I’m sitting in the sunny window of a corner storefront, watching the action on the intersection of North Denver Avenue and North Kilpatrick Street — the heart of the north Portland Kenton neighborhood. The Temptations and Al Green are playing on the stereo. Just on the other side of the glass, a young man is painting green flower petals onto the window. In front of me is a huge amount of food.

The food is good, although the chicken requires some heavy splashes of Trappey’s Louisiana Hot Sauce to really taste right. The greens are great, the barbecue sauce is just right, and the mac and cheese is OK — but the hush puppies rule.

Hush puppies are simply fried corn batter, but they carry a lot of cultural weight. A northerner best think twice before making pronouncements about what they should or shouldn’t be, but I’m going to come right out and say it: The hush puppies at Po’ Shines are the best I’ve ever had. Crunchy but not dry, they’re flecked inside with bits of red pepper, and glazed on top with honey.

“We sell those by the bucket,” says manager Antjuan Tolbert. “They’re the talk of the town.”

Soul food has an added meaning at Po’ Shines. It was originally founded as Friday’s Espresso, 14 years ago, by Elbert Mondaine Jr., the pastor of the neighboring Celebration Tabernacle church. The idea behind the espresso shop was to use it to help out single mothers. The cafe has since expanded its menu and expanded its mission.

The cafe has a partner in Teach Me to Fish, a youth empowerment program. Some of the people who work here are volunteers learning the basics of having a job: managing time and managing customers. Does that mean you’re going to be waited on by some surly hoodlum? Not at all. In my visits here, everyone’s been very friendly, and although food is ordered at a counter, they checked back with my table multiple times.

The cafe also sponsors neighborhood cleanups and hosts a Friday night spoken word series for youth. It’s open for dinner only on Friday and Saturday nights, and the rest of the time serves breakfast (breakfast burritos, biscuits and gravy, corn meal waffles) and lunch, including a fine blackened catfish po’ boy sandwich on a soft, fresh roll.

The recipes came from a variety of sources, including the group of neighborhood women who meet here every afternoon for coffee. Po’ Shines tries to use healthy ingredients, Tolbert says, and include a little fruit on every plate. The place doesn’t stock soda pop, just fruit juice.

By Anne Marie DiStefano
The Portland Tribune