Note -12/2005: There have been many changes at Saucebox over the past three months or so, starting with the departure of the chef, and the original chef, Chris Israel returning. I have gone back several times, and while the food is quickly improving, the service needs a lot of work. I will hold off on doing another complete review for a while.
A good restaurant requires a balance to be successful, like two kids on a teeter-totter. When Saucebox first started out it had a great balance between prices and quality of food. Over the years prices have steadily climbed and food quality has plummeted. There’s a fat kid on the teeter-totter and he needs to get off.
Saucebox used to be such a good place. The scene was chic, the huge murals cool, and the drinks superb: adventurous, loaded with fresh ingredients, some of the best in town. The food stood strongly on its own with Asian fusion rhythms permeating everything they did. The most expensive thing about the average meal was the bar tab you’d run up because the drinks were so good. Alas, it is no more.
I got so disgusted with the downhill trend I quit going there for over a year. Then I got an invitation to the opening of the new room and figured with a new chef it might be worthwhile. I was wrong.
Let’s start with the appetizers… or maybe not. Last week I had soggy/greasy ‘crispy’ egg rolls with lettuce, cilantro, and sour lime dipping sauce ($7.00). They came oozing oil. I used to love their Thai Beef Salad ($9.00), but over the years the price has gone up and up, the portion size has gone down and down, and it just lacks the harmony of flavors it used to have. On another visit, I had sashimi with cilantro, scallion, sizzling hot peanut oil, ginger, shoyu sauce, and ‘wasabi pearls’. I’m not sure if the fish was good or not because it was so overpowered by the flavors of the sauce, though in another dish of hamachi with avocado everything was decent and fresh. Earlier in the year, I had Vietnamese salad rolls with mango ($6.00). Each one had two little strips of unripe fruit. We had to carefully dissect the rolls and search to find the mango at all.
Over the past few months, I’ve had greasy terrible curries: The Green Curry with organic chicken, mushrooms, asparagus, and kaffir ($17.00 for curry!), which was mushy, separated, and lacked the balance that is such an important part of Thai cooking. The Vegan Red Curry ($16.00) with cauliflower, butternut squash, mushrooms, tofu, cashews, and cilantro fared no better with the butternut squash being cooked to an unrecognizable mush and again lacking balance in flavors. Add to that a meal of overcooked, over salted Korean ribs ($18.00). Finally, the Shanghai Kung Pao Chicken with chile-garlic sauce, cashews, and peppers ($16.00) used to be quite good with a nice spicy heat. Now it tastes like the typical slop being dished out down the street in Chinatown.
Heck, every dish I have tried there since the grand opening of the new dining room has been a disappointment. Even their famous Javanese Salmon ($19.00) has gone downhill. They need to do themselves a favor and dig up the recipe they gave to Bon Appetit magazine a few years ago. It uses a fairly small amount of sweetener and is much better than the overly sugary version they serve up now. I know it is cool to put on the menu description but cut back on the damn palm sugar.
I don’t understand the draw of this place. Bruce Carey lives right up the street and has to know what the food is like. One look at Citysearch ratings shows Portland is full of people that when placed in a ‘cool scene’ and sufficiently liquored up will come out raving about the food. Frankly, if alcohol wasn’t served there I think you’d be able to shoot a cannon through the dining room on a Saturday night and wouldn’t hit anyone. A look at the website verifies its new focus. The front page is all about who is going to DJ there next, and that’s the rub. The best reason to go to Saucebox is that the environment’s cool, there are lots of good people to look at, the club music is well spun and trendy, and the drinks are some of the best in town. Try the muddled mint ‘Best Drink’, or the “Box Car’ their version of the sidecar. Enjoy the bar food. Other than that, just say no to Saucebox.