Rose Foods sometimes feels as if it’s in a time warp. The decor is mid-century Jewish deli, the music a blend of 1942 and 2017 and everything in between, and the wallpaper is vintage grandma’s dining room (but fitting because it has pink roses on it).
No matter what decade you’re living in, though, the food here is distinctive and delicious, and fills a niche in Portland for traditional deli fare.
Rose Foods opened in August, and as much as I was dying to try it, I waited a while because, well, people get a little crazy when new restaurants open in Portland. They have to have the “first look,” and throw their reviews up on Yelp or in a food blog as fast as possible, even though the place hasn’t had a chance to settle in and breathe. In the beginning, I knew there would be no street parking for blocks and blocks on a weekend morning or during the weekday breakfast rush. A relaxing breakfast was in danger of turning into a stressful experience requiring an afternoon aspirin and a nap.
Turns out mid-morning on a weekday is a great time to visit Rose Foods. Plenty of parking, no lines and lots of seating, even though the restaurant is still busy with a steady stream of customers coming in for a bagel sandwich. Recently I arrived around 11 a.m. and ordered an Uncle Leo ($10), a sandwich made with a lox-and-onion frittata and herbed creamed cheese and served on a house-made bagel, and a bowl of mushroom, barley and beef soup ($6). I would have preferred an order of latkes ($8) over the soup, but they only make those on Saturday and Sunday — reason to brave the crowds on the weekend. I also asked for a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, which I was introduced to by Rose Foods’ owner, Chad Conley, and have been wanting another ever since.
I ordered at the counter, then settled in at one of the nine tables in the back dining room. The staff brings your food out to you when it’s ready. The Uncle Leo was a hit. The bagel was crispy outside, soft and chewy inside, and I found myself wishing it had been around back when we did our blind tasting of local bagels in the Portland Press Herald’s Food & Dining section. I suspect it would have scored high. The frittata was perfectly round, obviously cooked in a mold, but had just the right amount of lox in it, so the flavors were well balanced – especially with the schmear of herbed cream cheese as a finishing touch. I would order this again, although there are so many tempting items on the menu, it might be a while. The restaurant makes its own whitefish salad that it serves with lettuce and onion on a bagel, so I’m curious about that. The Henry VIII sounds really good, too, made with pastrami nova, onion, parsley and horseradish cream cheese. (One couple ordered this sandwich while I was there and complained when they realized there was fish on it. They thought they were ordering pastrami. A staffer had to explain to them that pastrami nova is fish that’s been cured like pastrami.)
Closed bagel sandwiches range from $7 to $14; open sandwiches cost a little more, and the huge pastrami on rye is a whopping $16. Some of the prices seem a little steep here, but this is one of those cases where you have to think about what you’re getting. I really hate the word “curated” in the food world, but that’s what Conley’s menu feels like; it’s full of carefully chosen ingredients, and designed to surprise and satisfy without overwhelming either the customers or staff. Sometimes you have to pay a little extra for something special.
And the soup? That’s another story. It was fine, like any soup you might make at home in winter, but not knock-your-socks-off praiseworthy. I’d much rather spend my money on some of the items I’ve seen on the Rose Foods Facebook page. Apparently they make olive bagels on Friday, for example. And I really want to try that honey walnut cake.
And, oh yes, those latkes. They’re calling my name.
WHERE: 428 Forest Ave., Portland. 835-0991. rosefoods.me
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday; closed Monday and Tuesday
WAIT: Brief in mid-morning, after the breakfast rush; pass the time reading the free newspapers or admiring the grandma-esque rose wallpaper.
PARKING: Street parking only
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes