Food is almost an afterthought at most pubs. Yes, there are pubs that treat food with the same importance as the drinks but for the most part, it’s usually a mix of generic burgers, sandwiches and maybe a bowl of pasta or two. When you’re drunk, either everything tastes good or you just want something big, greasy and covered in cheese. That isn’t to say that bars need to start serving fine dining plates with a pint. That would be equally weird as pub food should be simple and straight-forward but simple doesn’t mean it should be terrible.
The Portside is located in Gastown in the spot that used to be Post Modern. It’s a mash-up of old and new, like someone modernized a Wild West setting, matching vintage looking wood and red bricks with glass and concrete. It looks like a venue designed for live music or DJs as there’s a stage on the upper floor and tables that are easily removed to make way for dancing shoes. There’s a couple dozen beers on tap which I’m sure the beer guys will have a field day with but I’m here to check out the food, which is a tiny little blurb at the bottom of the drinks menu. You don’t actually order food from the servers, you order tickets. Each ticket is $2 and each food item costs a number of tickets, like we’re at an arcade exchanging our ski-ball winnings for stuffed animals and water guns.
Prices range from 1 ticket (seasoned peanuts, $2) to 4 tickets for the sandwiches. Grab your tickets and head up to the wacky looking hot dog stand next to the bar downstairs. Since there was three of us, we decided to just order one of everything (except the two vegetarian options, which we couldn’t be bothered with) for simplicity’s sake.
The seasoned peanuts ($2) are, well, seasoned peanuts. For a single ticket, you get quite a generous serving of warm, richly flavored tray of peanuts that are great for nibbling with your beer as you wait for more substantial dishes.
The popcorn ($4) is also well seasoned, with a fragrant, earthy anise flavor.
They serve Nathan’s franks ($4), the folks that put on that hot dog eating contest where people from all over the world cram their faces with as many as they can as fast as they can. Actually, these are really good hot dogs, made with beef (hopefully) and great if you’re not all that hungry or if you’re still hungry after eating everything else. Just don’t dip them in water first. Leave that to Kobayashi.
If you prefer your sausages slightly more…German, then go for one of these ($6), chopped up and served with sauerkraut and mustard. The hot mustard is perfect for something simple like this. Another perfect match for beer.
The siu mai ($6) was a little disappointing. They’re just okay but not up to par with the pork dumplings at a legit dim sum place that cost significantly less.
In terms of “entrees”, there’s three sandwiches available for 4 tickets a piece ($8). Above is the beef brisket and arugula sandwich and while it may be difficult to determine scale here, I assure you it is a huge sandwich. The shredded chunks of brisket are tender and very moist, balanced by the fresh, slightly bitter argula. I thought of this like an unscale Sloppy Joe as it took me a long, messy time, and a mountain of napkins, to finish. A fantastic sandwich and great value for $8, only a buck or two more than what you’d be spending at the golden arches.
If beef isn’t your thing, there are two other sandwiches on the menu: braised chicken and kimchi…
…and a pulled pork sandwich. I prefer the brisket and argula but pulled pork and coleslaw is always a killer combination for a sandwich as well. They all look juicy, sitting on a crispy, lightly toasted brioche bun.
My only real gripe with Portside Pub is that you have to get your own food. The servers bring you your drinks but you have to get your own food from the stand. This is particularly annoying because most items are made to order so you have to walk back and forth, checking if your order is ready and having to make several trips if it isn’t. It wasn’t very crowded since it was mid-week but I can imagine how chaotic this could end up when the place is packed. If you have to grab your food yourself, they should at least have some sort of alert to inform you your order is ready, like those flashing “pagers” that some restaurants have. It’s a minor issue, one I actually only realized after running back and forth a few times and coming back to the table to have a friend comment “It’s like you work here!”. I guess it helps burn a few of those pulled pork calories.
It’s hard to complain about prices when you can literally try everything on the menu for about $50 but despite the low prices, the food is high on flavour. The menu isn’t fancy but it feels very much like someone put a lot of effort into its conception. The flavor choices and combinations are distinct and deliberate. I’ve never had popcorn, for example, that tastes like the popcorn at Portside Pub. It’s beer food with a bit of personality that you don’t need to be tipsy to enjoy. It’s a step above the usual but familiar enough that it still feels like a proper pub.
The Portside Pub
7 Alexander Street
Monday to Thursday: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Friday: 4 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Saturday: 5 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Sunday: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Connect with Ed on Twitter at @edlau.