The interior of Black Cow

From a sociological standpoint, trends can often represent a deeper layer of the onion of popular culture. Whether in art, fashion, city planning or otherwise, trends reflect and are commonly born of the collective consciousness of any given point in time. Perceived values repeatedly stem from environmental circumstances throughout history — would the “tiny house” phenomenon have occurred if it weren’t for the early millennium real estate crisis?

No trend has had such a heavy hand in shaping the dining industry lately than what could be referred to as the “upscale fast-food” movement. Pioneered by the likes of Danny Meyer and David Chang, who with Shake Shack and Fuku respectively have turned fast-food staples like thin-patty cheeseburgers and fried chicken sandwiches into respectable culinary accomplishments, the movement is surely a conscious effort in both evoking nostalgia and lending merit to the guilty-pleasure foods many of us grew up eating — neon-yellow American cheese in tow. 

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Chicken sandwich

Portlanders now have their very own adult-themed return to nostalgic form in Black Cow. Billed as a “cocktail bar, soda fountain and burger joint that focuses on hand-made food,” it’s not McDonald’s, but it sure does scratch a similar itch. Black Cow is the brainchild of Nicholas Nappi (whose recent resume includes stints at Eventide and Hugo’s, as well as a lengthy run at Local 188) and a reimagination of the space that once housed Sonny’s for eight years at 83 Exchange St. While not a whole lot of work has been done to transform the room itself, the vibe is entirely different. On a recent visit, Sam Cooke crooned regrets for “laughing when she left” while bright trays of burgers, fries and milkshakes floated around the room before settling on tables surrounded by a mixed crowd of enthralled kids and sentimental 30-somethings — all despite the fact that it’s still Trump’s America out there.

Having served its first burger just a few weeks ago on March 19, Black Cow is clearly still in its tinkering phase. The good news is that after three visits, improvements seem to be exponential rather than incremental. Fries that were initially soggy and pale are now crisp, golden-hued and impossible to stop devouring. Burgers — juicy, yet bordering on being overcooked — are framed by pleasantly chewy buns and an umami-laden caramelized tomato mayo. The chicken sandwich feels painstakingly recreated in its square-shaped patty embodiment, highlighted by an airy deep-fried texture that’s off the charts.

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Double cheeseburger

The cocktail program? Strong, thought-out and original. Nearly everything is made in-house (including buns and sauces), and the approximations of fast-food milieu are nothing if not noble and impassioned. Don’t sleep on the tomato soup, which paired with either the fish sticks (trust me) or rib-sticking grilled cheese makes for one of the best choices on the menu. The only not-so-good item has been a chocolate milkshake, which — thin, room-temp and watery — paled in comparison to what’s offered right down the road at Duckfat. 

Why is it that so many of us toil over “being our best selves” all week while secretly craving nostalgic fried chicken sandos smothered in unnatural cheese fluorescent with the glow of our commander in chief’s fake-news hair? Could this shared yearning for childhood comforts be a subconscious refusal to accept the unstable political climate looming over this country today? If there’s anything to that analysis, Black Cow most certainly has at least (at the time of this writing) 1017 days left to go.

Black Cow | 83 Exchange St., Portland | 11:30 am-1 am | 

Erik Neilson is a writer, musician and passionate foodhead based in Portland, ME.

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