Last week an email invite went out to an army of local eaters: “Come hang with us at Lardo! We're serving our fried chicken & delicious sides on the patio. Come grab a cocktail and dinner, 5-10! Maya.” And so, last Sunday, by 4:45 pm, in typical Portland style, a line had already formed. They came for a taste of “Mae,” Maya Lovelace’s buzzed about Appalachian cooking pop-up. Usually, the project exists as a 10-course Southern feast served weekly in the back room of Northeast Portland’s Old Salt restaurant (the 24-seat dinners sold out regularly over the summer). But on this particular evening, the 28-year-old chef had taken up temporary residence in the retired Lardo cart outside the sandwich spot’s Southeast Hawthorne location, to hawk a la carte eats for one night only.
Bluegrass music plucked furiously from outside speakers. Anticipation rose, as the crowd swelled with Mae regulars, food bloggers, and curious first-timers. “Her pickles are the best I’ve ever had,” chirped the woman in front of me in line. By opening time, the fryer was broken, and helpers were scrambling around. Everyone accepted the inevitable and hunkered down at an outdoor picnic table to wait. Welcome to a Portland pop-up.
Eventually, meals drizzled out like molasses. There were lumps and bumps, for sure, but also some fine old-school, yeasted Angel biscuits sandwiched with sorghum butter and salty Benton’s Country ham. Also great: fried tomatoes—firm but juicy, meaty and thick-cut, with a lovely crunchy crust—and the pleasure of “sea island red peas,” a low-country bean rarely seen in these parts, slowed cooked into al dente barbeque beans. Even in this pared-down, half-baked iteration, the growing excitement was evident for Lovelace’s heartfelt cooking.
A North Carolina native, Lovelace learned to cook from her grandmother, Mae. In 2010, she says, Charleston’s famous food son Sean Brock recruited her to work the line at Husk, the lauded restaurant that helped launch a Southern heritage food revival. In 2012, she moved north for a job at Beast, finding a new perspective that dovetailed with her love of vegetables. She and boyfriend/barista Zach Lefler launched Mae this past summer.
The centerpiece of their 10-course feast is always the fried chicken: brined in buttermilk and hot sauce and crusted with bourbon barrel-smoked paprika. It’s a solid entry in Portland’s ongoing fried chicken smackdown – even the white meat drawls hello. Mae’s menu regulars extend to white cornbread served with seasonal jam and those lovely Angel biscuits. Otherwise, vegetables take center stage, as local farm finds and South Carolina ingredients march through an unexpected list of salads and sides. You might find a dish of peaches, raw sweet corn, and chrysanthemum greens. Or, maybe, roasted cauliflower dressed in brown butter, apple cider vinaigrette, and toasted bean seeds. Lefler’s roasted coffee and dessert round out the multi-course meals.
Lovelace isn’t sure where Mae will go. Wednesday nights at Old Salt are locked down for now. The couple might shake up the format more, with a la carte menus as well as more composed fine dining. “All I can really say is that we've got a lot of things in the works,” she confessed one afternoon. “We're happy and excited to be here. We hope that you're excited, too.”
Cost is $65. For tickets, visit www.maepdx.com (sign up for Mae's mailing list, info will follow)