Meet me at Slim's

I have a rare Saturday to myself so I decide to treat myself to a coffee and a pastry. Maybe I’ll buy a croissant and bring it home, slice it half, and put a fried egg on it.

I park near the center of St. John’s. It’s cold, it’s been rainy. I’m lazy. So I drove. Walking from my car I pass the dark alley which protects the secret back door to Slim’s.

The alley is guarded by dumpsters and a spray painted mural of ravens taking flight. There is never not a puddle of something back there.

I am tempted by hash browns but I refocus on the coffee shop and walk past the welcoming alleyway to The Great North coffee shop. I can see a line of people from the counter to the door. I shrug and walk past the coffee shop, take a right at the corner to the front door of Slim’s. Destiny.

I make my way past a crew of rowdy night-shift workers putting on coats and gathering takeout containers. They’re talking shit to each other and the bartender, threatening to bring their wives back next time. As they ramble toward the back door, I find a seat in the middle part of the bar. Far enough from anyone else that I won’t find myself in a conversation, but also not right in front of the TV.

I’m wearing green Uniqlo joggers, yesterday’s white button-down shirt, and a puffer jacket. Real bougie-dad energy. The bartender comes over to take my order. She’s blonde and pretty, wearing thick glasses and a plaid flannel. She’s a Portland archetype. She doesn’t like me. She keeps trying to take my order while the rowdy night-shift boys continue their shit-talking. I wait patiently. Once I am graced with her undivided attention I order black coffee, a Bloody Mary, veggie omelet with hash browns, and an English muffin. All business. Nope, no preference in vodka. It’s vodka.

I believe that my no-bullshit ordering and no attempt at conversation has earned me one or two points in her estimation. I consider it a victory and focus on the e-book on my phone. No ma’am. Not hear to chat; here to eat, drink, and read quietly. I pride myself on being an ideal customer.

When my breakfast arrives the American-style omelet is bright yellow and fluffy - no browning and wrapped around wilted spinach and sautéed mushrooms that had to come from a can. It’s exactly what you expect from this place and it’s excellent.

The bartender says “enjoy your food” with the disdain of someone three times her age.

I started going to Slim’s when I first lived in St. John’s. We rented an apartment behind the Safeway and fell in love with this small town embedded in North Portland. When my wife’s residency was complete we focused our house-hunt here.

A friend brought us to Slim’s the first time – at least that’s what I think I remember. Slim’s has a quality of feeling like it has always been there and that you’ve always gone there.

Loyal customer

Our St. John’s home was built in 1910. Slim’s opened in 1911. I like to think that the ghosts living in my house still go to Slim’s, just not on the nights we’re there. (That would be awkward. “Oh hi. Love what you’ve done with the house, but can we talk about that accent wall in the bathroom? Oh, and uh. Boo.”)

On my first or second trip to Slim’s I ordered their Agedashi Tofu – lightly fried tofu in a salty dashi broth. It’s some of the best tofu I’ve ever had. They run out most nights, so order it early. I love that this delicate tofu dish is on the menu at a meat-and-potatoes dive bar. You’ll see a burly longshoreman sit down with a bowl of tofu and a beer.

There are a lot of Japanese dishes on the menu at Slim’s because Slim’s is an ongoing experiment. Slim’s was purchased some years ago by a man, Hamad. Hamad invests in properties, improves them, and resells them. He intended to do this with Slim’s. Hamad’s partner, Michie, from Japan, is a trained chef. She saw potential and they decided to keep the place.

Over the years they have been slowly dialing up the quality of the food, introducing a new dishes here and there, all while keeping the prices low. Back when I ate meat, Slim’s had the best $9 steak you could find. A hanger steak cooked over the open flame of the big gas stove. Medium rare, slightly charred, smothered in onions.

We see Hamad and Michie working most nights we drop in. Always hustling, always stopping to wave hello. This power couple is legendary in the neighborhood. Rumor has it that they paid their staff during the pandemic shutdown before paycheck protection loans were approved. They provided health insurance before it was mandated by law. The pandemic lockdown was the first time they were closed long enough to replace the threadbare green carpet.

Slim’s is a dive bar’s dive bar. It’s not bistro pretending to be a dive bar. There’s no elevated $25 cheeseburger on the menu. The food is cheap, the crowd is rough, and at the drinks are strong.

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