One of the most exciting restaurant openings of the summer in Portland’s dining scene came in an unexpected package: a small drive-in restaurant with no indoor seating located on the edge of the metropolitan area. Sugarpine, the new restaurant from chef-owners Ryan Domingo and Emily Cafazzo, serves luscious soft serve, perfect pulled pork, and salads crafted from local produce in a converted gas station right next to the beautiful Sandy River. Having leveraged their fine dining experience when executing a nostalgic but modern menu, it’s no wonder Ryan and Emily’s restaurant immediately became a must-stop for people day tripping around Mt. Hood and the Gorge at large.
Many of us here at Schoolhouse were thoroughly wooed by their adorable culinary pit stop, so we took a trip out to Sugarpine to chat with Ryan and Emily, and to try all of their delicious offerings.
Tell us about Sugarpine! What is it and why did you choose the sugar pine tree as the namesake?
“In 2015, we started a catering company called Larch Provisions, named after the larch - an interesting and beautiful conifer tree that grows here in the Pacific Northwest. We knew the drive-in would feature nostalgic, American comfort foods (with our culinary twist), so we found the perfect conifer tree as our namesake - the sugar pine. In addition to the name just sounding playful, the sugar pine is the largest pine tree in the world, with the largest pine cones! We thought we could have some fun with the giant pine cone/giant ice cream cone thing.”
What made you want to make a drive-in restaurant?
“Honestly, we didn’t know that a roadside drive-in restaurant was what we wanted. We did know that we wanted to find a more permanent home for Larch Provisions, to create a gathering space for the community in the West Columbia River Gorge, to create a fun and engaging destination for everyone coming to and from adventures in the Gorge or Mt. Hood, and to showcase our ideas about food, design and hospitality to a larger audience. We live in Corbett, Oregon and we had been driving past the Sugarpine location for years - a defunct building that had once been a 1920’s gas station and roadside food stand in a beautiful area on the banks of the Sandy River at the outskirts of Troutdale at mile marker one of the Historic Columbia River Highway. When it came up for lease we thought, this could be our new home.”
What’s your most popular menu item and how did you come up with it?
“We have a small menu so every item is lovingly created from scratch. And amongst that there are three current standouts - The Sugarpine Cone, the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich, and The Sugarpine Salad.”
Both of you have high-end restaurants in your backgrounds. How does that inform the menu at Sugarpine?
“Most cooks, including us, use the breadth of their experience in the numerous kitchens they’ve worked at to inform and to create their own food philosophies and styles. Emily is a Portland veteran, having worked in kitchens across the city, from the once famous and successful Gotham Tavern, to Toro Bravo, Beast, Expatriate and more. Ryan has worked as a general manager for several New York restaurants, including Pok Pok NY, as well as at several restaurants in Portland, including Ned Ludd. At Sugarpine Drive-In, our goal is to do things differently from most “diner, drive-ins, and dives” around the country. We definitely want to offer reasonably-priced, unpretentious, delicious comfort foods, but we want to make everything from scratch, contribute to the community by sourcing from local farmers and purveyors, and utilize some of the artisan, craft cooking techniques we’ve learned throughout the years.”
According to your Kickstarter campaign, the two of you met in Brooklyn. What brought you out here?
“Ryan had moved to New York to work in the restaurant scene, and he landed a job as General Manager at Pok Pok NY - Andy Ricker’s Michelin-starred outpost. On the 4th of July, Emily was visiting friends and they just so happened to be attending a rooftop BBQ party that Ryan was the chef at.”
What were you going for in terms of the look and design of your space?
“Ryan and I are huge fans of design, and with the Sugarpine project, we were going for something akin to modern nostalgia. Simple lines, clean bright colors, and accents of wood to fit within the natural environment. We wanted to pay homage to the history of the place and space. We wanted it to feel nostalgic, but also clean and modern and minimalist. Sugarpine is the perfect spot to grab a bite or a drink on the way to or coming back from adventures in the Gorge, and so we wanted the building to be striking and yet refreshing - a place you want to stop at, and linger with family and friends.“
How did you decide on Schoolhouse fixtures?
“We’ve been fans of Schoolhouse for years and years and years, and so when we were designing the exterior of Sugarpine, we just knew that we had to have Schoolhouse fixtures and accents. The Schoolhouse and Sugarpine brands are perfectly matched in our eyes - it’s that combination of modern and minimalist with a touch of nostalgia and a built-to-last ethos that attracted us. Not to mention that great pop of Schoolhouse yellow that is coincidentally and perfectly on-brand!”
Do you have any favorite hikes in The Gorge?
“There are so many hikes that we love, but the hike to Latourell Falls in the Gorge and just general exploring up in Larch Mountain near Corbett are our favorites. In the fall, we love to take our two dogs up to Larch Mountain for morning and evening foraging.”