Sometimes, super-homey family recipes turn up where you least expect them. Case in point: a gravel-pitted, electrical cord-strewn, NPR-soundtracked parking lot on NE Alberta Street. That’s where “Vietnamese soul food” cart Matta (2314 NE Alberta St) set up shop last November.
Matta’s soup smells like pork and caramel perfume, and the delicate nuoc cham pops with fish sauce, shallots, a few brain-zapping chiles, and a family secret: coconut soda. It’s good enough to drink straight from the saucer. This is food as evocation, a callback to one family’s South Vietnam kitchen, lovingly re-created by a new generation in a setting Grandma would have never imagined. That would be the self-styled Whale Pod, where you can also tear into cart-made pasta and burrata (Gumba) or a duck confit salad (Fine Goose) while sitting on cast-off chairs around the burnt-out embers of last night’s fire pit. If Furiosa and Mad Max ever blow through town, jonesing for a postapocalyptic Portland food cart experience, this pod is the place.
“We want to serve what I ate growing up, not just pho or banh mi,” says 29-year-old Richard Le, while delivering his “mom’s omelet” to our table. Herb-strewn and lumpy with marinated shrimp, it’s an open-faced affair, arranged over jasmine rice.
“This is the way I always ate it, on the couch, watching TV,” he says. “It reminds me of my mom, the joy, the feeling, the little house we lived in.” Leaning over, he quietly adds, “It’s fucking delicious.”
That's not exactly how his mom would have described the dish, but she’d appreciate the shout-out. As it turns out, it was her death in 2015 that spurred Le to reconnect with the food and culture he rejected as a Vietnamese American kid born and raised in California. “My parents came here because of the war. I just wanted to be ‘American,’” says Le, whose teenage life revolved around hip-hop music and breakdancing (still his ongoing passion). “When my mom died, it was a wake-up call. Without my mom around, I didn’t know who I was.”
At the encouragement of his Salvadoran wife, Sophia, who co-runs Matta, Le made his first trip to Vietnam. The turning point came while the couple ate family foods at his uncle’s house, outside of Saigon. Here, says Le, something lost was found: “I knew this is what I needed to do for the rest of my life, to learn how to make these dishes, to pay homage to my family, to appreciate what I ate at home.” He first came to Portland for a breakdancing battle in 2014. Intoxicated by the city’s energy, the couple officially moved to town last year and opened Matta.
Le’s menu is only two changing daily specials ($12 each), while Sophia makes fresh batches of green-hued, coconut-glazed pandan doughnuts. They’re shockingly light and best enjoyed with Matta’s strong Vietnamese drip coffee, just barely sweetened with condensed milk. Some days and dishes are stronger than others. I wouldn’t mind, for one, a bolder herb intensity in the chicken options. But a few stars are already in rotation, including ca kho, braised catfish steaks with a gingery, umami-intensive sauce that seeps deep into the rice below, sided by sautéed rau muong (water spinach). In ba noi, a.k.a. “Grandma’s Special,” tender slivers of Painted Hills sirloin are marinated in that great house nuoc cham, then seared with onions and Thai basil. The whole thing gets tossed, pan drippings and all, with hand-cut fries and warm rice. My compliments to Grandma: I could eat it every day.