Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a humble Portland food cart builds up a dedicated fan base, harnessing the power of social media and community engagement into a busy small business, then making the move to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant. It’s a familiar refrain for Portland diners, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a version of the tale more rocket-fueled than Grind Wit Tryz. The wildly popular Hawaiian food destination began life as a North Portland food cart. Now, plates of ono chicken, poke nachos and loco moco sell out daily on NE Alberta and 20th.
“It gets crazy around here,” says Tryzen Patricio, the restaurant’s chef and founder. "Grind” is popular Hawaiian slang for food, and “Tryz,” an abbreviation of the chef’s first name, is pronounced like the word tries. “Especially on Fridays and Saturdays. We try and communicate with our diners via Instagram when things sell out, but sometimes we get so busy…”
He’s not kidding. The phenomenon of a line snaking its way down Alberta—once synonymous with places like gourmet ice cream phenomenon Salt & Straw—is now the province of Patricio and his small six-person crew, co-helmed by fiancée and business partner Candace Lacuesta. Coronavirus be damned. Indoor dining not required. Let’s call a hit a hit when we see it: the new restaurant iteration of Patricio’s poem to the Hawaiian cuisine of his youth is one of the great plague time success stories in Portland food.
Patricio downplays this wild success a bit in our interview, but you can hear it in his voice when he tells me, “The last few months have been overwhelming in a very good way. We’ve had just so much support in the neighborhood, and from our community. We try to make this restaurant a second home to everyone, a Hawaii second home, and I think that’s what brings people back.”
That Hawaiian second home vibe radiates strongly throughout the restaurant, which feels like an island clubhouse, with music bumping and a small, dedicated kitchen keeping up with the onslaught of orders. Patricio is at the center of it all, with barely a moment’s rest—he steps away from our phone call briefly to fix something in the kitchen. A 23-year-old former college baseball prospect who grew up on the west side of Oahu, Patricio honed his cooking skills making dinner for friends in his dorm room at Concordia University. When the cart opened in the fall of 2019, he tapped into a deep base of support from Hawaiian-born Portlanders, a community that gathers together on Facebook groups like 808 to PDX. “Word of mouth spread to friends and families from that group,” Patricio recalls, “and then all of a sudden it felt like everybody just knew about us.”
Vibes and bonafides are important, but the food at Grind Wit Tryz pops just the same, whether you grew up eating Hawaiian cuisine or are just trying it for the very first time. The food of Hawaii is like a lived experiment infusion, drawing on waves of immigration and foodways brought to the island over the last several hundred years. You’ll find Portuguese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, mid-century Americana, and native Hawaiian cooking influences throughout these dishes.In Patricio’s hands—armed with childhood recipes from his family’s own tradition and a subtle, deft chef’s touch—the execution is flawless.
Eat here once and you begin to understand the long lines. The time you invest to acquire his food feels like a bargain—much cheaper than airfare, and less of a health risk these days.
Patricio reports the shop’s number one seller is the ono chicken, a family secret recipe for very lightly breaded crispy chicken boneless thigh chunks tossed in a sweet, tangy sauce. It’s served in the Hawaiian classic “plate” style over white rice dusted in furikake and alongside creamy, tangy, wonderfully textured macaroni salad. An early standout dish that helped establish Grind Wit Tryz back in the cart days are the Hawaiian nachos, a plate of homemade crispy wonton chips dressed in sweet sauce reminiscent of what you’d find on an unagi sushi roll, then topped with shredded kalua pork and tuna poke. The pork and poke may seem like incompatible proteins, but they achieve a delightful blended texture when mingled atop the wonton chips, which are sturdy, crispy, not at all oily, and hold up as one chows their way through the dish.
How often in the dominion of nachodom do the chips steal the show? The wontons in Tryz’s nachos kind of take over as you’re eating them—they are that good—and it becomes obvious why this dish was such a hit at the cart. The nachos remain a signature plate at the brick & mortar version of Grind Wit Tryz.
Elsewhere on the menu you can find epically crunchy chicken katsu with ponzu sauce, meat jun (a Korean-Hawaiian favorite consisting of marinated, lightly breaded thin sliced beef), the wildly popular surf and turf plate with kalbi short ribs and sticky garlic shrimp, and an adventurous range of specials that allow Patricio to show off the depths of his cooking. Look especially for anything suggesting a Filipino influence, like the recent Filipino-style shrimp ceviche, marinated with lemon, ginger, and onions and served atop a crispy tostada. “My background is Filipino, and I have been digging through those family recipes recently,” he tells me. Daily changing poke options are another good bet, with highlights including mussels, octopus, and a forthcoming vegan option with tofu.
Takeout portions threaten to overflow the carton, full to bursting and fastened closed with the addition of hardworking rubber bands. Online ordering comes and goes based on the rare quiet hour in the kitchen, and Tryz and his team diligently announce that availability on Instagram, along with the restaurant’s daily menus and upcoming promotions. When online ordering is unavailable, you’ll have to brave the line and order at the walk-up counter. Wait times tend to be shorter during the weekdays, with longer waits sometimes reaching an hour or more on weekends.
Talking to the young chef, you get the impression that you’re catching up with someone in the middle of a whirlwind, doing his very best to serve a growing community of hungry fans with no limit on what comes next. Patricio demurred when I asked him about new locations, but he’ll be running the original Grind Wit Tryz food cart again soon in tandem with the Alberta brick-and-mortar, which represents a new wrinkle in the cart-to-storefront story Portlanders know and love. “It’s been a really great ride so far,” he tells me. It’s only just beginning.