Even before I physically stepped foot in Portland, I knew that Sunshine Noodles was special, from its potato chip salad, chile relleno banh xeo, and lime-pepper chicken wings to its COVID-conscious outdoor patio with Dance Dance Revolution-style arrows and cartoon noodle bowls painted on the ground as social distancing markers. The contemporary Cambodian pop-up, which opened over the summer at Psychic Bar on N Mississippi, was one of our picks for Best Restaurants 2020. From the beginning, we knew that Sunshine Noodles’s residency at Psychic Bar would come to an end in early 2021, and that made the place all the more special. Now, that time has come: Sunshine Noodles as we know it will have its last service on Thursday, December 24. But chef Diane Lam, former chef de cuisine of Revelry, is gearing up to open a new, permanent location of Sunshine Noodles in March 2021. In the meantime, Lam is launching an experimental fried chicken wing takeout and delivery operation at Psychic Bar in its place.
The to-be-named chicken wing pop-up will launch January 15 and will feature Lam’s gluten-free fried chicken wings, much like those served at Sunshine Noodles—except here, the Cambodian-inspired sauces will be served on the side. There’ll be dipping sauces like lemon pepper, makrut lime buffalo sauce, shallot oil-infused oyster-hoisin sauce, and a French-Cambodian ranch sauce that Lam learned from her aunt at age 7. Customers will also be able to order rice sets—rice and garnishes—branded after Sunshine Noodles’ adorable cartoon tiger mascot. The Health Tiger rice set might come with cauliflower rice and steamed spinach and mung beans; the Spicy Tiger might come with jasmine rice, papaya salad, and pickled tiger chiles; the Street Tiger might come with jasmine rice, pickled wakame seaweed, and candied anchovies. They’ll be ditching plastic takeout containers for more environmentally-friendly paper wrapping, a la Nong’s. Chicken wings will be available for takeout and delivery until 2 a.m.—a late-night snacking rarity in Portland.
Delicious-sounding sauces aside, Lam’s experimental fried chicken concept is also notable because it’s based on the concept of a ghost kitchen: a delivery and pick-up only kitchen that has no brick-and-mortar presence, focusing the branding on the product rather than the restaurant experience. Ghost kitchens from Miami-based brand Reef have quietly established themselves in Portland, sometimes drawing ire—refer back to April 2020, when David Chang’s Fuku fried chicken ghost kitchen opened for delivery during the pandemic and quickly closed due to public outcry in favor of supporting local restaurants. Portland restaurant group ChefStable has also ventured into ghost kitchen territory, and so has Andy Ricker of now-closed Pok Pok; chef Doug Miriello, most famously of Dimo’s Apizza, has launched delivery-only fried chicken and delivery-only salads out of the ChefStable catering kitchen, while Ricker partnered with Reef Kitchens for a limited time to sell his famous fish sauce wings.
“Ghost kitchens are a huge buzzword right now,” Lam says. “Honestly, there’s so much politics going into this concept. It almost feels like [a] corporation versus brick-and-mortar, mom and pop situation, [but] I know so many chefs out there right now that are entertaining this idea.... Most chefs ... fulfill [their] identity by carrying it out through their brick and mortar, but right now, how do you bridge that gap when you take away the brick and mortar? So what we’re focusing on as a team is bridging that gap, and making it almost like a lifestyle brand that you relate to on an online platform. We’re trying to show people what our brand is ... and it doesn’t feel too sterile, and it reflects the experience that we’re having in Portland. All the guests that eat my chicken and eat my food, I want them to feel like I’m still cooking for them.”
Lam plans to add a fun, experiential element to her ghost kitchen by creating an online community. There’ll be live-streamed material on IGTV or Twitch—things like talk shows, game shows, and comedy shows that customers can tune into while eating their chicken wings from the comfort of their own homes. “We want to have it represent the people who are in our lives, who inspire us, and who we inspire,” Lam says.