Delicious Whit

The Register Guard | Aug. 19, 2013 2:21 a.m. | Updated: Aug. 19, 2013 9:21 a.m.

Contributed By:

Sherri Buri McDonald

Half a dozen restaurants are opening along Blair Boulevard in, or near, Eugene’s hopping Whiteaker neighborhood.

The restaurateurs see opportunity with the emerging “fermentation district” of breweries, wineries and related businesses that are serving neighborhood regulars, as well as a growing number of visitors.

The breweries form a geographic triangle, with Ninkasi Brewing Co., to the west at 272 Van Buren St.; Hop Valley Brewing to the north at 990 W. First Ave.; and Oakshire Brewing to the east at 207 Madison St., commercial broker Tim Campbell said.

“I think that’s why you’re seeing the restaurants pop up, as well,” he said. “It’s a triangle effect, and if you’re in that triangle, you’re going to get a mass of people.”

Steve Mertz, who was part owner and manager of the Laughing Planet Café on Blair Boulevard for the past eight years, plans to open a taqueria and tequila bar at Fifth Avenue and Blair Boulevard.

“I’ve always liked the Whiteaker neighborhood,” said Mertz, 42. “With so many breweries in there without a whole lot of food, I thought it would be a great idea to add a food concept into the neighborhood.”

His restaurant, Tacovore, will open this fall in the space at 530 Blair Blvd., which recently housed Pizza Research Institute, a family-owned vegan-vegetarian pizza place. Pizza Research recently moved a few blocks north to 325 Blair Blvd. after four years at Fifth and Blair.

Other new scents and flavors will be mingling along Blair.

Sushi spot Mame — as in edamame, not Auntie — is at 541 Blair Blvd., next to the Olive Juice store.

Grit, a farm-to-table restaurant with a seasonal menu of meats, produce, cheese and other ingredients from local producers, plans to open in a few weeks at 1080 W. Third Ave. And Vanilla Jill’s Scoops and Soups is offering organic salads, soups, waffles, ice cream and its trademark frozen yogurt at its third Eugene location. The Vanilla Jill’s shop at 298 Blair Blvd. recently introduced several new flavors of frozen desserts, including Red Velvet Raw and Trail Mix, that are dairy free, made from coconut, cashew or other nut milks, and sweetened only with banana, dates, raw local honey or real maple syrup.

On the southern end of Blair Boulevard — part of the Jefferson Westside Neighborhood — is the recently opened deli-brew pub combo, the Falling Sky Pour House Delicatessen at 790 Blair Blvd., which cures its own deli meats, bakes its own bread and, of course, brews its own beer and soda pop. Nearby, next to Sweet Life Patisserie, is Noli Ristorante Italiano at 769 Monroe St., specializing in Tuscan cuisine.

Not far away is Pizza Research Institute, which tops its pies with combinations such as Granny Smith apples, smoked gouda and roasted walnuts that are intriguing enough that carnivores have been willing to overlook the fact that pepperoni and sausage aren’t on the menu.

Pizza Research is an established part of the local restaurant scene. Usha Boise and her husband Will opened the restaurant in a tiny space at 1328 Lawrence St. in the late 1990s. Four years ago they moved to a spacious leased space at 530 Blair Blvd. They recently found their way to the house at 325 Blair Blvd. on a “little triangular, pizza shaped block,” wedged between Blair Boulevard and Van Buren Street, Usha Boise said.

“It’s kind of the Goldilocks syndrome,” she said of the restaurant’s recent moves. “We were at a teeny location, then a really large location.”

This one appears to be just right, she said.

The restaurant is decorated in shades of blue; a big chunk of green Montana quartz that “my husband fell in love with,” Usha Boise said, serves as part of the bar counter.

The restaurant has about 65 seats, including the nine-seat bar. It also has 40 seats in its outside patio.

Boise said she and her husband were drawn by the opportunity to buy the house, formerly occupied by OUR Federal Credit Union.

Pizza Research transferred its 11 employees from its former location and has “pretty much the same menu,” Boise said.

They’ll add some bar treats, such as fried tofu and tempeh, and more desserts, she said. The restaurant is open 4 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. daily, with live jazz on Friday nights.

“Probably we’ll add later hours on Friday and Saturday as we get our sea legs,” Boise said.

She declined to say exactly how much the family has invested in the new location. “A lot,” she said. Siuslaw Bank and Lane Council of Governments helped finance the property purchase, she said.

By mid-October or November, Tacovore will spring to life in Pizza Research’s former space at 530 Blair Blvd. “In traveling up and down the West Coast and seeing what other taquerias were doing with local foods and tequilas, it made sense for the local market and especially the Whiteaker neighborhood,” Mertz said.

“It was a style of food that I was attracted to eating more often and I was having a hard time finding that in Eugene. I like it, so I figured other people will like it, so it’s time to bring it to Eugene in a family-friendly atmosphere that’s also a quick-service restaurant.”

Tacovore also will serve salads, tortas (sandwiches) and aguas frescas, nonalcoholic drinks with such flavors as tamarind, hibiscus and horchata (rice spiced with cinnamon).

Prices will range from $2.50 to $3.50 for a taco and $6 to $9 for a margarita, Mertz said.

He said he will overhaul the space and “will bring more color into the building.” He’s still working on the details and declined to reveal how much he’ll invest in the improvements.

Tacovore’s hours probably will be 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays, Mertz said.

“We’re hoping to do a weekend brunch and to stay open until probably midnight on the weekends,” he said.

Like the Boises, Ashley Hawkins, 37, recently bought a little house in the Whiteaker for her restaurant, Grit.

“It was a residence in 1938 then the Shamrock Lunch,” she said. “It was also Sam Bond’s home,” the namesake of Sam Bond’s Garage, the cafe, pub and live music spot at 407 Blair Blvd. — a Whiteaker fixture before the recent explosion of breweries, wineries and restaurants.

Hawkins had lived in the house at 1080 W. Third Ave. for a winter and knew the owners, so when they wanted to sell, she leaped.

“It was the only property I looked at,” she said.

Hawkins hopes to open Grit in the next few weeks. The menu will change weekly, depending on what’s available from local farms and producers. A four-course dinner will cost $35 per person; drinks are extra. An additional menu will offer a dozen items, $6 to $20, including seasonal salads and house-made charcuterie.

The restaurant will have 40 seats inside and 45 outside “on the porch underneath our redwoods,” she said.

Hours will be 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday; closed on Sunday and Monday.

Hawkins is rooted in the local food scene. She was farm manager at Horton Road Organics farm in Blachly for four years.

“While I was there I loved doing farm dinners,” she said.

Grit will enable Hawkins to combine her loves of agriculture and cooking. Her five-year goal is to own land where she can grow vegetables for the restaurant, she said.

Hawkins will source local ingredients through her personal relationships with 15 to 20 local farms and food producers.

“Basically the whole (Lane County) farmers market,” she said.

Even in the winter, Grit will serve locally grown food.

“There’s quite an abundance in the wintertime that people don’t quite realize yet,” Hawkins said. “We’re able to do it here because of our climate. So there will be a lot of root vegetables and heavier on the meats in the wintertime. We can grow kale and lettuce and salad mixtures throughout the year. We’ll do a lot of preserving, too, and we’ll work with local cheese crafters.”

Hawkins said she thinks people in Eugene are ready for Grit.

“People are really excited,” she said. “I get so much positive enthusiasm. People stop by every other moment to ask what’s going on, and they’re so happy to hear that I’m working with local farms.”

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