Three weeks ago, the Oregonian’s editorial team decided, apparently, that the Portland area restaurants and shops most overlooked and in need of promotion by their paper were Shari’s with nearly 100 locations, Taco Time with over 300 locations, Old Spaghetti Factory with nearly 40 locations, and Dutch Bros Coffee with over 150 locations. They also featured Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen, the only non-chain — an old school steakhouse that’s been around since the end of World War II. The author of the story, Lee Williams, questions why it’s been ignored by foodies. He wonders why a place serving a 72 ounce steak wouldn’t get more notice. The owner offers an idea:
“A lot of the time, just because of our geographical location — we’re not downtown, and trendy, so we’re not on radar screens,” says Dave Sayler, 41, of why foodies tend to ignore Sayler’s. Dave Sayler is part of the third generation of Saylers to run the family steakhouse.
“Foodies don’t like anything big,” Dave’s father Gene, 65, says with a laugh.
You won’t find pommes frites, charcuterie or lobster foam here. Sayler’s is steak. And chicken. Lobster tails. And prime rib.
Enough people have attacked the ridiculousness of Williams’s portrayals of foodies in Portland that I’m not going to repeat that here. (Although, dude, pommes frites is just French for fries and, yes, they have them.) However, Sayler’s and Williams’s comments do show a basic misunderstanding: it’s not that foodies don’t like big food, it’s that we prioritize quality. Given two items of equal quality, we’d be overjoyed at a large portion or low price. Duh. (In fact, my favorite steak in town is the 2 lb porterhouse at Nostrana. Its unusual size doesn’t bother me at all.)
Sayler’s other point, though, does have more than an inkling of truth. Being downtown, in the Pearl, or in one of the trendy neighborhoods in North, Northeast, or Southeast Portland has its advantages. There are clearly foodies, such as myself, that go out of our way to explore the outskirts and promote restaurants off the beaten track. Hell, if anyone asks, I always say my favorite restaurants is El Inka in BFE Gresham.
But I often complain as restaurants I love disappear that Portlander’s aren’t willing to drive 15 minutes out of their way for great food. So maybe Sayler has something here. Maybe he’s a victim of snobbery and geographical distance. Only one good way to test that: eat there. So that’s what I did. In the same day, I ate at both El Gaucho and Sayler’s, then followed those meals the next day with a visit to Laurelhurst Market. I ate a ribeye at each. Following are the results.
I brought a friend with me. He’s never really liked steaks, but also had never been to an upscale steakhouse. The most expensive steak he’d ever purchased was $20 from Outback Steakhouse. I thought he would provide a sufficiently “non-foodie” perspective.
We started with El Gaucho. In Food Dude’s steak roundup, they came out the victor. And in my experience, they offer the best steak in town — but also the most expensive steak in town. It’d set a high bar for Sayler’s to live up to. If Sayler’s steak even got marginally close in quality with its lower prices, it could prove itself to be a good value.
We ordered the bone-in ribeye, an 18 oz prime, dry-aged steak. Ribeyes are my favorite cut. They’re a fattier cut with lots of flavor, but still relatively tender. It’s the steak version of a standing rib roast, also known as prime rib. We ordered it medium, although El Gaucho offered a description of their medium as pink but slightly warm as opposed to their medium-rare as pink but cool. We should have taken this into account since it essentially turns their medium into medium-rare and their medium-rare into rare. It didn’t hurt the steak, though.
They deboned the steak tableside for us. I find the service at El Gaucho very professional, but a little stuffy. Their elegantly dressed, gorgeous hostess looks like she should be on the arm of a celebrity at the Oscars and their serving staff wear tuxedos. I always feel like I’m underdressed, even in the bar. Thankfully, lighting is very dark.
The steak had a great crust. It was crisp, but thin. The pink interior was consistent from one edge of the steak to the next, leaving only tender, juicy meat between the charred surfaces. The steak cut easily and chewed easily. Even the fat pieces were tender, more like fat from BBQ’d brisket or pork belly than what I usually expect from a steak. The fat almost melted in the mouth.
The steak was extremely beefy. Not gamey, just intensely meaty, like quality lamb. Having recently eaten around 80 burgers in a three month period, I was impressed with how beefy the meat was. It really didn’t need a sauce, but it came with an excellent chanterelle mushroom and red wine reduction enriched with butter.
The cost is significant, though, $62 for the ribeye, or about $3.44 per ounce. It comes with no sides. They do give you some excellent crusty cheesebread when you sit down. But that’s it. All sides are extra. Showing up at happy hour and sitting in the bar can save you some money on appetizers, but plan on breaking $70 in a hurry for a full meal.
We were both still hungry after splitting the ribeye and no sides at El Gaucho, so we eagerly drove across town to Sayler’s. The parking lot is huge, as is the restaurant. We went straight to the bar to watch the University of Oregon football game against USC, but couldn’t get anyone to help us. We went back up to the front and found out we could put our names on a list for the dining room or head back to the bar and put our name on a list there. You’d think someone would have mentioned that to us when we asked about a table in the bar the first time. The next time we specifically asked if we could get put on a list for the dinner tables in the bar. Afterwards, they suggested that if we wanted to we could just sit at a normal bar table and they’d serve us dinner there, which sounded like wasn’t typical. Perhaps it was because we were at these tables, but service was relatively inattentive, but pleasant. It took some effort to get someone’s attention for things like drinks.
Despite the rundown interior, I have to admit that the atmosphere was more my speed than Gaucho. Others watching the game and ordering food struck up friendly conversations, earnestly interested in what we thought of our food, what we thought of Oregon’s bowl chances, and who we thought would win the governor’s race. It was laid-back, casual, down-to-earth, as were the customers. Several were from Vancouver.
Unfortunately the quality of the food didn’t match the quality of the conversation. The portions are definitely large. Each dinner comes with crudites, bread with garlic butter, soup or salad, potato (fries or baker), and dessert. We got the bone-in ribeye at 24 ounces. You can order boneless ribeyes starting at 12 ounces, if you prefer. So you get this 1 1/2 lb steak, plus all these extras, for only $29.95, making it only $1.25/ounce, almost a third the price of El Gaucho’s ribeye. And, of course, you get all the extras.
We also got a half-order of their lauded onion rings for $4.95. That’s them pictured above. A full order could probably solve world hunger. While they weren’t as good as similarly battered onion rings at Noble Rot or Country Cat, but they’re still tasty — probably the best thing we had there along with the fries.
Before we reached Sayler’s, my dining partner scored El Gaucho’s steak a 7 for overall enjoyability. This wasn’t a score relative to other steaks, just compared to all other things he eats. He predicted that while he’d probably enjoy it more than Sayler’s, the difference would be slight, maybe a 6. He wasn’t overly impressed by El Gaucho and steaks just aren’t his thing.
We ordered the ribeye medium, again, and I’ll give this to Sayler’s: that’s exactly how it came out. They did a good job of crusting it and not over-cooking the interior edges of the steak. But the difference in quality was immediately apparent to us both. First of all, it was much chewier. It wasn’t chewy, but it took a lot more effort to cut and chew. There was gristly connective tissue, too, which we hadn’t gotten form El Gaucho’s steak. I had to spit out three bites after they wouldn’t break down in my mouth enough to swallow them.
The biggest contrast, though, was in the flavor. Whereas El Gaucho’s steak had an intense beefiness, the meat at Sayler’s tasted like it was boiled and unseasoned or maybe steamed hamburger from Winco. After eating enough for my notes, we went looking for steak sauces. The steak desperately needed something to cover its insipidness. It didn’t even taste as good as steaks I make at home from supermarket choice Angus. After the meal, my friend admitted it was a lot worse than he expected compared with El Gaucho. I think given the choice between an enjoyable $60 steak and mediocre (to be kind) $30 steak, he’s just sworn off steaks entirely.
So, I have to say that Williams’s accusation that Sayler’s just isn’t trendy enough for us food snobs doesn’t ring true. Sure, maybe the dated interior and location amidst strip malls and strip clubs doesn’t urge Portland foodies to East County, but the quality of the food ensures that no foodie is going to patronize Sayler’s. It’s not too far from my house and I kind of liked the atmosphere, but I don’t see myself going back.
I did wonder, though, if there’s a happy medium, something significantly cheaper than El Gaucho that’s still good. Laurelhurst Market seemed like a good candidate, so I went there by myself the next day to compare their ribeye.
Laurelhurst Market was started by the owners of Simpatica Catering and the now defunct Viande Meats, the previous upscale butcher in City Market NW. They moved their butcher shop along with their charcuterie production to the east Burnside location when they opened. The restaurant specializes in meat, especially steaks, both cheaper cuts and higher-end cuts. They rotate their available cuts, but the ribeye seems to usually be on the menu.
Like El Gaucho, the steak doesn’t really come with a side, so I started with their terrific iceberg wedge, possibly the best version of this salad in town. (Foster Burger, Meat Cheese Bread, and Podnah’s also have versions I really enjoy.) It’s very large for $7, topped with thin onion rings, bacon, and pickled celery.
The 16 oz ribeye came topped with a blue cheese butter and two excellent, large onion rings. The steak had a nice crust on it with grill marks. As with the other places, I ordered the steak medium.
Like at Sayler’s, the meat came out cooked more typically medium than at El Gaucho. Unlike Sayler’s, this steak was beefy and tender. It was noticeably less beefy than the steak from El Gaucho, but much closer to it than to the flavorless steak from Sayler’s. It also wasn’t as tender as the steak from El Gaucho but it was close. I did have two bites (on a whole steak, rather than a half steak) that I couldn’t fully chew, however.
Best of all, at $33, the steak is only $2.06 per ounce — about 60% more than Sayler’s, but also over 60% less than El Gaucho’s. And frankly, while you pay significantly less per ounce at Sayler’s, unless you plan to split the steak, the one at Laurelhurst Market is a more reasonable size and costs about the same as the one at Sayler’s. But you might want to buy a side with it whereas the sides are included at Sayler’s.
Most importantly, though, the steaks at El Gaucho and Laurelhurst Market are truly good — even great. The one from Sayler’s was not. It was edible. But if I want that quality of beef, I’d rather go with something with added flavor, like BBQ or a hamburger. The quality of beef really stands out with a steak, so unless you just enjoy boiled beef flavored gum, best to save steak outings for special occasions if budget is an issue.
I’m glad the Oregonian published their anti-foodie screed if only because it got me to support my suspicions with evidence. Hopefully if anyone else reads the article and thinks, hey, maybe Sayler’s is good and I just haven’t given it a fair shake, you can point them here before they waste their money. Now if only the Oregonian would put their money where their mouth is before attacking their readership in an effort to court advertising dollars.
Next up: taco tasting between Taco Time and taquerias. Really.
319 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
Sayler’s Old Country Kitchen
10519 SE Stark St
Portland, OR 97216
3155 E Burnside St
Portland, OR 97214