Comfort Food

5 Portland Chefs on the Recipes They Learned to Cook from Their Moms and Grandmas

Here's edible proof that sometimes moms really do know best.

By Katherine Chew Hamilton Photography by Thomas Teal March 7, 2021 Published in the Spring 2021 issue of Portland Monthly

Forget food trends. Sometimes the dishes that really soothe the soul are time-tested recipes from the people who fed us our first bites and taught us to cook: our families. These chefs pay homage to their loved ones—especially moms and grandmas—through their menus, sharing these comforting dishes for all of Portland to enjoy.

Thuy Pham of Mama Dút Foods

Image: Thomas Teal

The Chef: Thuy Pham / The Restaurant: Mama Dút FoodsThe Dish: Waffle Bánh Xèo

For several years, Thuy Pham had been working as a hairstylist in her private studio in Southeast Portland. Her skill transforming Asian hair into blue, pink, blond, or gray tresses drew clients from as far as the Bay Area and Seattle. But when Kate Brown shut down the salons in March 2020, Pham was looking for ways to keep busy.

Image: Thomas Teal

So she and her now-7-year-old daughter, Kinsley, started making Vietnamese vegan pork belly on Instagram Live. Her DMs were immediately flooded with hair clients asking to buy some. Batches of up to 240 slabs of vegan pork belly sold out every week. In the fall, she opened her first brick-and-mortar, serving vegan versions of the Vietnamese dishes her mother, who fled with the family from war-torn Northern Vietnam when Pham was a child, cooked for her growing up. Her favorite treat her mother would make on weekends, birthdays, and holidays is  bánh xèo, a turmeric–coconut milk Vietnamese crêpe typically stuffed with pork belly and shrimp and loaded with fresh herbs and bean sprouts.

“It’s always a special treat when my mom makes it,” Pham says. “It’s the one thing that we would put our games down [for] and come running to eat when it’s fresh....When we got older, bánh xèo was a way for her to get us to come over to the house. She’ll be like, ‘Hey, I’m making bánh xèo today, come over.’ I think it’s something that Asian moms do. They lure their kids back with dishes that they like.”

At Mama Dút, Pham makes her crisp, comforting vegan version redolent of turmeric and creamy coconut with a waffle iron, stuffing it with fried chanterelle mushrooms—and it’s gotten the seal of approval from her most important taste tester, her mom.

“I actually let my mom try [the version at Mama Dút]. And she was like, ‘Oh, that’s really good.’ Because I was afraid she was gonna yell at me. She’s always criticizing me if I do stuff that’s not completely authentic. She still makes it with pork belly and shrimp for herself. But she’ll put mushrooms and stuff in it for me.” 1414 SE Morrison St

Collin Mohr & Aaron Kiss  of Ruthie’s

Image: Thomas Teal

The Chefs: Collin Mohr & Aaron Kiss / The Food Cart: Ruthie’s / The Dish: Grandma’s Rolls

Collin Mohr’s grandmother Ruth, now in her 80s, is lovingly known to him as Grandma Ruthie. If she has an ethos, it’s this: everything must be made from scratch.

“She makes her own bread, she does all of her own preserves, she cans, pickles, and does all that,” he says. “She’s always cooking.”

Ruthie’s marries homemade, fluffy Utah-style Grandma rolls with cheffy, wood-fired game hen (topped with a junk food lover’s dream, ranch powder) and sided by seasonal salads.

Image: Thomas Teal

Mohr’s Southeast Portland cart, which he opened last October with childhood friend Aaron Kiss, embraces its namesake’s penchant to the utmost. The result is a mishmash of Portland cheffiness—seasonal small-farm produce and wood-fired cooking—and family recipes they both learned from Ruthie in Ogden, Utah. Comfort food, old-school and new, is a constant theme: game hen dusted with ranch powder and sided by local chicory salad; seasonal salads loaded with hidden pickles; and Ruthie’s rolls with butter, flaky salt, and house marionberry jam.

“[Ruthie] was a major influence all throughout my childhood,” says Mohr. “She watched us every Wednesday and Friday and was just always there. And she for sure is one of the main reasons I’m cooking today.”

You’ll find Ruthie-inspired pickles, jams, and preserves throughout the menu. “We definitely sneak a lot of preserves, like her style of pickles, into salads. She cans and pickles a lot of things, from the way she does pickled peppers during the summer to canning apples. We have an apple butter of hers that was on a meat dish. The way that she pickles her beets, we’ll do occasionally.”

But the showstopper? The rolls, which of course are made in-house. (You’d never catch Grandma Ruthie buying premade rolls from the store, Mohr says.) His version is made with Utah flour and honey in an homage to home and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Wendy Li (left) and son Peter of Chin's Kitchen

Image: Thomas Teal

The Chef: Wendy Li / The Restaurant: Chin’s KitchenThe Dishes: Stew, Dumplings & La Pi

Wendy Li grew up in a family of eight on a farm near Harbin, China. Her father grew vegetables and raised chickens, sheep, cows, and pigs, while her mother and older sisters cooked using super-fresh ingredients from the farm. They cooked 

according to the seasons—stews in the snowy winters, salads in warmer weather.

“[In my hometown] we like to make a lot of different stews. [My mom] used a huge pot. It was a big metal wok, a meter in diameter [over a wood stove]. In summer, it’s hot, so we like to eat cold dishes, salads [like la pi].”

 Pork rib and potato noodle stew and handmade dumplings

Image: Thomas Teal

When Li took over Chin’s Kitchen, a seven-decade-old throwback restaurant with a vintage neon sign, in 2017, she brought Harbin to the Hollywood neighborhood. She revamped the menu with dishes she ate growing up: pillowy handmade dumplings bursting with porky flavor and tangy Chinese sauerkraut, a refreshing salad called la pi made with wide, translucent, jelly-like potato starch noodles placed over a rainbow of julienned veggies, and bubbling, almost buttery stews made with pork, glass noodles, and cabbage. Chin's Kitchen has earned accolades from local media as well as Guy Fieri, who featured the restaurant in an October 2020 episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Li taught Fieri how to make dumplings—which he referred to as his Kryptonite—and in return, Fieri showed her how to make pasta from scratch. Because the episode was filmed prepandemic, she says, he returned with friends the day after filming for more of those famous dumplings—a rare move that surprised Li as well as Fieri’s production assistants.

Though her juice-dribbling, al dente handmade dumplings are on the menu every day, younger Li saw them as a rare treat. “We only could have dumplings to eat for holidays. The most important holiday is Chinese New Year, and for Chinese New Year, we have to eat dumplings. That’s a really important thing to us. Usually pork with mixed vegetables, like cabbage or leek, or sauerkraut. It takes a long time to make, because we have a big family. We didn’t have any machines—we just used our hands.”

Dumplings are still a special-occasion dish at home, but now she has extra hands: her husband and three kids, including her oldest son, Peter, who helps out at the restaurant. “During the spring festival, we had this tradition where we would make dumplings at 12 midnight at home,” he says. “Everybody would pitch in. My dad would make the dough. My mom would [fold] them, and I would boil them.” 4126 NE Broadway

Alkebulan Moroski of Dirty Lettuce

Image: Thomas Teal

The Chef: Alkebulan Moroski / The Food Cart: Dirty Lettuce / The Dish: Seitan Fried Chicken & Vegan Mac & Cheese

Vegan food doesn’t have to be light. And, in Alkebulan Moroski’s eyes, vegan mac absolutely shouldn’t be.

“A lot of people, when they’re making vegan food, go very, very easy on a lot of butters and oils,” he says. “And honestly, if you want it to taste like mac and cheese tastes, you can’t be afraid to make it a little greasy.”

Alkebulan Moroski serves up his mom’s decadent vegan mac and cheese alongside his carefully crafted, Mississippi-approved seitan fried chicken

Image: Thomas Teal

Moroski is the owner of Dirty Lettuce, a vegan Southern spot that opened at the Shady Pines plant-based food cart pod last February, where he makes the same mac and cheese recipe he’s eaten for 25 years. Moroski and his family are new in town from Mississippi, where he grew up in a restaurant-owning, meat-free household. He serves a combination of his own vegan proteins and dishes his mom, Kim, made for him growing up—especially her beloved mac and cheese. (The recipe is a closely held secret. Moroski hints only that it contains nutritional yeast.)

While the mac and cheese stays true to his mom’s recipe, Moroski—often referred to as a Seitanist on Dirty Lettuce’s Instagram page—developed his own recipes for seitan fried chicken, ribs, and catfish, along with comeback sauce, tartar sauce, and ranch. They’re remarkably close to the real thing, though he’s never eaten meat.

“My mother was the one who originally taught me how to make seitan. I just kind of took it from there and went wild. [My fried chicken recipe] was entirely me screwing around with a bunch of gluten and spices. One advantage of being in Mississippi is that you have tons and tons of taste testers who are very familiar with fried chicken and fried catfish. So I had every single person I could find and who wanted to try it, try it—and I used all of their feedback to try and hone in on something closer and closer to a classic fried chicken.” 5240 NE 42nd Ave

Amalia Sierra of Tierra del Sol

Image: Thomas Teal

The Chef: Amalia Sierra / The Food Cart: Tierra del Sol / The Dish: Mole Pipián & Mole Coloradito

Even after owning a food cart for over five years, Amalia Sierra still calls her mom for help in the kitchen sometimes.

“I’ve made a lot of calls to Mexico,” Sierra says. “I feel good because my family is far away from here, and that’s a way that we can stay together.”

Mole is traditionally served with rice and handmade tortillas, but these mole tacos let you try all three of Tierra del Sol’s offerings at once: pipián, amarillo, and coloradito.

Image: Thomas Teal

Growing up in a small town in Oaxaca called Santa Cruz Tacache de Mina, Sierra learned to make mole from her mom, who had learned from her own mother. She opened her first cart at the Portland Mercado in 2015. Proof of her success: she recently opened a second location at Rocket Empire Machine in Montavilla. Both locations specialize in several types of Oaxacan chicken mole with handmade tortillas.

Mole pipián, a green mole made from pumpkin seeds, tomatillos, and jalapeños, was the mole of choice for baptisms, birthdays, and family reunions. Most of the people in her hometown were farmers, so when pumpkin season rolled around in the summer, there were plenty of pumpkin seeds. Her sister still grows pumpkins in Oaxaca today, and Sierra uses her seeds at Tierra del Sol. “When I make pipián de pollo, I remember those parties and reunions with my family and the time we spent together,” she says.

Huge quinceañeras and weddings called for mole coloradito. “People make very, very large amounts of mole for a wedding, because usually, in a small town, all the people from that town attend the wedding, whether you’re invited or not invited.”

While the ladies prepared massive amounts of chiles for mole, they had plenty of time for chisme, or gossip. “They had a lot of fun when they were together...telling stories about their lives,” Sierra recalls.

“I think mole’s so special because it’s not just the dish, it’s not just the food, but it’s the memories, the feelings, the love when we’re together, the hugs, the parties.” 7238 SE Foster Rd #1 & 6935 NE Glisan St

Show Comments