Jook Joint Makes the Southern-Fried Asian Eats You Never Knew You Craved

At his downtown cart, Texas-born chef Ryan Ostler serves up soulful, inventive dishes.

By Kelly Clarke April 22, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Image: Michael Novak

Ryan Ostler is simmering up the city’s next favorite bowl in his little corrugated-metal-topped cart downtown. It’s called jook: thick, silky Asian chicken and rice porridge suffused with the scents of ginger and lemongrass and layered with shards of salty fried wontons, fistfuls of bright cilantro and green onion, and an oozy egg speckled with chile salt. On top, 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 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 who cooks like an intercontinental high five between a Thai grandma and a Southern pit boss. 

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Image: Michael Novak

The Austin, Texas–born chef spent a decade in high-end San Francisco kitchens before decamping to Portland in 2014, but his Jook Joint is inspired by years of backpacking through Southeast Asia and China. The humble cart brims with lively, Southern-fried takes on the dishes he once devoured on the streets of Chiang Mai and Ko Chang. He melds hush puppies with a Thai coconut ball snack to create addictive, golden cornmeal orbs served hot from the deep fryer and slicked in his own tangy, upmarket chile sauce.

Moist smoked chicken banh mi come topped with pickled carrots, jicama, and little shaves of crisp fennel. Crispy brussels sprouts mingle with fried onions and jalapeños, lacquered in a tangy pineapple-chile sauce good enough to prompt ecstatic eye rolls. “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.”

You could suffer sleep deprivation just listening to the chef describe his labor-intensive cooking practices, from 5 a.m. wake-up calls to smoke his Texas brisket over post oak to simmering small batches of his jook in a pressure cooker four times a day to make sure it never congeals to rice muck. Nearly everything is handmade—right down to his “hot dog,” a Chiang Mai–style sausage topped with fish-saucy, palm-sugared som tam (Thai green papaya salad), habanero cheddar, and mango.

Ostler’s 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 don’t be fooled—every single chicken-skin crackle, chile-oil drizzle, and daikon pickle is cleverly designed to get you hooked on the Jook Joint.

Jook Joint
530 SW 10th Ave
Monday–Friday: 11 am–4 pm

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