By Kaitlin Ohlinger, Foodable Contributor
Portland is a city where people love to eat out. A 2013 statistic from The Huffington Post named Portland one of the top 15 US Metro areas with the most eateries per capita. At the time, it weighed in at 22.5 restaurants per 10,000 people; very respectable compared to San Francisco’s 23 per, and New York’s 24.4.
Last month Portlanders got another reason to head out towards the Esplanade in Southwest: Lechon, Portland’s newest addition that features the lively flavors of South America and a killer view of the waterfront. Throw in a varied happy hour that takes place not once, but twice a day a smart wine list and several innovative-yet-not-overplayed cocktails and voila! You’ve got Lechon.
Meet Executive Chef Jaco Smith
Executive Chef Jaco Smith strikes as a well rounded and humble hard-worker. Born and raised in South Africa, Chef Smith comes from a large family of cattle, sheep and grain farmers. His favorite childhood memories include the tastes of dulce de leche, flan and grilled breads, reminiscent of South American flavors, commonly found on South African kitchen tables. Before moving to the US, Jaco spent several years cooking around the world, including kitchens in Scotland and England. In 2003, he graduated from the renowned apprenticeship program at The Greenbrier Hotel, under Certified Master Chef Peter Timmins. After spending two years as the saucier chef at the Greenbrier, Jaco joined the Ritz Carlton in 2006 as the chef de cuisine at Reynold’s Plantation. His eight-year tenure at the hotel group took him to various Ritz Carlton locations across the United States as well as the opening in Oman.
Most recently, he has spent the last two years in Dallas, TX as the Executive Chef of The Joule. Jaco’s time in Texas opened him up to a broad array of Latin American cuisine, providing him opportunities to experiment with the cooking methods and flavors of the region. He began to discover the traditions, culture and recipes of South America while hosting South American wine dinners, weddings and events at The Joule.
Lechon’s menu is clean and focused and their tagline of “not just another South American restaurant” is apparent. Classic South American ingredients like piquillo peppers, escabeche, chimichurri, chorizo and yuca chips are met with pleasant surprises like sweet potato ceviche and grilled peaches with burrata. An ode to its roots, but with enough innovative twists to intrigue an experienced palate. Even the notoriously hard to please Yelp crowd seems impressed, with almost entirely 5-star reviews decorating the restaurant's page.
A dish that leads the way as a popular favorite is the grilled octopus with chorizo, fried potatoes, salsa verde & preserved lemon. A well-composed and artistic plating, the texture of the octopus was spot-on. As anyone who’s experienced poorly prepared octopus can attest to, this little sea creature can easily venture into a rubbery, chewy terrain; not so in this case. In addition to the perfect texture, all the elements of the dish worked together; heat from the chorizo, a little chill-out from the salsa and a creamy dollop of aioli. Thumbs up.
The sweet corn empanadas also left a lasting impression. The simple presentation in a cute box encourages them stick around the memory banks. This is an absolutely perfect happy hour food: shareable, reasonably priced at $5 during happy hour times, and speedy enough to calm the "hangry," post-work demons people have been known to experience.
Likewise, the restaurant’s wine list is strong and intelligent in its simplicity. It incorporates compelling grapes that are common staples of South America, accentuated by both Old World and other New World variations. A French Malbec and an Argentine Malbec/Bonarda/Syrah blend both carefully chosen in the same price range. Wines that, regardless of their place of origin, complement the cuisine beautifully. The list is dotted with local Oregon gems from JK Carriere, Shea and Patricia Green, all the way to somewhat exotic choices like a Spanish Txakoli. A personal favorite is the Villa Wolf Pinot Gris, which annihilates the value category with swift precision.
Celebrated local restaurant owner Pascal Chureau of West Linn’s Allium and Field & Vine Event Company consulted on Lechon’s wine list. His intention was for the wine list to “represent our local wines as well as put forward some South American wine that might not be know in our Portland market.”
In early 2016, Lechon plans an outdoor expansion with additional seating and outdoor grilling capabilities. Chef Smith inspires confidence that the menu will stay inventive, consistent, and not full of itself. The Portland area seems to have captivated him, as well. “The food scene and Oregon wines are amazing. The local bounty of ingredients is truly impressive and a dream for any chef. There are so many restaurants and chefs and I am excited to network with fellow chefs and restaurateurs.”