Best Restaurants 2020

Malka Shows There Can Be Beauty in Chaos

Call it global hippie food from a mad scientist or a tornado twisting of Thai food and Shabbat. We call it delicious.

By Karen Brooks September 29, 2020 Published in the October 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

Call it global hippie food from a mad scientist or a tornado twisting of Thai food and Shabbat dinners. We call the food at Malka delicious. 

Image: Mike Novak

The food from Malka looks like what it is: chaos. It follows only its own internal illogic: no two dishes alike, no two bites alike, brought to life with names like “I’ve Got a Lot of Feelings” or “An Important Helmet for Outer Space.” Call it global hippie food from a mad scientist or a tornado twisting of Thai food and Shabbat dinners. Throw in happy accidents, poetry in motion, unthinkable determination, and a keen sense of nourishment, spiritual and otherwise.

My friend Julien offered the perfect Malka World review one night over a haul of takeout boxes: “It’s like that movie The Fly. It steps into a transporter and comes out a new organism.”

What else to make of a 21-ingredient crispy rice salad called Bellflower, complete with five kinds of fresh fruit, pickled peppers, and green beans. And that’s before we count the garnish (fried shallots and fried parsnips), the phrase “lots of herbs,” and the dressing—coconut milk, lime, and fish sauce. Medusa, a cult dish among the Malka faithful, is a tangled mass of eggplant and zucchini fries, crisped up like chicharrones, then zapped with honey, za’atar, and Korean chile powder. On any night, you might find wacky blintzes or charred corn cobs glazed in a butter compound that sports all the elements of Thai tom khao soup, coconut cream to burnt Thai chiles. Take note: Some ideas work better than others. The joy is in this journey.

Image: Mike Novak

Even before it opened last winter, people rooted for Malka like they do for Dame Lillard, ball in hand, game on the line, a city’s heart in tow. Back in 2012, 24-year-old Jessie Aron struck a nerve in Portland’s food-cart scene with her bold palate and Airstream trailer “food park” right off Hawthorne. Her dream? To transform a big, old rambling Portland home into a restaurant—the kind of comfy-quirky place that made her feel “cool” as a teenager, like the Pied Cow or Rimsky-Korsakoffee House. Or maybe it would just be a chance to reimagine the notion of home, calm and uncomplicated, unlike her turbulent childhood.

She found it on Division in 2015. Then came a fraught, four-year slog through city hall red tape. Kickstarter funds kept her going. She hand-painted wallpaper, fire-glazed tiles, searched for found furniture and art, juggling hope and bitter setbacks, with one goal: to watch people have a magical experience, everything right, the noise, the music, the food that defies but delights. 

Six weeks after crossing the finish line, the pandemic shutdown arrived. Once again, against the odds, came furious cooking in takeout boxes, diner-supported, pay-it-forward meals, and an independent “crisis kitchen” mutual aid network launched in the the same space by two young cooks. Along the way, Malka has bridged the gap between social distance and connectiveness. It all begins with phone man Keith Bloom, whose chatty, “awesome!-laced ordering advice has its own following. Malka even named a dish after his vibrant floral shirts: Disco Blouses.

When asked to explain her style, Aron laughs. “I know that’s the question. My business partner Colin, who runs the kitchen line, said it best. We both had difficult backgrounds as kids, the disorder, loss, and overwhelming layers of challenges. I know this is dark and philosophical, but I’ve been trying to express chaos in me as long as I can remember. It just turned into something beautiful and confusing and ultimately comfortable. Colin helped me see that, and I’ve clung to it ever since.”

For all the uplift to diners, honesty and transparency are house values. “I’d love to tell you everything is magic,” says Aron, now 32. “We make mistakes. There’s a sadness here. It’s disheartening what happened. We keep each other sane, but we have to work through a lot of pain together. If you wrote a glowing piece but it wasn’t true, how good would that feel?” Malkas, not Michelin stars, will rebuild this food industry. 4546 SE Division St., takeout only,

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