Things you need to know about Judith Stokes: she has a lumpia roll tattooed on her arm and makes one of the city's best smash burgers. She's an unstoppable force—a funny, sassy, hard-charging Filipino American restaurateur. And she wants you to know: if you don't know Derby Kenton, you will.
Gutsy? To survive the mandated shutdown, Stokes—solo operator and bootstrapping industry vet—converted her brunch/lunch spot, opened in 2018, into a neighborhood market with a takeout window. Then, late last November, during peak pandemic uncertainty, she shuttered Derby Kenton and signed a lease on a space at 8220 N Denver Ave, half a block away across Kenton's main drag of Denver, which was once known as Derby Avenue. The goal was to reopen in April inside a renovated building.
What Stokes imagined in this blighted space: roughly 2,500 square feet to play with, a built-out dining space, a tropical-meets-art-deco vibe with cocktails to match. Out back, an intimate patio—a home for regular events, drag bingo to jazz from old friends and local heroes, like drummer Ron Steen. Her pandemic-born marketplace, focused on women and BIPOC-owned businesses, will live on, but with a deeper exploration of locally sourced meat and fish. She's even growing vegetables on Sauvie Island with help from the Black Food Sovereignty Coalition.
Her mission statement says it all: “Judy can't stop, won't stop, and is destined to keep raising up the Kenton neighborhood.”
The setting? A long-vacant building once owned by former basketball star Terrell Brandon, who purchased the property in 2001. Brandon's restoration plans and potential renters never materialized. But giving this building life, neighbors told the Oregonian in 2011, was “a matter of community pride,” which appealed to Stokes. Brandon's Tee Bee Enterprises sold the building in 2018.
Now, if all goes as planned (and little has so far), Derby Kenton will reboot on Friday, June 18—takeout or delivery only to start (see website for details, derbypdx.com). Patio seating will follow, and later this summer, the restaurant and marketplace.
Some Derby brunch signatures will return, including thick-cut challah French toast glazed in coconut anglaise and the massive breakfast burrito, a 20-ounce behemoth. Regulars watch for the ultimate addition, Stokes's slow-cooked corned beef. New options include mini macadamia nut waffles and pandesal, a traditional Filipino breakfast roll.
And expect a reprise of the Derby Smash Burger: two melty cheese-clad patties backed by sublime lettuce crunch, good pickle action, and a sauce boosted by ketchup and stoneground mustard aioli. Last winter, just as she shuttered Derby Kenton for a relocation hiatus, Portland Monthly's Burger Cabal, a cadre of burger obsessives, dropped its epic, 5,032-word ranking of Portland's Top 20 classic cheeseburgers. The big surprise: Derby Kenton's little-known burger nabbed the no. 4 slot, besting some of the city's top chefs. Cabal member Bill Oakley, the former Simpsons writer behind the much-memed “Steamed Hams” sketch, called it “Heaven's version of a Big Mac.”
Another ace in DK2's hole: new cocktails by Solana Robison, a veteran of Sen Yai, Lucky Strike, and the Lutz Tavern, with her own salty/savory/sweet formulations. On a recent afternoon, Robinson and Stokes were putting the final touches on their list, which includes plenty of non-boozy options. The spicy Bloody Mary gets a hollowed-out pepperoni “meat straw”—an idea Stokes picked up in a biker bar on the Oregon coast. “Fancy Betch” beautifully juggles gin, elderflower liqueur, bright shiso leaf, and salted plum. “Ma Moi is in,” says Stokes, pointing to Robison's banana coconut cream slushy. “That was the name of my mom's monkey.”
Stokes's mom is always on her mind. Her right arm is inked with her mom's face alongside symbols of a Filipino home—a fish head and a large wooden fork and spoon, near that iconic lumpia tattoo. “It's my wall of mom,” Stokes says of her tattoos. “She hates them. She cries every time she see them.”
Soon, in a nook in the back of the dining space will become an homage to mom. Standing in the half-finished room, Stokes details what things will go where: seats on one side, the marketplace on the other, a bar cutting through the middle.
Nothing has come easy. Moving in a pandemic. An ice storm. Skyrocketing lumber prices. When inspectors came in April, hidden building code problems emerged. At one point PGE cut off the power. “All these upgrades I thought were done were not,” she told me at the time. “I'm paying for a ton of shit I did not foresee. Another huge life lesson.” Now, power is back, but critical areas are still unfinished, beyond her control in the rented shared space. (Another tenant, a salon, is prepping to open next door.) Stokes says she's frustrated that she's still waiting on basic requirements to be met for the building and lease. On a recent visit, hallway walls sat exposed to the studs, and bathrooms were not up to par.
But she's clinging to optimism. Out back, I see a bare-bones parking lot with some flowerbeds. She sees beauty and potential, a vacation in the city, a cozy haunt to eat and drinks with friends. “One reason I jumped on this space was the patio,” she says. “It's a hidden gem, not even known even to people who live nearby.” Tropical plants are strewn about, ready for their close-up alongside tables, a gazebo, and a couch-filled “lounge" under string lights.
“I picture these beautiful sexy jazz nights,” she says gazing out of the kitchen window. “Date nights. Sexy time. Bring your Tinder date. I hope we can help you get lucky.”