over to the forums.
the muffins are indeed out of this world.
the pie rules, the sandwiches are fabulous.
do NOT overlook this bakery. alberta can be dizzying with all of the options for snacks – make a point to check this out because it totally delivers in everyway. and you can totally make a meal out of it!
Matthew Douglas Anderson (email@example.com) says
What to say about a woman who can warm just about anyone’s heart. Regardless of food… I have had the fine pleasure of knowing Miss Kate Mcmillen for several years. She will be a person that remains in my heart & mind for all my life. Impression is of the utmost… Without having all the flash of a pre-maddona… Now, back to food… I have cooked alongside, dined with , cleaned dirty grime & cared for all of our time invested in the kitchen… My one regret is that I never did start that catering biz with the fabulous lady. What a team we could have been… This girl can cook!!! What does it take to cook? Honestly, a whole lot of time & personality… She never forgets who she is… A real person with emotional ties to her family & the creation of impecable treats. Kate’s art/skill easily takes her into other outlets of life. She is all around impressive. If you are any sort of a rebounding critic please hold your breath for a minute. Put down your pen, notebook, pc, & walk down to Random Order Coffee House!!! Tell Kate Mcmillen that she makes the best damn pie, goodies, that you have ever had. She will turn three shades or red, but at least you know that it was made by someone who cares… All the toils are paying off. Great job Mcbrate!!! Love ya, Kit!!! Happy Holidays to All!!! Ciao M.D. Ænomlæ
Matthew Douglas Anderson:
“Without having all the flash of a pre-maddona”….????
Do you mean someone like Cher? Or, better, Donna Summer? (A pre-Madonna Donna, in fact.)
Thank you for that most awesome mis-turning of a phrase. I’m still giggling.
That has to be the best malapropism ever uttered since Archie Bunker on All in the Family referred to Nixon living in “San Clemency”!
My nominations for best pre-Madonna prima donna: Helen of Troy, Salome, and Lysistrata.
Gotta get back to Random…been 6 months…am missing the goods. Thanks for the reminder, Matthew!
…I was referring to the biblical Madonna, should add.
A dear friend who is actually quite educated and cultured said “mazel tov” instead of “molotov” cocktail!