For a long while a neglected stretch of storefronts straddled the Concordia, Vernon and King neighborhoods, a shadow of its once-thriving African American hub. In recent years the caterpillar that was Alberta Street has become a flashy Alberta Arts District butterfly, the city’s poster child for gentrification. Retaining its funky neighborhood roots, however, has been key to its success. A casual walk along its colorful twenty or so blocks reveals a very Portland hodgepodge of hipster hangouts, high-end shopping and galleries topped with condos, punctuated by remnants of the old neighborhood.
Before there was anything close to a Radio Room or Petite Provence on Alberta, there was Mi Ranchito, a floundering little Mexican restaurant on the western edge of the district. When the Lopez family decided to buy the place in 2000 and rename it La Bonita, they were pioneers in more ways than one.
“We didn’t really know anything about food, and we didn’t know anything about running a restaurant. We had to learn everything the hard way,” said Joaquin Lopez, the oldest of three siblings who, with their parents, worked without pay in the early years. “There was nothing on Alberta, and the first year we left the bars on the windows.” Slowly building a loyal clientele, the business took off around 2008. “When the recession hit, our business went through the roof because we were at a price point that people could afford,” said Lopez.
“We were able to expand our offerings, pay our staff more, and finally pay ourselves more livable wages and feel like we were making it,” said Lopez, whose brother and sister have since taken over management. A constant presence at Latino events, often along with La Bonita’s donated food, Joaquin is currently arts and culture manager for the Latino Network. He is also an accomplished singer and songwriter, playwright, and currently a master’s student in counseling.
Across Alberta, Kellie Courtney has been serving homestyle Southern classics since 1998 at the venerable Bernie’s Southern Bistro. “After we were able to stay open for six months, our landlords asked us if we wanted to take over the patio out here,” said Courtney, gesturing to the expansive, oak- and wisteria-shaded space where most guests prefer to sit of a summer evening. “Alberta Rose Theatre has been a huge help in regenerating this end of the street. Once the other end got developed, we were kind of the forgotten end down here. Since the theatre opened, there’s been a little renaissance here,” Courtney said.
Angie Heiney and co-owner Ali Wykhuis were among the new wave of business owners when they opened Frock Boutique, an eclectic clothing and gift shop, in 2003, across Alberta from the perennially popular Tin Shed restaurant. “Last Thursday was a mega-big event at the time,” Heiney said. “We made the rent money every time.” She loves the “tight-knit community” fostered by the Alberta Main Street organization, “the backbone of our neighborhood,” which came up with the idea for a monthly art walk along the lines of First Thursday in the Pearl. “We were optimistic about the neighborhood, but it’s succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.”
“We try to curate the most unique product mix around so that it’s a real experience coming in here,” said Heiney. “That’s what we have to do to set ourselves apart from the internet.” Featuring local and regional artisans but also carrying international items, the shop favors a vintage aesthetic and a fun, even snarky, attitude. “Socks are our number one selling product line. It’s insane, I don’t even know how many pairs, but we spend a ton of money each month restocking”, she said, no apparent pun intended.
“Last Thursday was our lifeblood,” recalls Blest von Weter of the early 2000s on Alberta, where he co-owned The Dandelion, a clothing store. “We did our rent,” he said, as crowds lined the sidewalks in a circus-like atmosphere, “and the rest of the month was crickets.” Today he co-owns a home decor and furniture shop called PDX Gold Dust with partner Sarah King. Perfectly reflecting the neighborhood’s origins, von Weter said “We do a style that’s rustic, industrial, with a little bit of rock-n-roll thrown in.” Alberta Street “hasn’t slowed down at all,“ von Weter noted. “There’s still a lot of foot traffic, but now the crowds are hoofing it farther up Alberta” to hear music and see the sights on Last Thursday, and business is steadier throughout the month.
EAT & DRINK
“Food for the People.” Extensive menu of traditional Mexican dishes carefully presented in a casual atmosphere. Proudly family-owned since 2000. Address: 2839 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-281-3662. Web: www.labonitapdx.com. Also La Bonita North at 2710 N. Killingsworth St. Phone: 503-278-3050. Don’t miss: The posole, green enchiladas with chicken, and breakfast burrito with chorizo.
BERNIE’S SOUTHERN BISTRO
Southern restaurant featuring homestyle cooking, hand-crafted cocktails and an inviting garden patio. Address: 2904 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-282-9864. Web: www.berniesbistro.com. Don’t miss: Do I really have to tell anyone not to miss Bernie’s buttermilk fried chicken and collard greens? Didn’t think so. For your piscatarian friends: the spicy blackened catfish dressed up with stewed okra, tomato and onions.
A new kid on the block. Bustling and hip Mexican joint with San Antonio-style street tacos, small plates, breakfast options, beer and cocktails. Surprisingly family friendly. Address: 2940 NE Alberta St. Phone: 971-407-3705. Web: www.stellatacopdx.com. Don’t miss: The pork colorado street taco with pulled pork shoulder, house adobo sauce and matchstick potatoes: a chewy, crunchy, creamy miracle of a taco.
FLOWERS IN FLIGHT
SInce 1984, owners Patricia Hutchins and Mary Anne Huseby have been dedicated to providing the highest quality flowers for any occasion, featuring artistic arrangements of local flora, pottery and glass. Address: 1413 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-274-7088. Web: www.flowersinflight.com.
Find crazy socks, along with hand-dyed, hand-sewn organic cotton/hemp blend clothing, unique Portland-centric gifts and funky locally made jewelry. Address: 1439 NE Alberta St. Phone: 503-595-0379. Web: www.frockboutique.com. Don’t miss: Soap for Writer’s Block: smells like regurgitated ideas and probably a vampire. Also the very cool retro Kit Kat clock, invented in Portland in 1930.
PDX GOLD DUST
Locally made, sustainably sourced and vintage home decor and housewares, reclaimed wood furniture, and rebuilt and redesigned lighting and chandeliers. Modern, rustic, vintage and industrial treasures: the essence of Alberta. Address: 1476 NE Alberta St. Phone: 503-288-4610. Web: www.pdxgolddust.com.
pedX SHOE SHANGRI-LA
A stylish boutique carrying a carefully curated collection of brand-name shoes, locally made jewelry, fashion handbags and accessories. Address: 2005 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-460-0760. Web: www.pedxshoes.com.
COMMUNITY CYCLING CENTER
“Pedals to the People.” Nonprofit founded by neighbor Brian Lacy on a mission to broaden access to bicycling and its benefits. Full service bike shop, new and used bikes, maintenance classes, bike camp, “Earn a Bike” program, more. Address: 1700 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-287-8786. Web: www.communitycyclingcenter.org.
ALBERTA VETERINARY CARE
Voted Best Veterinary Practice in Portland for two years in a row, this new-ish establishment provides a range of services including puppy and kitten health checks, dentistry, general surgery, senior care, ultrasound diagnostics and skin condition management. Veterinarians Justin Cates, Shavonne Corbet and Laura Kimmel offer comprehensive care in a warm, compassionate environment. Address: 1737 N.E. Alberta St., Suite 102. Phone: 503-206-7700. Web: www.albertaveterinarycare.com.
ALBERTA ROSE THEATRE
This renovated movie house from the 1920s presents live music, comedy (OPB’s “Live Wire”) and vaudeville in an intimate space. Audiences can enjoy excellent lines of sight, outstanding acoustics, Pacific Pie pizza, and a wide range of regional beers and wine. Address: 3000 N.E. Alberta St. Phone: 503-719-6065 Web: www.albertarosetheatre.com.