In case you missed the Oregonian story on Friday, Mexican-ish restaurant Chalino is closing on Fremont to make room for the return of Smallwares. In 2016, Johanna Ware’s “inauthentic Asian” restaurant closed in Beaumont, despite its rave reviews in The Oregonian and Willamette Week. The Momofuku restaurant group alum eventually opened a fast-casual alternative in The Zipper called Wares, serving bomb pork belly dan-dan noodles and some absurd fried kale. On Fremont, Momofuku alum Johnny Leach, opened Chalino with David Haddow (Xico), but the restaurant never really took off. So less than a year into service, Haddow reached out to Ware in February, and the two decided to team up. Below, find the important details on the opening and the gist on how Chalino and Wares will fare in the process.
Okay, I’m new, don’t shame me: What is Smallwares? Why do I care?
Smallwares was a huge-deal restaurant in Portland when it was open — at least, according to critics. Ware opened the restaurant in 2012, a little taste of Momofuku in the Pacific Northwest — silken tofu and egg custards, oxtail curry, somen. In her first year, Oregonian critic Michael Russell called Smallwares “one of Portland’s most exciting new restaurants.” Willamette Week made it the runner-up for its 2012 Restaurant of the Year, second only to Aviary.
So why did it close?
Sigh. That’s a complicated question. Part of it was the neighborhood — in Beaumont, where the restaurant first lived, upscale restaurants don’t quite play the way good neighborhood cafes and bakeries do. For instance, Grand Central Bakery thrives in Beaumont; New American spot Fife did not. But Ware takes plenty of ownership for her own missteps: “I can blame a lot of things, but I have to blame myself,” she says. “I struggled with front-of-house because I was in the kitchen all the time. It was Lord of the Flies; I had no idea what was going on up there.”
What will change at the new spot?
Most notably, Ware has a partner. Haddow is a very business-savvy chef, so having him run the business will allow Ware to hang out in the kitchen while someone else can make sure the whole operation is running smoothly. Plus, it looks like the new Smallwares will have a tighter business model, running on failed-business budgets. Most of the Chalino staff is staying on, thanks to Haddow’s high-retention system: The restaurant essentially doesn’t have wait staff, meaning cooks serve dishes from the kitchen, and tips are pooled with the whole staff. That model will transfer over to Smallwares. “With rising minimum wage, and rising food costs, it’s a little bit more sustainable as a model,” Haddow says.
If Haddow is so great, why didn’t Chalino work?
“I think high-end Mexican is hard concept to make work in certain markets, based on presumed value, unfortunately,” Haddow says. Russell had a few other points that make a lot of sense: “The tall-windowed, sparsely decorated space, had a sterile feel, especially when empty. And their ‘inauthentic Mexican,’ ‘Mexico City-inspired’ concept never cohered,” he writes. That’s why the kitchen and the decor will be Ware’s domain — far from her weak spot. The new space will look a lot like the former Smallwares, with plenty of tchotchkes and the red-and-black color scheme, and the renovation will soften the space to get rid of the industrial vibe.
What will happen to Wares?
No worries, y’all; Wares will stay open. Ware says she plans to tighten up the menu, but she will stay in the kitchen at Wares for at least a few days each week. “I never want to be an absentee chef,” Ware says. She’s not doing lunch at Smallwares, so Wares will still have the lunch game on lock. Still, she’s excited to see her Wares staff level up while she’s focusing on the new baby. “The team is so awesome here, I think they’re all ready to step up,” she says.
What should we look out for at Smallwares?
Settle in for brunch, a burger, and a “rad happy hour,” in Ware’s words. Her brunch is going to be a little more accessible than the previous iteration — she says she’s working on a play on the traditional two-eggs-and-potato thing. “That’s the thing I really learned here (at Wares),” she says. “I can make food that’s accessible, for the masses, without losing my integrity.” That being said, it’s clear she’s ready to play with ingredients that don’t fit her fast-casual spot, like geoduck and uni.
When will Smallwares open, then?
Chalino still needs to close, which will probably happen within the next two weeks. After a rapid-fire renovation, Smallwares will reopen in June — probably. “I think we need to open either two weeks before or a week after 4th of July,” Ware says.
• Smallwares [Official]
• Chalino [Official]
• Two years after closing, one of Portland’s most exciting restaurants will return [The O]
• All Smallwares coverage [EPDX]
• All Wares coverage [EPDX]
• All Chalino coverage [EPDX]
• Review: ‘Bumping,’ spicy Smallwares favors the bold [The O]
• Smallwares, Restaurant of the Year Runner-Up [WWeek]