The remarkable thing about El Pilon, the Puerto Rican restaurant at the corner of Rainier Ave. S. and S. Brandon St. (5303 Rainier Ave. S.), is that it survives at all. The restaurant, marked only by a sandwich board on the sidewalk in front of its tiny storefront in a stretch of Rainier filled with appliance stores, scrap-metal yards, and used-car lots, is a few blocks south of the shiny downtown Columbia City retail stip, but it might as well be in a different town.
To get there, you either a) drive (recommended if you don't live nearby and have a car); or b) traverse one of the ugliest and most dangerous parts of Rainier Ave. S. on foot, jaywalking from unlit sidewalk to unlit sidewalk across four lanes of 50-mph traffic or walking a quarter-mile south to Orcas St. and a quarter-mile back north again. (Since I live in the neighborhood and don't have a car anyway, I---and my hapless dinner companions---went for the latter option). As urban planning goes, Rainier seems to be designed specifically to destroy legitimate street-level retail businesses and restaurants, making El Pilon's survival (since March of 2010) all the more remarkable.
At 8:00 a recent Saturday night, three or four of the sparkly red vinyl booths were full, which amounts to a dinner rush in a six-booth restaurant with a kitchen sized more appropriately for a studio apartment. Island music played unobtrusively on the speakers, drowning out the rush of traffic on Rainier outside.
On your first visit, I urge you to order the empanadillas---half-moon-shaped fried pies filled with your choice of ground pork picadillo or cheese, served in napkins along with a piquant, not-too-hot tomato-based dipping sauce. (Though you may be tempted to fill up on the complimentary soft white rolls and generic salad, served with a better-than-average French dressing, don't---unless you want to take home half your ample meal as leftovers.)
For a main course, go with the matzo ball soup of Puerto Rico, mofongo---plantains mashed with bits of crisp-fried pork rinds, formed into a baseball-size dumpling, deep-fried, and served with your choice of broth and meat in a tall wooden bowl called a pilon, the restaurant's namesake---or the bacalao, salt cod stewed with onions, red bell peppers, tomatoes, and green olives. Or try the pollo fricase, startlingly tender dark-meat chicken stewed seemingly forever in a sofrito of peppers, onions, garlic, and cilantro, served with that ubiquitous Caribbean staple, pigeon peas and rice.
I'm not a dessert person, but I did love the guava and mango shakes, served icy cold with a swirl of nutmeg and shockingly affordable at $3.
Service can be a little slow---the grandmotherly proprietor, Marta Vega, does most of the cooking and waits on the restaurant's six tables with the help of a single kitchen---but you don't come to a place like El Pilon for fast food. This is comfort food, island style; order a shake or a glass of jugo, sit back, and enjoy the anticipation.