Notorious BIG, the late Brooklyn rapper, liked high-low juxtapositions just as much as a hip Portland chef. Take “Big Poppa,” a song filled with boasts, sexual or otherwise, including mansions, fancy cars and a mid-rendezvous meal of “T-Bone steak, cheese eggs and Welch’s grape.”
That famous line, delivered in signature Biggie Smalls style, is the inspiration for a sandwich at Big E (get it?), A new micro restaurant from Twin Cities chef Justin Sutherland, found in the rec room-style lobby of downtown Portland’s new 197 -room Moxy Hotel. Big E joins Fast Feathers, a new wing concept from Anthony and Stephanie Brown of Northeast Portland’s Nacheaux, and an as-yet unfilled third micro restaurant space at the hotel’s new “Food Cart Alley.”
As Eater PDX noted before Big E’s Tuesday opening, Sutherland might be best known outside the Minneapolis area for his television appearances, including a win on “Iron Chef America,” a run on the 16th season of “Top Chef” and a hosting gig on food and travel show “Taste the Culture,” which highlights BIPOC-owned restaurants. In his hometown of St. Paul, Sutherland, who has African American, Japanese and Norwegian heritage, owns the Southern restaurant and bourbon bar Handsome Hog, home to a slow-brined and flash-fried whole pig’s head, and partnered with another chef to reopen the beloved craft beer bar Happy Gnome.
Now called The Gnome, that beer garden, with its melted raclette and bone marrow pot pies, actually feels like it could be a good fit for Portland some day. For now, Sutherland is focused on opening more “transferable” counter-service spots such as Big E, which already has second and third locations in the works at Moxy hotels in Minneapolis’ Uptown and downtown neighborhoods, plus a steakhouse, Noyes & Cutler, set to open in st. Paul next week. Sutherland is a chef on the rise – future Big E locations could be coming to Oakland and (possibly) Cincinnati or Portland’s east side. Just a few days in, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson has already stopped by the Portland restaurant.
“Big E has been a project that the team’s been working on for about two years,” said Sutherland, still adjusting back home after seven weeks of traveling. “The first location was going to be the Uptown Moxy hotel in Minneapolis. I just went through that process, redraws the kitchen, working with the city. Portland was always in the plan. But the space was ready first, and we didn’t want to wait any longer. ”
As with Portland’s own Fried Egg I’m In Love, sandwiches at Big E come with eggs in various forms and names inspired by pop songs from the likes of LCD Soundsystem (the Dance Yrself Clean sandwich, a straightforward bacon, egg and cheese), The Flaming Lips (the Her Name is Yoshimi, with scrambled egg, lump crab and pickled daikon) and Tupac (the California Love, with egg whites, avocado puree, spinach and alfalfa sprouts). Most sandwiches come on fluffy milk buns from Beaverton’s Oyatsupan bakery. Many have cheese from Tillamook, a longtime Sutherland supporter, and sauces from Cry Baby Craig’s of Minneapolis.
For years, a debate simmered in the hip hop world over whether Notorious BIG was rapping about Welch’s grape juice, jelly or even soda (it was juice, served in carafes at a North Carolina pancake house, a friend revealed in 2016). In the It Was All a Dream, named for a different Biggie song bur inspired by the same lyric, Sutherland lays down a base layer of grape jelly to a seared steak, fried egg and melted American cheese sandwich, bringing a level of sweetness roughly equivalent to ketchup (but without the vinegar bite) to an otherwise decadent sandwich.
Big E is open in the Moxy hotel’s Food Cart Alley from 8 am to 2 pm and 4 to 10 pm Monday-Saturday and 8 am to 8 pm Sunday at 585 SW 10th Ave., eatbige.com A grand opening celebration is planned for the Food Cart Alley this summer.
– Michael Russell, firstname.lastname@example.org @tdmrussell