It was a cliche Portland Tuesday. Up until 4pm, there was a gloom over the city, the kind of gloom that most of us who have lived here long enough have grown accustomed to, that “8 ½” month gloom. I know people say that once you live here long enough, you get used to these days; gray clouds and steady on-and-off rain, not downpours, just annoying little droplets, enough to soak the trees and the sidewalks and wash away the tourists.
By 4:05 the sun came out for the first time. As tempting as it was to stay home and enjoy the warmth coming in through my living room windows, I realized that there was a restaurant to open, so I put on my dress shoes, collar shirt, and fancy leather apron. On the way out I grabbed my wine key and face mask, and off I went. It had been 37 days since our last service at República and 36 since the moment we took possession of the new space. Up until 4:27pm of this day, there was a large ladder in the middle of the dining room, two full trash cans by the door, and a front of house staff that had 3 minutes to absorb all the details of the flow of the new space. The night before, our contractor and our Executive Chef spent the night inside the space, one to make sure that the other would show up on time and finish what was left to complete. For 4 weeks I watched Olivia live and breathe this build-out. We didn’t have someone to help us create or design the layout of the space, we just didn’t have the budget for something like this. Besides, after building 5 of these in one year, you sorta become your very own advisor on what the critical and important pieces are and what you can truly spend your money on. It was inspiring to watch this woman deal with everything from floor samples, paint colors, counter finishes, furniture purchasing, light sourcing, plant installations, daily hardware-store runs, and even plumbing the entire cocktail bar on her own. Did I mention she still had two desserts, a palate cleanser, and a take-away to put out, on that night?
I spent the last 5 days leading up to this day in bed with pneumonia. This meant that all of the pressure was now on the team; Chef Olivia, Chef Lalo, Madison our GM, and everyone else who was available to help. All of the dirty work and all of the planning was on them while I laid in bed restless and useless. The work wasn’t easy either, as much credit as I just gave Olivia I can easily give to Lalo and Madison who came in at 9am and left at 1 or 2am in the days leading up. What can I say, this team is special. At 4:30pm our first Guest walked in, my brother Emmanuel who I intentionally placed as first Guest, only to make sure that if we fucked anything up, it would be with someone who would be a bit more forgiving. Throughout the night I was able to track the length of time between courses and pairings. In addition I knew he wasn’t going to sugar-coat his feelings on anything. At one point, as I stood across the room I watched a reaction from him after taking a few bites. I walked over, with the little bit of energy I had in me, I asked “how was the dish?”, to which he replied “honestly, the shit was a little wacky but it was tasty”. Not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing, but it was the honest feedback that I had rightfully asked for. Eventually, the rest of our Guests began to arrive and soon our -1 Day began to take shape. It was everything that we expected it to be, a room filled with familiar and forgiving faces, people who love us enough to tell us the truth but not enough to discourage us by being too harsh. Besides, everyone in this room knows our A game, so even at an A minus or even a B+, we were going to be okay. To tell you the truth, I am not really sure how everyone rated us for the night, all I know is that at the end of their meal everyone seemed happy with the food and the experience, and that’s all I could have ever asked for considering the fact that 4 hours before they had arrived, there were construction tools and leftover boards blocking the large doorway.
Tonight, Thursday, February 9th, is the official opening of the new space for República. I keep hearing everyone around me calling it “República 2.0”, which I find funny because I can easily count 5-6 different versions of República. The very first being the one where the wonderful Brooke Jackson-Glidden came to see us in the old space, one week into getting our keys. I remember the day because she asked me when the space would be done, to which I casually replied "no more than 20 days". She seemed surprised, yet 19 days later we were hosting our very first pop-up tasting dinner, a version of what we wanted República to eventually be a year or two down the line. What I remember most about that meeting is how unsure every one of us was about what República was or what it was supposed to be. At one point my former partner talked for minutes in circles, describing it as everything but an evening restaurant, even calling it a Cafe. My head nearly exploded at that moment, but I quickly forgot about it after looking around me and realizing that “holy shit, we are opening a restaurant!”.
Three weeks later as we officially opened our doors, I quickly came to the realization that the original concept of Tortas and Guisados wasn’t good enough. The day before our official grand opening, I brought in Dońa Chapis who was doing prep for some bar around the neighborhood and asked her to work for us. She agreed. Now that we had a true professional Maestra Tortillera, it meant that I could create an entirely different menu for the evenings, something that I would simply call “De Noche,” what I liked to call “Republica 2.0”, an assortment of familiar snacks like Memelas, Quesadillas, and region specific Tacos. The Tortas and Pastes still existed only now they were accompanied by an origin story of how these dishes came about.
There was one downside to all of this, which was the fact that I waited until the last minute to let my partners know of the change. Rightfully, they were not happy.
But, it was too late by then, it was opening night; the menus were printed, the masa was ready, and the staff was already clocked in.