When John Hatch was growing up in the Italian American neighborhood of Roxborough in Northwest Philadelphia, his parents expressed their love the way most Italian families do: through food. “Any time my friends came over, [my mom] wouldn’t leave them alone till they were fed,” Hatch says.
But questions about his identity lingered. Hatch could tell by the way his classmates treated him that he was different. At 18, he finally got some answers: he learned he was adopted, and of multiracial Puerto Rican and Russian descent. His first dive into his newly discovered Puerto Rican identity was, of course, through food.
“Six years ago, I met my biological mom,” explains Hatch. “She’s not [ethnically] Puerto Rican but grew up in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philly, and she taught me some Puerto Rican dishes. That ignited a [fire] to learn about my culture and the food that it brings.”
Now, Hatch is serving a mash-up of his Puerto Rican and Philadelphia Italian American cultures at his new cart, Papi Sal’s Lechon Shack. The cart, one of just a handful of businesses in the metro area offering Puerto Rican cuisine, softly opened at the brand-new Core PDX Food Hall in Southeast in early February. Hatch plans to celebrate its grand opening starting Thursday, February 18, running through Wednesday, February 24.
Like his cart, Hatch is a Portland newcomer. After spending time in Philly, Vermont, California, and Southern Oregon, Hatch landed in Portland in February 2020 with the goal of opening a fine dining concept using Puerto Rican flavors. After COVID-19 eliminated indoor dining, he pivoted the model to a food cart and enlisted the help of Aaron Galloway (formerly of Cibo on Division) as his executive chef. Hatch also had plans to visit the homeland in Puerto Rico last year for some R&D, but scratched that idea when COVID upended travel. Instead, he worked with Chef Anitza, a Puerto Rico–born chef who runs the Criolla Kitchen pop-up in Portland, to help him dig even further into Puerto Rican cuisine.
On Papi Sal’s menu, you’ll find four simple yet decadent sandwiches that reflect Hatch’s diverse background, with heavy emphasis on Puerto Rican smoked meats and freshly baked bread. Hatch picked up bread making during a brief stint at a gastropub in Vermont, and the tiny food cart’s oven pumps warm smells of sesame seed—crusted rolls and baguettes into the air on a daily basis.
The Jawn is Papi Sal’s signature dish, an Italian Puerto Rican fusion consisting of pulled lechon—slow-roasted pork in oregano jus and PR BBQ sauce—along with sharp provolone, sofrito mayo, and long peppers roasted in oil and Puerto Rican spices on an Italian baguette. The Jawn just happens to be a play on Hatch’s first name, but it's also a Philly slang term for, well, literally any noun. In Philly, Hatch explains, if your boss asks you why your coworker is running late to their shift, they’d say, “Where the heck is that jawn?”
Other notable ingredients on the menu include coconut poached cod, shallot mayo, mango honey, and plantain-dusted fries. For dessert, grab some Hostess-esque snack cakes inspired by the Kandy Kakes from Philadelphia company TastyKake: cakes topped with peanut butter, then covered in a layer of Woodblock Chocolate and infused with chocolate-covered shiitakes from Tigard’s Bridgetown Mushrooms. The cart's overarching style: decadent and delicious. “It’s greasy, but not fast-food greasy,” says Hatch. “It’s greasy deliciousness.”
Although Hatch has only been in Portland for a year, he quickly hit the nail on the head with Oregon’s emphasis on local ingredients. He sources the oyster mushrooms for his vegan sandwich from Bridgetown, Tails & Trotters for the scrapple, and Smalls Family Farm for his flour—just a few of the many nearby providers that he works with.
After years of researching and experimenting with recipes, Hatch’s menu not only reflects his Puerto Rican roots, but also pays homage to his Italian upbringing and deli days, working as a teenager at sandwich shop Primo Hoagies in Philly. Philly’s influential sandwich culture is symbolic of the cultural diversity Hatch was surrounded with growing up: “It’s homey, it’s approachable, and all sorts of different cultures eat the sandwiches there—not just Italian ones,” explains Hatch. “Everyone eats them because they’re so approachable and delicious and there’s a lot of love in everything.”
At Papi Sal’s Lechon Shack, Hatch uses his platform to explore his Puerto Rican roots and solidify his own sense of identity. “Being adopted, then not being told you’re of color—when you obviously know [it] isn't true because of your peers’ treatment and other reasons—is a very hard experience to overcome,” says Hatch. “I really don't know where I would be without my love for food and the avenue it provides for me to figure out myself. The plates are all very fusion-centric since that is what [I am]: a fusion of different cultures.”