“Next please! Oh, you want to use a card. If you must, I suppose I can allow it,” a voice wafts from a small window stuck in the patchwork of a brick wall. A line of Portlanders, decked in varying degrees of “hipness” sluggishly inch toward the hidden speaker, forming a gooey slug-trail from the building’s far-rear to its main entrance around the corner of Hawthorne and 36th. Denim-jacketed twenty-somethings slump their shoulders and crane to peer at a small listing of sweets and savories, a buzz-cut-bearing member derby girl of the Rose City Rollers taps a toe-brake and a mother herds her flock, cleverly urging them to guess how many cars will pass until they can finally meet the man in the wall, the Saint Peter of waffle Heaven.
“Riley! I’ve got waffles for Riley!” a patchily-bearded Peter calls out as he leans from the blue-tinged bar. “Who’s next? Welcome to the Waffle Window.” I step under the mossy red canopy which shields the drive-through-reminiscent vendor from the typical onslaught of precipitation and into the electric glow of Christmas lights and a neon “open” sign. This is the moment of truth, so to speak. It’s not a matter of passing judgment, receiving my wings and passing through the pearly gates. The real concern is the decision between sweet and savory; peanut butter and honey or bacon, brie and basil with peach compote; whipped cream or a fried egg.
The Waffle Window, Portland’s two-venue-strong chain of walk-up waffle distributors, boasts “Liege waffles, Portland twist” and chooses not to serve just one particular type of meal. Instead, the Waffle Window recognizes that mealtimes and what we eat at those times are mere constructs. Sweet waffles for lunch, meat- and veggie-topped ones for breakfast, anything goes, so long as it involves a succulent sugar waffle.
Peter hollers for the M.I.A. Riley once again, providing me with the crucial extra seconds necessary for my brain to play sweet or savory roulette. Just as I think I’ll request the Bananarumba (a granola and caramel-heaped dessert), he reverts his attention back to me. Gone are my assurances of caramel streams over sickly-sweet bananas. I waiver, I flip-flop, I waffle. “Okay, I’ll take an Oregon Chai. No, wait, just an Earl Grey.” And for the waffle, for the waffle I’ll do the Farm Fusion with an egg on top.”
I wander into the nearby parking lot and under another balcony. The permanent infrastructure houses a collection of immaculately cleaned picnic tables which show no scars from the paint-fading sun or the wood-rotting rain. Clearly hoping to channel nostalgic reveries of red-checked tablecloths and ant invasion, the Waffle Window’s outdoor dining room seems pleasant on a sunny day, but perhaps bone-chilling on a rainy one. Fortunately, today is one of the approximately 144 cloud-free days per year in Portland, so I settle in amidst the rest of the derby girls and a collection of businessers on their lunch break. Hunger settles in, too, and no amount of Instagram can alleviate the pangs reverberating from my stomach. One heavily edited photo and innumerable thumb swipes later, Peter’s searching voice blows my name across the lot.
I return with a slice of the pearly gates on a plastic plate that perfectly mimics the china found in Gramma’s china cabinet. Okay, it’s not really a slice of heaven’s entrance, but it is a pearl sugar waffle with a healthy helping of mushrooms, spinach, roasted pepper, an over-hard fried egg, cherry tomatoes and a medallion of lemon-thyme marinated chevre. The sentimentalist in me that “awwed” over the picnic tables snaps a quick picture while mentally restraining my inner fork-wielding savage. I tear into the savory treat, pouring shovelfuls onto my tongue like an experienced dump truck driver. But this is no pile of refuse. Each bite lights my tongue with salty and sweet and a hint of lemony acidity like a flavorful game of ping-pong. While predominantly savory, the sugar-crusted waffle provides a soft, yet crunchy base for the warm breadth of vegetable goodness. I speed past any other cheesy similes until, alas, the cutesy plate is devoid of waffle.
My tea still steams after I consume my final forkful. A daze ensues, but not the expected food-coma aura of exhaustion and excessive fullness. My smile extends up from my stomach; it consumes my entire existence. My late-morning breakfast may not have been healthy, and it may not have been traditional, and it may be a meal that I can never have again and never replicate. But, hell, I could spend the rest of my Sunday mornings attempting to make my own version of this Portland treat, and none will compare to the delicacies passed from one hand to another — none will outdo the Waffle Window.