Prepare yourselves for a controversial statement: the best chicken wings in Portland right now are at Erica’s Soul Food, a bright yellow cart next to a minimart on SE 82nd Avenue near Stark.
“This style of wings came about from people in Atlanta being a little extra,” laughs the cart’s founder and chef, Erica Montgomery. Montgomery, who originally learned to cook from family, especially her grandparents, and has worked in professional kitchens since age 19. She moved here from her lifelong home in Atlanta in 2017 with only $900, working in kitchens across Portland to set up a life for herself. “I lived a rough and tumble life there,” Montgomery shares about her Atlanta years, but Portland represented a new beginning—and a chance to fill a market gap.
ATL-style wings are an exercise in blessed maximalism, served hot and crispy from the fryer, then “extra wet” with a combination of both buffalo and lemon pepper sauce, equal parts tangy and bright, hot and vinegary. “I felt like this style of wings were really lacking here,” says Montgomery. “It’s a huge thing on the TV show Atlanta, and you find them all over the city, but no one here in Portland was doing it right. I felt like I needed to come correct.” Montgomery makes the wing sauces herself, and wing plates come out somehow simultaneously crispy, crunchy, and dressed in one of Montgomery’s nine sauce options, including jerk, maple BBQ, and peach Sriracha, plus a side of ranch or blue cheese for dipping.
Montgomery’s cart opened in January 2020. Like every chef in Portland, Montgomery was called to the challenge when the pandemic hit. “For me, it felt like my job became to provide a safe way for people to come get food,” she shares. “It created a reason to have a dialogue with my neighbors, to commiserate, and keep our community safe.”
This spring, Erica’s Soul Food helped connect restaurants and marginalized communities to available vaccine appointments by offering sign-ups for jabs at a local Walgreens. Starting this month, she's partnering with a local clinic to provide walk-in vaccines right outside her cart—and vaccine recipients are rewarded with gift certificates for her food.
Montgomery also regularly speaks out on issues related to social justice, using Instagram to discuss police shootings—she closed her cart to demonstrate at Lents Park after a man was shot and killed there by police in April—to suicide awareness for the BIPOC community. “I think having my food cart has been a way to feel like my most authentic self. I feel so appreciated ... and if I can reach my followers who might hear some positive information, I feel really driven to do that.”
In this way, Montgomery is emblematic of a new wave of chefs. Food and community have always been intertwined, but social media presents a platform for entrepreneurs to lead their communities in a new way, with fresh, critical voices making meaningful impacts reaching far beyond tired “celebrity chef” culture.
But back to those wings. On their own, Montgomery’s ATL-style wet wings are a revelation; serving them “extra wet” means there’s ample sauce left over to dip your crinkle-cut fries in, or to drizzle over mac and cheese. The jerk sauce is tingly and spicy, with an aromatic dose of nutmeg and allspice. It’s the texture that elevates these wings into rare air—she gets the dry-fry consistency just right.
There’s way more to the menu, with mains like salmon croquettes with sweet onion—made according to her grandmother's recipe—and wildly flavorful meat loaf. Montgomery also offers a range of bowls and sides including corn bread, cabbage, and black-eyed peas—most of which are vegan, with a number of gluten-free options. “I try to fly under the radar with that [healthy] stuff to get people to like my food first,” says Montgomery. But word about Erica’s is already clearly out to Atlanta expats in Portland, many of whom now count themselves as regulars for the wings as well as for the boiled peanuts, a Georgia favorite Montgomery refers to as “the caviar of the South.” For dessert, try Montgomery’s pound cake—a generations-old family recipe made using White Lily flour, a must-have for Southern baking that she goes to great lengths to track down here in Oregon.
As carts rise again as hubs of culinary innovation with cultish fanbases, Erica’s has emerged as one of the most exciting new kitchens to open in Portland in the past year and a half—not just for its food, but for its community impact. Call your wing-loving friends. Make yours a double order. Wings this good are a gift. Enjoy and be thankful.