Thursday, March 29, 2012

Deschutes Brewery, Portland: Review: Bigger isn't Always Better

A very popular, high-volume watering hole and restaurant, Deschutes Brewery is bound to let a lot of details slip through the cracks. As an allergic eater, this should be a red flag, or at the very least, a yellow one. I have been to Deschutes several times now, and my overall take is--meh. 

I first discovered Deschutes Brewery by mistake. David and I stopped into the Pearl District location on July 4th of last year (me with two slices of Udi's gluten-free bread stuffed into my purse, planning to order a glass of wine and a burger--no cheese, no bun--like I always do.) The place was swarming with beer drinkers and buzzing with anticipation for late evening fireworks. Normally, David and I would leave a restaurant so teaming with bodies and with so few seats, but we were lucky enough to slip into two bar seats while a young couple got up to leave. 

And then the inevitable happened. While scanning the beer menu, the words "gluten-free" caught my eye. Joy swelled within me, until I was radiating pure excitement at the thought of sipping a beer for the first time in years. I placed my order with a very rude female bartender, but an untouchable elation had already spread across my face, and I beamed at her scowl with unwavering glee, which probably annoyed her even more. But I didn't care.

Half-pint of the gluten-free IPA (photo taken in March of 2012).

She returned with a caramel colored, frothy headed brew in a glass that had a thick rubber band wrapped around it. This is how the staff distinguishes regular beer from the single gluten-free option, which changes every few weeks. The rubber band was clever, yes, but part of me felt exposed. Anyone who understood the system would know that I was the gluten-free person in the restaurant. On the other hand, I also found camaraderie with the people who were drinking out of rubber banded glasses, and we toasted one another for finding a frothy oasis in a long-time beerless desert.

My first gluten-free beer, after the beerless years, was a fragrant, well-balanced pale ale with a rich body. Naturally, I wondered why I hadn't heard about Deschutes's gluten-free option before.

The pager went off, meaning our table became available, and soon we were ushered to the main attraction: dinner. Our server was energetic, organized, and well-educated. Noticing the rubber band around my glass, he set a gluten-friendly menu down on the table and then explained that the kitchen had a separate fryer and preparation area set aside for gluten-friendly food assembly. But they were not a dedicated gluten-free kitchen, so risk of mild contamination still existed. Unhindered, I ordered the elk burger without the cheese.

Gluten-friendly Elk Burger with fries (photo taken in March of 2012).

The elk burger comes on a house-made gluten-free focaccia. The first night I had it, the bread was fresh-baked. It was spongy and moist, and it held together, even after it absorbed the juice from the meat. The burger was juicy, full-flavored, mouthwatering deliciousness. I ate the whole thing and let David eat most of my fries.

I was in allergy-friendly heaven that night. My eyes sparkled for days beyond. I couldn't stop thinking about Deschutes's gluten-free beer, and I started making excuses to go there. All my excuses were refuted by David, who didn't want to spoil the awesomeness by burning ourselves out on the Deschutes experience. I went away telling all my gluten-free friends to go to there.

Since then, I have wished I could repeat this happy story again and again. Unfortunately, my first night at Deschutes was the pinnacle experience. It slid steeply downhill from there.


The second time I noshed at Deschutes, I came away half-hearted. The same rude female bartender poured my my first beer, which was a satisfyingly malty, gluten-free amber brew. I shared the burger with a friend, thinking that it was going to make a believer out of him. The bread was old, and its ingredients tasted imbalanced. The burger was over cooked. The best way to describe it--our burger was a tool used to soak up some of the booze from our systems.


I tried it again, this time craving the beer, but not feeling excited about the burger. We met friends, and I ordered an amazingly crisp, golden ale, similar to a wheat beer. By this time, I had learned to order the half pints, because the high alcohol content really goes to my head. Like always, I ordered the elk burger. Sadly, it was so rare and bloody that I had to send it back. I told the server not to worry about having them make me a new one. "Tell them to slap it on the grill for a few seconds and call it good," I said.

They made me a new one, and it came out in less than a minute. I thought they sent me somebody else's burger on the fly. There's no way they could have grilled me a medium-rare burger in less than sixty seconds. Knowing a little about meat (thanks to my Chef husband, David), I let it rest for a few minutes before cutting in. It was just as rare and bloody as before, literally bleeding out onto my plate.

Very apologetic, I sent the second one back.

This time, they sent the same burger back (cut in half), way overcooked. Stabbed with toothpicks, my two halves lay between the same two slices of bread I sent back, now dried out and crumbly. I would have been cool with that, but my pathetically overcooked burger came to me on a small plate with no accompaniments whatsoever. It was an obvious F-You to the picky eater in the restaurant. My server, horrified, ran to the kitchen, grabbed a fresh plate of lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce, along with a fresh plate of fries, and came running back to the table apologizing emphatically. I told her it wasn't her fault, but I made sure to let her know that I read (loud and clear) the kitchen's response to its own mistake--made twice!

I strongly considered never going again. But Eating Friendly hadn't written an article about Deschutes. (I kept forgetting to bring my camera to dinner.) There would be another visit, of course, but it would take me a while to return without resentment.


David and I met a friend at Deschutes at the end of March, 2012. I gave the gluten-free beer and elk burger one more try. For the first time, the beer was the disappointment. It was a lovelessly crafted, flat, heavy, imbalanced IPA that tasted a little like sausage. Having no other choice, unless I wanted to switch to wine, I stuck with it.

The burger, on the other hand, was just fine. It wasn't amazing, like I'd had it the first time; and it wasn't bland, like the second; and it wasn't inedible, like the third. The bread was aged, but reheated, and it was nicely textured and flavored. It stayed together, like before. The elk was cooked through, but juicy. (I learned to go for medium and hope for the best.) All-in-all, I came away feeling mildly satisfied, but certainly not dazzled.

My overall take on Deschutes:

Deschutes is a huge restaurant with a high employee turnover rate. The service staff in general comes and goes like the tide. I assume the kitchen staff waxes and wanes in the same way. The original chef, who enjoyed the challenge of cooking for allergic eaters, is probably gone by now. This makes for inconsistent service and product quality, which can be very good at times, but also, very disappointing.

If that isn't enough to conjure doubt, this might: rude service staff won't care about the consequences of celiacs ingesting a mislabeled beer. Rude kitchen staff will obviously retaliate when under pressure, and the results for highly sensitive types could be devastating.

While I would like to believe that Deschutes is a safe environment for sensitive consumers, for my own reasons, I have to tell you that you should partake with a strong degree of caution. If you go there, keep yourself safe by communicating your level of sensitivity ahead of time, and by asking for the most experienced server's section. Try to be nice about it, but don't expect niceness in return from anyone but the person who's counting on receiving your tip.

As always, my friends, be well and enjoy Eating Friendly.


  1. It's too bad that you have had so many bad experiences at Deschutes. I've had plenty of good ones. For what it's worth, I gave up on the elk burger after the first try. When they have the lamb burger on the menu it's a much better bet. I do find that both the beer and the GF bread vary from experience to experience but that's to be expected from experimental small-batch brewing and from gluten-free baking.

    A note: Deschutes doesn't cook their fries in a dedicated fryer anymore, as of the last time I checked. It is possible to get an attentive, knowledgeable server which makes the experience better and safer. The beer is brewed in Bend in dedicated GF equipment, so it should always be strictly safe as long as the servers follow protocol. However, as you mentioned, the food prep can be prone to cross-contamination, though I get the sense that they do a pretty good job of preventing it.

    I hope you have a better experience if you try it out again!

  2. Thanks, Gina. It's been an unfortunate chain of events for me, but I'm keeping an open mind. I knew their beer was certified, but I've had a bartender accidentally put a rubber band around a gluten-containing beer once. I knew it tasted differently, but my friends tasted it and thought it was the GF option, and said I was being paranoid. I paid the next day. So, it's been a bit of a crap shoot for me. But I've become a lot more self-protective since my last experience, and I think my audience should go into their Deschutes experience with the same level of self-protection and discernment I've developed over the last year.

    BTW, I almost went for the Lamb burger. I'm planning to explore other options now that I've finally captured my article. Thanks for rooting me on. I promise I'll go back again and give them another try ;)