I'm standing at the side of a bright teal food cart parked on a grass lot in Carlton, the wine country crossroads, drenching fluffy buckwheat pancakes and thick-cut bacon with good syrup, when Joseph Zumpano leans out the cart's window and deposits an extra piece of crisp bacon onto my loaded plate.
"Thought you could use another slice," says Zumpano, who opened Henry's Diner, this must-stop brunch cart, last year.
It's been a tumultuous few years for Oregon wine country's restaurant scene, with new openings, chef changes and at least one ambitious failure, Paulee, which had hoped to do for the Willamette Valley what the French Laundry did for Napa.
But as I learned over two recent tours, a new crop of wine country restaurants, some new, some a few years old, are helping raise the region's profile with unfussy food, a commitment to local produce and, above all, generosity -- just like that extra piece of bacon.
We left early Friday to beat the traffic jam on 99W and, having a few hours to kill before our first dinner reservation, walked a circuit around Newberg's twin main drags, East First and Hancock streets, eating some desultory small plates in a subterranean wine bar and a pair of longaniza tacos from the friendly Pastorcillos truck. Eventually, we poked our head into Storrs, a new barbecue joint from the owners of Zagat-crowd-fave The Painted Lady.
Honestly, my expectations were low. What would these purveyors of old-school fine dining have to say about barbecue?
But the first impression was good: Formica tables, a blond wood bar, bottled beer and house-made salted caramel-whiskey brownie ice cream cooling in the fridge. The look is reminiscent of the original Podnah's on Northeast Prescott Street. But better than the sights were the smells, sweet alder and oak smoke wafting in from a custom-built smoker parked in the back lot.
Pitmaster Loal Stahlnecker fell in love with barbecue while living in San Antonio, and it shows in Storrs' best meat, the Texas-style brisket, which will impress barbecue nerds with its dark mahogany bark, vibrant pink smoke ring and nicely rendered fat cap. It tastes great too, all tender and moist with a deep, smoky flavor. There's a house sauce that's made, in a nod to the surroundings, with pinot noir. It's good, but the meat stands up on its own.
Almost as good was the pulled pork, which can be doused, at co-owner Allen Rout's urging, with vinegard sauce, in the Eastern North Carolina style.
It's still early days here, and Storrs has plenty of room for improvement. That brisket could be more evenly sliced. The ribs juicier. The beer list more inspired. There's a third saucing option, vaguely Asian-inspired, meant, I believe, to pair with the smoked chicken wings, that seems silly amid this serious barbecue spot.
But even so, this should jump to the top of even casual barbecue fans must-visit list. Storrs is the best new barbecue spot to open in Oregon in at least a year.
Order this: The brisket plate.
Cost: Most meat plates $10-$12. The Gran Daddy' combo, which includes all four meats, slaw and a pickle, costs $19.
7 a.m.-7 p.m., Thursday to Monday; 310 E. First Street, Newberg; 503-538-8080; storrssmokehouse.com
On my most recent visit, chef-de-cuisine Jason Fritz was in the kitchen, Patrick Bruce was stirring Sidecars in the lounge and Emily Howard was at the center of it all, directing traffic, explaining the restaurant's chalkboard menu and making perfect wine suggestions.
(In our case, that suggestion turned out to be an Art + Science Winery pinot noir with a pulsating brain on the side. A silly, cool label for a serious wine.)
The menu today looks not unlike what you might have found in 2011, when Thistle was The Oregonian's Restaurant of the Year, with Oregon coast oysters and potted meats, good steak and better beef tartare.
It's all still good, though perhaps the best reason to visit the restaurant today is Howard herself, who opened Thistle with chef Eric Bechard back in 2009, and has since emerged as one of Oregon's most adroit front-of-house managers.
Order this: Beef tartare, or just let the kitchen decide with the "chef's whim" menu.
Cost: About $10 to $26 per dish.
5 p.m. to close, Tuesday to Saturday; 228 N.E. Evans St., McMinnville; 503-472-9623; thistlerestaurant.com
With tUnE-yArDs on the stereo, Fernet-based cocktails and a hyper-local approach to roadhouse fare, Ruddick/Wood, the long-delayed dining room from chef Paul Losch (D.O.C.) and Kyle Lattimer (Newberg's Uprooted), is cool enough to give a Portlander a bad case of hipster envy.
The menu is smart and smart looking, from the deviled eggs topped with bright orange smoked trout roe to the bitter grilled chicories with basic brioche croutons and crushed hazelnuts in a mellow dressing that somehow included dried beef. The wine list is strong, and the cocktails and craft beers poured from the adjacent R/W tavern are as good as you'll find this far southwest of Portland.
There's room for some tuning up here and there, and a bit more care with plating. The breaded and deep-fried porchetta with salty kim chi, greens and an edible purple flower -- a picturesque bowl -- revealed itself to be a rectangular log of pure-white fat beneath the crust. The roe on one of our deviled eggs had spilled over onto the plate. A duck entree was unevenly cooked, some parts bloody-rare and chewy, others grey-brown and sweating.
But the meal was soon redeemed by a beautiful plate of lightly pickled purple beets, grilled and laid alongside bitter greens and delectable house-made ricotta. Right now, Ruddick/Wood has more potential than any other wine country restaurant.
Order this: Deviled eggs, beets with ricotta, cocktails from next door.
Cost: About $6-$18 per dish.
11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m., and 4 p.m. to close, Tuesday to Saturday; 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday; 720 E. First St., Newberg; 503-487-6133; ruddickwood.com
Last year, Joseph Zumpano moved across the country from a high-powered restaurant job with Washington D.C.'s Black restaurant group, taking an 11,000 mile road trip with his sweetheart, McMinnville-native Katie Koenig.
They were headed for Carlton, where Zumpano would eventually open Henry's Diner, a cart named for his grandfather, which already serves my favorite new brunch anywhere in Oregon.
Despite the custom cart's tight quarters, almost everything here feels considered, down to the smallest of ingredients. The pancakes are made from Zumpano's father's recipe. The bacon is thick-cut off the slab each day; the leftover rind turned into dog treats. There are dishes from Zumpano's childhood in Philadelphia, including a classic Pennsylvania scrapple and springy Jersey pork rolls.
And there's an emphasis on local products. The jam comes from Republic of Jam. The fresh-cut flowers on the cart's sill from Koenig's own company, Pollination Flowers. The beef in the burger comes from Carlton's Lonesome Rock Ranch; the brioche buns are baked at nearby Carlton Bakery.
And best of all, heading back to Portland through Carlton means you can cruise home via U.S. 26 instead crawling along 99W.
Oh, who am I kidding? Best of all was that extra piece of bacon.
Order this: The perfect pancake breakfast.
Cost: Breakfast items from about $6-$12
8 a.m. to 2 p.m., Friday to Monday; 103 E. Main St.; 503-447-6887, Henry's Diner on Facebook
Recipe: It's refreshing to find a restaurant like Newberg's recipe that doesn't overreach, instead serving simple, honest food from this old house along East Hancock. Start with a plate of creamy house-made burrata with fat Castelvetrano olives and prosciutto, then move on to al dente cavatelli pasta tossed with red-wine -braised beef. There's a short but smart draft beer selection, though most folks you'll find here will be drinking wine. (11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m., 115 N. Washington St., Newberg; 503-487-6853, recipenewbergor.com)
The Barlow Room: At just three weeks old, it's a bit too new to review this new restaurant from the owners of Dayton's Joel Palmer House, but I did stop by for a quick snack and a cocktail, scanning a menu of steak bites and lobster mac and cheese, lunch sandwiches and dinner entrees in the $20s and $30s. The most interesting thing so far might be the antique wood bar, imported to America from London a century ago, and the European-style practice of adding an 18 percent gratuity to all checks automatically. (11 a.m. to 9 p.m., daily; 306 Ferry St., Dayton; 503-714-4328; thebarlowroom.com)
Red Hills Market: The secret's already out about Red Hills Market, the all-in-one sandwich joint, wood-fired pizzeria and general-goods store at the heart of Dundee. But I seem to find something new and delicious each time I go -- a plump mortadella and arugula salad on ciabatta, eaten with a frosty ginger soda while surrounded by shelves of local jam, truffle oil and barbecue sauce. Don't miss the coconut macaroons drizzled, still warm, with chocolate sauce. (7 a.m. to 8 p.m., daily; 155 S.W. Seventh St., Dundee; 971-832-8414, redhillsmarket.com)
-- Michael Russell