Westside, country-fried

When Tri-Met launched the new Fifth and Sixth Avenue MAX routes, the cheap eats available to Portland State students on a lunch break more than tripled.

When Tri-Met launched the new Fifth and Sixth Avenue MAX routes, the cheap eats available to Portland State students on a lunch break more than tripled. Hop a line (for free!) and gain access to the myriad of food carts and lunch-only cafés formerly reserved for the bankers and civil servants of Portland’s true downtown.

On Sixth Avenue, tucked into the backside of the US Bancorp Tower and just shy of Burnside, you can find Portland’s latest culinary gem—and there’s nothing pretentious about it. 

Welcome to Hillbilly Bento, where the pulled pork is hot and saucy, the pecan pie is homemade (and right-on) and the music is nothing but down-home Dixie Blues.  Owner Jay Irvin hails from North Carolina, and you can taste the sincerity of his affection for Southern comfort food in every item on the HB menu.

The restaurant’s “bento” qualities are limited to its rice, tea and to-go boxes, but the rice here is dirty, the tea is sweet and the boxes are lined in cute, red-and-white checkered paper (you know, to keep all of the saucy goodness from soaking through to your lap).

Standard fare is a three-sectioned box with your choice of entree, “base” and side. Bases are Cajun dirty rice (cooked with sausage and Worcestershire sauce, plus other secret ingredients), rice pilaf or salad; sides range from fried okra to buttermilk biscuits to corn on the cob, and it’s only a dollar more to choose two. And while the sides are top-notch, the entrees are the kicker: Choose from pulled pork (with barbecue or North Carolina vinegar sauce, both available “spicy”), beef pepper pot and Pepsi chicken for a bargain $6.50 and select boiled Gulf Coast shrimp for $7.95 or smoky red beans for only $5.50.

Jay Irvin’s daughter Maia says that “the pork is kind of a house favorite,” and it’s easy to see why. What is possibly the best pulled pork in Portland is available with what might be the tangiest, tastiest barbecue sauce this side of the Mississippi.

The “spicy” sauces are not all that spicy, but they’re darn good anyway. And while the buttermilk biscuits are of the pull-apart, butter-rich variety (i.e., awesome), the macaroni and cheese does not benefit from the cafeteria-style serving line. For a texturally pleasing macaroni and cheese, you’d be advised to arrive early in the day.

Hillbilly Bento also runs daily specials, which “start about noon and last until we run out.” While the specials are a little more expensive than the rest of the menu ($6.95 to $9.95), they serve not only to impress the newcomers but also to shake up the sensory experience of HB’s steady regulars. There’s fried chicken on Mondays, chicken and dumplings on Tuesdays, barbecue ribs on Wednesdays, chicken and sausage gumbo on Thursdays and—perhaps best of all—fried catfish and hushpuppies to satisfy your soul every Friday.

These aren’t HB’s only surprises, however. On any given day, a customer may be privy to Irvin’s fresh-baked (and off the menu) jalapeno cheddar biscuits or a sample of an experimental entree like chicken-fried steak. There are also—surprisingly—plenty of vegetarian and even vegan lunch options. They are full-flavored and delicious, not just second-thought menu additions to appease Portland’s food scene.

Desserts here are also surprisingly fabulous. The homemade peach cobbler and chocolate pecan pie are served in generous portions, and certainly warrant a trip of their own.

There is indoor and outdoor seating, though not much of either. Hillbilly Bento is a little bit bigger than a hole in the wall, and during peak hours you’d probably be most comfortable taking your food to go. Thankfully, “to-go” is what HB does best.

Irvin’s love for his restaurant manifests in his exceptional customer service and enthusiasm for creative development. Hillbilly Bento is launching a catering arm, and late night and weekend hours are in the works.

One small suggestion: It may betray the bento name, but with both pulled pork and coleslaw on the menu, where are the pulled pork sandwiches? Please, please, for pork lovers in every quadrant—please bake some buns and serve up the best pulled pork sandwich this town has ever seen.