It's a typical Portland story, and one that seems too good to be true. A couple starts selling food at the farmers' market, attracting a clutch of groupies every week. They open their own café in a decidedly untrendy part of town. Most everything is made from scratch, including homemade ice cream, with other goods provided by small, local purveyors. They cater to cyclists in particular. Oh, and they blog the heck out of the whole affair. Meanwhile, the local food community falls all over itself in rapturous acclaim.
In the case of Ali Jepson and Evan Dohrmann, it's all true, and the acclaim is well deserved. The Portland natives opened the Little Red Bike Café on the outskirts of St. Johns, and it's already a local landmark. A red bicycle sits atop the building, and an after-hours "bike-through" window is open an hour or two after regular closing time. Everything's been painted a fresh shade of adorable, and there are retro touches throughout.
The Little Red Café serves an abbreviated but focused menu, featuring a small variety of sandwiches for breakfast and lunch. It's supplemented by an assortment of creative specials appearing on the weekend menu.
For breakfast, try the Zoobomb sandwich, with egg, cheese, aioli, and caramelized onions on ciabatta. If that sounds unconventional, it works, although it's remarkably messy: Biting through the sturdy, tasty ciabatta often results in an explosion of egg and cheese at the edges of the sandwich. It's also not the hangover-smothering breakfast trough that you may be used to—portions at the Little Red Bike Café are never excessive. (This is a fine thing, because it leaves room for vegan baked goods from Dovetail Bakery, or some of that excellent homemade ice cream.)
Of the regular lunchtime offerings, go for the remarkable turkey and avocado sandwich. The roast beef sandwich is less successful; the meat is gloriously pink and soft, but the caramelized onions and gorgonzola make the affair a hint too rich for a midday refresher. Keep an eye on the specials board, though: I had the Three's Company, a pesto grilled cheese sandwich served with a garlic-tomato soup and salad, and it was the ideal winter lunch for a day that saw hail and freezing rain.
Coffee is provided by Southeast Portland's bike-based Courier Coffee Roasters, and it's black, thick, and hearty—the way coffee should be. Meanwhile, awesomely addictive milkshakes come in a Mason jar with a dollop of whipped cream. Flavors rotate weekly: On recent visits, the peanut butter chocolate chip and the Vietnamese coffee were both fantastic.
The café's popularity results in perhaps its only drawback. The small room is cramped to begin with, and it's often crowded to capacity. And the staff, while unflinchingly friendly, is often rushed to get the work done.
The Little Red Bike Café is charmingly inviting, and while very much of this moment, it's not especially trendy. The food is uniquely good, and ever-changing weekend specials make return visits especially rewarding. There are plans to expand the hours to dinnertime and serve house-made pot pies—for updates, visit their blog at blog.littleredbikecafe.com. Even if it all seems a little too cutesy, the Little Red Bike Café manages to pull it off.