Jook Joint's Awesome South by Southeast Asian Eats
Ryan Ostler is simmering up Portland’s next craving in his little corrugated metal-topped cart. If only he could explain to customers what it is: “Jook is this really comforting Asian chicken and rice-based soup … stew ... porridge … gruel? None of these words are super sexy,” the chef sighs ruefully. “So I just give away samples.”
Lucky for him, one slurp and you’re sold: thick, silky broth full of rice and suffused with the scents of ginger and lemongrass mix with shards of salty fried wontons, fistfuls of bright cilantro and green onion, and an oozy egg speckled with chile salt. And, to top it all, incongruously yet perfectly, a big slab of deeply smoky Texas-style brisket. Even on an off day—when the brisket is a bit dry, or the rice a bit soggy—it’s one of the coziest lunches in town. And it’s only the gateway dish to a surprising menu of soulful, inventive eats from a sleeper talent whose cooking tastes like an intercontinental high five between a Thai grandma and a Southern pit boss.
Inspired by years of backpacking through Southeast Asia and China, Ostler opened his under-the-radar cart Jook Joint just a month ago, and it brims with lively takes on the dishes he once devoured on the streets of Chiang Mai and Ko Chang. He melds hush puppies with Thai glutinous rice and coconut milk balls to create addictive, tender golden cornmeal orbs served straight from the deep fryer and slicked in his upmarket Thai chile sauce; the crunchy crust hiding a moist, sweet crumb studded with toasted coconut, corn, cheese, and scallions.
Sandwiches come topped with fish saucy, palm-sugared som tam (Thai green papaya salad). Crispy brussels sprouts mingle with fried onions and jalapeños, lacquered in a tangy pineapple-chile sauce good enough to prompt ecstatic eye-rolls, while fiery hot sambal and handfuls of peanuts adorn pickled Chinese long beans and farmers market cukes. “I’m not caught up on being authentic. I’m not Thai. I’m a Southern boy making barbecue/Asian food,” Ostler says. “I don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about tradition.”
The Austin-born chef spent nearly two decades cooking in high-end San Francisco kitchens, from making pastries at Michelin-starred Boulevard to running his own soul food operations at Broken Record and the Mission District’s well-regarded but short-lived Hi Lo Barbecue. Burnt out on big kitchen business and San Francisco’s changing culture, he and partner Katherine Zacher (reportedly a crack pastry chef in her own right) headed to Portland in 2014 with percolating dreams of opening their own brick-and-mortar eatery. He cooked at Screen Door for a year or so, but a desire to put his own stamp on his food with low overhead led him to food carts—a familiar path that has yielded explosively good results in this town (see Rick Gencarelli’s Lardo or Cliff Allen’s the People’s Pig). He raised the metal shutter at his Jook Joint, located in the SW 10th Avenue cart pod next to Wolf & Bear’s, in February.
You could get hot pan burns and sleep deprivation just listening to Ostler describe his labor-intensive cooking practices. Consider his chickens: Ostler dry-rubs Draper Valley birds in spice for 24–48 hours, then smokes ’em over oak to mellow, charred perfection. The chickens’ super-juicy thigh and leg meat ends up stuffed inside An Xuyen baguettes alongside house pickles and thin-sliced fennel for excellent banh mi sandwiches or folded inside puffy, slightly sweet house bao buns drippy with kimchi and miso aioli. He might top either of those sandwiches with the chicken’s fried skin—or, if you order the lacquered pork belly instead of chicken, expect chicharrones made from the same Lan Roc porker to show up somewhere on your order.
Meanwhile the chicken’s bones, back, and neck simmer for hours to form the base for the jook’s über-rich smoked chicken stock, which is combined with house-made Japanese dashi broth and both jasmine and glutinous rice to create the hearty porridge. He makes little batches of the stuff in a pressure cooker four or five times throughout the day to ensure that the rice doesn’t soak up too much liquid and congeal his jook (also known as congee) into wallpaper paste. Little is wasted; everything is handmade—right down to his togarashi-like chile spice sprinkles.
It’s all kind of crazy. Or, it’s a very smart way to separate yourself from Portland’s legion of carts, and build a hungry following for an eventual brick-and-mortar restaurant. Either way, most of the time his food is pretty damn delicious.
The cart’s specials are always changing, depending on the veggies he finds at the farmers market or some idea he’s been tossing around with Zacher. His crazy-tasty papaya dog, a house-made Chiang Mai–style sausage topped with that pickly som tam, habanero cheddar, and fresh mango, has become legend around the PoMo office already. He promises more Southern-leaning fare, including ribs, once the weather warms up, as well as Asian salads and fried green tomatoes.
Ostler’s cart is truly an oddball stew of Southeast Asian travels and Southern childhood, sieved through French technique and pressure-cooker kitchen experience. His dishes deliver big, salty-sweet wallops of flavor; the kind of unstudied, scrape the bowl, lick your fingers pleasure that has little to do with intellect. But never be fooled—every single chicken skin crackle, chile oil drizzle, and daikon pickle is cleverly designed to make you Jook Joint’s lunch bitch.
530 SW 10th Ave
Monday–Friday: 11 am–4 pm