Ruski’s Restaurant and Pub on Danforth street in Portland is a place I’ve heard about from a select group of people who insist it is “the best.” Included in that group is my wife who, while always super-concerned that a new place won’t meet her expectations, is totally in love with dives. After talking about going for a while, we finally made our way there. I was pretty excited to see the joint as I’d had years of build-up for losing my Ruski’s virginity.
Immediately upon entering with some counterparts, I felt a special electricity in the air. I got the sense that Ruski’s was a dive in the vein of my favorite college joints – something I definitely haven’t seen enough of lately. The place wasn’t beautiful, the bartender didn’t over-smile, and the customers didn’t have any interest in ordering filet mignon with caviar and hollandaise. No, this was a beer and whiskey, beard and bikini, fried egg and drunk darts sort of place – a place where you go to get buzzed, chow down, and not give a flying shit. I was particularly ready to partake in this experience devoid of that proverbial flying shit.
We took a table that was clearing as we walked in and went to the bar to order our first drinks. We sat down and were soon brought menus and our libations. I ordered a Knob Creek Manhattan. Others stuck with beer and wine. We looked at the choices which were extensive with many more items than the typical dive. Categories of food included starters, soups and salads, burgers, Mexican, pizza, calzones, sandwiches, and dogs – a great selection and enough to give decision problems and moderate to severe heartburn.
I was leaning toward a burger, dog, or nachos. When my buddy asked if I would share nachos if he got some, I gladly accepted and knocked that off my list. I made my final decision and chose the half pound West End Burger – well done – sauteed peppers, onions, mushrooms, mozzarella – served with chips and pickle. Mrs. Portlandeater ordered the Tuna Salad Sandwich on wheat with fries. An order of Ruski’s Super Nachos topped with veggies and smothered cheese – chili on the side, Potato Skins, and a Veggie Quesadilla – served with rice, salsa, and sour cream – rounded out the orders.
The Manhattan was carving a path to my liver while we waited for food. We drank and drank in the awesomeness that was Ruski’s. There was greatness emanating from every corner of the room in the form of an uncaring, no-holds-barred vibe with a certain “I do know exactly what” lying underneath it. Everyone there was there to be free – to live life to the fullest and experience an ethereal freedom seldom sought outside the wild of Alaska or the jungles of Costa Rica. But this was Ruski’s and they were better. They had booze.
After finishing our mental vacation and listening to some Wolfmother, we got back to the topic at hand – when would we get our food? It came out relatively quickly though and we readied our forks, knives, and spoons to stick, cut, and…um…spoon the food into our Ruski holes. I recited a quick mantra – “By the power vested in me by the states of semi-consciousness and hunger, I now pronounce you my food to be loved, devoured, and cherished as long as you shall exist outside of my body.” The crowd cheered and I began to consumate my meal.
I started with a burger bite. It was slightly greasy, medium cheesy, and well done, as requested – a solid burger, but nothing extra special. It fit the bill for what you might expect at a dive.
Then, at the prodding of a good friend, I was told to consume some nachos. I grabbed a chip, keeping in mind the rule that if it sticks together, it only counts as one. Unfortunately, it only was one, but I made sure to get one with plenty of cheese and veggies, then I dipped it in the chili. The nacho, like a rocket from outer space, made it’s way to my mouth. I chewed the crisp, cheese, chili combination and carefully concocted a concise concept of it’s character. Awesome!
The nachos were indeed super on their own, but the chili, of which we received a full crock, was amazing. It was thick and meaty, outrageously flavorful, and had the spicy kick of a tiny mule. The chili was absolutely one of the best I’ve ever had. I continued to eat my food, alternating between bites of burger and nibbles of nachos, throwing in swigs of whiskey for good measure. Everyone seemed to enjoy their food and I ate until both the burger and nachos vanished into fat belly.
I though I was done eating when suddenly my wife subtlety pushed half of a tuna sandwich my way. I obliged and ate that like it weren’t no thang. It was quite good and when I was done, another of our counterparts pushed her tater skin my way. I promptly filled it with chili and devoured it like a cannibal would have human skin. That thing was pretty damn good too. I’m not sure if it was the tater skin, chili, or both, but it was well worth eating. After eating everyone else’s food and mine and washing it down with a Manhattan, it was time to call it quits. I think dessert may have been too much.
We were ready to head out and asked for the check. The food plus five beers and my drink came to about 80 bucks before tip. The nachos, at $10.95, were the most expensive item we had and one of the most expensive on the entire menu. Ruski’s prices are very reasonable, their pours are strong, and their atmosphere is definitively dive. This place is fun for any time of day, week, or year and since they are open both early AND late, you can test that for yourself. I envision this as a go-to hangout in the event my wife isn’t around for a weekend, though I couldn’t see myself spending more than eight or ten hours at a time there. That would be overboard.
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