I have long maintained a soft spot in my heart for Newport, Oregon. Spread along the northern rim of Yaquina Bay, this popular town is a perfect mix of beach and fishing port. West of Highway 101 the relentless Pacific ocean waves batter long sand beaches; east, and down the hill, is a perfect harbor for a commercial fishing fleet, a well-developed waterfront that mixes boats, canneries, and tourist traps like Ripley's Believe it or Not, and the Newport Aquarium. A pack of sea lions haunts the harbor waters. They are usually to be found taking the sun on the end of the commercial dock.
Newport is Steinbeck country, where visitors and fishermen in tall rubber boots jostle each other in the streets of Cannery Row.
For all of its indisputable charms, Newport has always fallen short on one count: I have never managed to eat an oyster burger in the town. I knew the fault was mine, a failure of research. Newport's Yaquina Bay is home to a thriving oyster population; surely at least one restaurant would offer my favorite sandwich.
The Newport Cafe, located on Highway 101 is just that place. This classic small diner (10 tables and a lunch counter), is a throwback to the great beach cafes of the past. Its large plate-glass windows overlook the busy highway, and it is just as busy inside.
We arrived at noon; the line stretched out the door. It is a popular destination. Rather than join the queue, we opted to saunter down to the waterfront and spend a couple of hours absorbing the ambience. The single street that runs past the canneries was crowded this early March Saturday, but I knew the pressure would multiply when the high season struck. We strolled past beach souvenir shops, saltwater taffy stores, a psychic's garret, and ultimately found ourselves on a wharf overlooking a fish cleaning station. Women clothed in long-sleeved shirts, thick rubber aprons, and sun hats hosed down stainless steel gutting stations. On the corner of the dock, three large cauldrons boiled water to flash-cook crabs.
When a charter boat backed stern-first up to the dock, the support crew sprang into action. Fish were pulled off the boats in grey plastic tubs. At each station, the women slashed the air with long knives, quickly peeling a fillet off either sides of the catch. The bloody head and viscera were tossed into refuse bins. White fish fillets, shorn of bones and skins, accumulated under the vigilant eyes of watching seagulls.
It was quite an operation.
But we were here for the oyster burger. At 2:00 PM, we returned to the Newport Cafe. It was still crowded. After a short wait, we were guided to a table and I ordered my usual ice tea, the Yaquina Bar Oyster Sandwich, and a side order of Homemade Fries. The oyster burger is priced at $15, which is certainly at the pricier end of the spectrum.
While we wait for my entree to arrive, I should note that the Newport Cafe is deservedly famous for another of its menu entries: the Ultimate Burger. The Ultimate Burger is a colossus. It weighs eight pounds and, in the pictures prominently displayed in the cafe, appears to be about the diameter of a pie. It is a burger designed for large appetites. It prices out at a cool $36.
My ice tea arrives. It is disappointing. With a taste of thin, muddy water, I suspect this comes from a mix. It doesn't set a good tone for our visit. Ice tea is very important to me.
The oyster sandwich consists of two thin slices of sourdough bread, panfried oysters, limp lettuce, tomatoes, and red cocktail sauce. The smear of red cocktail sauce on the inner face of the bread reminds me of the fish we had recently seen gutted. Not an appealing image. Nor was it a tasty combination. I believe in rewarding innovative approaches to the oyster burger, but the variation must make sense. In this case, the cocktail sauce simply overwhelmed the rest of the burger, drowning out the subtle sea tang of oysters.
The substrate was also poorly-chosen. The thin slices of sourdough bread quickly began to disintegrate and fall apart as the juices from the tomatoes and oysters soaked through. The sandwich quickly devolved into a sloppy mess. The homemade fries failed to support the meal, a flaccid pile of potato tubes that didn't approach crispness.
There is much to love about the Newport Cafe. It is an authentic, family-operated venue in a world of soulless chain restaurants. It is obviously popular---as our difficulty in securing a table suggests. Nevertheless, the oyster sandwich could use some work.
The Verdict: Still looking for an oyster burger in Newport.