This bright, intensely lemony raw kale salad is an homage to a similar salad served at Portland, Oregon’s famous Lotus Cafe and Cardroom, which operated from 1924 to 2016. It features sweet dried currants, crunchy toasted pine nuts, and salty aged Asiago cheese. It’s very simple, but incredibly delicious. It’s my favorite kale salad, and since the Lotus closed last year I’ve missed it terribly.
Wild Old Portland and the Lotus Cardroom & Cafe
In 1924 Portland, Oregon was still a rough and tumble town. In the late 19th century it had a well deserved reputation as a wild west port city filled with graft, corruption, sailors, lumberjacks, gambling joints, opium dens, brothels, and shanghai boarding houses. Less than a quarter of the way into the 20th century, at the height of Prohibition, things really hadn’t changed all that much.
At the end of the 19th century Portland was a primary entry point for opium along the West coast of the United States. Opium entering North America was processed in Victoria, British Columbia and shipped from Vancouver and Victoria, Canada to Portland for distribution along the US West coast.
By 1924 Portland had traded its reputation as an opium hub for a reputation as a Prohibition era bootlegger’s utopia. Oregon had instituted its own alcohol prohibition in 1914, so five years later, when the Volstead Act was passed nationwide, Oregonians already had a leg up on the bootleg trade. And what a trade it was.
First, using the very same smuggling routes and relationships that had been used during the opium trade, Canadian Whiskey was shipped from the cities of Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia down the Pacific coast to the mouth of the Columbia River (staying within international waters to avoid arrest by U.S. authorities). The booze was then loaded onto smaller ‘rum-runner’ boats and shuttled up the Columbia River to Sauvie Island in Portland.
Second, Oregon developed a moonshine trade rivaling that of Appalachia. Most operations were in sparsely populated eastern Oregon, but a good bit of moonshining happened in the heavily forested city of Portland proper.
The Lotus Cardroom and Cafe Opens
It was in this year, 1924, that the Lotus Cardroom and Cafe opened on SW 3rd Avenue at Salmon. At the time Mel Blanc, who would become the voice of Buggs Bunny and various other cartoon characters, was a 16 year old high school student at Portland’s Lincoln High School. Not sure that’s relevant, but it’s interesting to a Looney Tunes fan like myself. But I digress…
If it seems odd to open a ‘cardroom’ at the height of Prohibition, recall that this is in Portland. In 1927, Chris “Frenchy” Vacillion and Carl Seft were busted for selling liquor to the Lotus, in violation of the Volstead Act. Oops! I’m sure that was the first and last time that alcohol was served at the Lotus during Prohibition (wink, wink). The owner avoided arrest by claiming to know nothing about it (and probably also by paying protection money to the Portland police).
I have no idea if there was a kale salad on the menu yet. I suspect not.
Liquor raids by the Portland police were common during Prohibition. In 1976 Floyd Marsh, an old member of the Portland vice squad, explained how it all worked. The Portland police would confiscate illicit booze, store it, and either sell it to other illicit bars, or funnel it through city hall to Mayor George Baker and his cronies. The Portland police stashed enough booze to eventually control market prices. It ran a protection racket throughout the prohibition era.
In 2016 a Great Kale Salad Falls Victim to Urban Growth
Flash forward to 2016. Portland is no longer a rough and tumble town. Not by a long shot. It’s not even a run down, economically depressed 1970s city a la Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. During the 1970s, by the way, the Lotus Cardroom and Cafe was busted for running an illegal gambling operation. But again I digress…
By 2016 Portland wasn’t even the cheap to live in, qUiRKy, creative, twee, hipster wonderland “where young people go to retire” as depicted in Brownstein and Amisen’s TV hit Portlandia. In 2016, Portland had grown into a proper, expensive, eternally traffic-jammed city, where young people can’t even afford to rent an apartment. In 2016, after 92 years, Portland had grown too large for a colorful den of iniquity like the Lotus Cardroom and Cafe.
The Lotus has fallen victim to growth. The building it’s been housed in is slated for demolition to make room for a hotel, which will probably have a shitty lounge that sells a shitty kale salad on its happy hour. So many old places like the Lotus are gone now.
About that Cardroom Kale Salad
In its final years I worked mere blocks away from the Lotus, and I used to pop into the Lotus fairly often for happy hour after work. They had great cocktails and a great happy hour food menu. This was the era when I discovered the Tuscan Kale Salad with Currants and Almonds. This salad taught me what a raw kale salad could be.
First, the super fine chiffonade kale makes otherwise course kale leaves (I believe that elsewhere I’ve compared them to oak leaves) become tender. And the crunch of the almonds and chewy sweetness of the currents work incredibly well. The big deal though is the dressing. A “lemon shallot vinegrette”. It’s so intensely lemony that the first bite is almost shocking. You don’t expect that bright acidic flavor from a kale salad.
This is the perfect raw kale salad in my opinion. The golden mean. The Platonic ideal. It’s a perfect balance of acid, salty (thanks to the aged Asiago cheese), and sweet. It’s a perfect balance of crunchy and chewy.
I’ve recreated the salad as faithfully as I could. I think I’m pretty close to the original. I did make one change: I swapped the whole almonds for toasted pine nuts. I think they’re even better. But if you want to experience the original, just use raw almonds.
I’m not sure if the “lemon shallot vinaigrette” has actual vinegar in it. It never tasted like it did. I get all of the acidity from lemon juice.
Anyway, I miss the Lotus. I miss that kale salad. This version is my love letter in memory of bootleggers, gamblers, and old Portland.
- 1 Large Bunch of Lacinato (Tuscan) Kale
- 1 Large Lemon
- 2 Tablespoons finely chopped Shallot
- Pinch of Kosher Salt
- ¼ Cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Freshly Ground Black Pepper to taste
- ¼ Cup Dried Currants
- ¼ Cup Pan Toasted Pine Nuts
- 2 Oz Shaved Aged Asiago Cheese
- Thoroughly rinse each kale leaf in cold water (it tends to get sandy) and shake dry. With a sharp knife, cut the stems out of each kale leaf. Working in batches, finely chiffonade the kale as follows: Stack the kale leaves 3 or 4 at a time and roll them up lengthwise like a cigar. With a very sharp chef’s knife, cut the kale into the thinnest ribbons possible. Place in a large bowl.
- In another bowl make the lemon-shallot dressing. First, place the diced shallot into the bowl. Then
- wash and dry the lemon, and grate the zest into the bowl. Next, cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the bowl (you should have between ¼ and ⅓ of a cup of juice. Finally, sprinkle the mixture with kosher salt. Allow the shallots to steep in the acidic lemon juice for a few minutes (this will mellow the sharpness by ‘pickling’ the shallot).
- Slowly pour the olive oil into the lemon shallot mixture, whisking as you do so to create a dressing. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste.
- Pour the dressing over the kale chiffonade, then massage the dressing into the kale leaves with clean hands. Massage it into the leaves well to both coat the kale leaves and bruise the surface (raw kale is tough!). Allow kale to sit for an hour to tenderize.
- Add the currants and pine nuts to the kale salad and mix well.
- Divide salad between two plates in large towering mounds. Top with shaved cheese and serve.