Former journalist and Chinese food enthusiast Steve Chin has Cantonese barbecue—roast duck, char siu, crispy roast pork—in his blood. Growing up in Queens, New York during a time when there were few other Chinese families there, his family made a weekly trip to Manhattan’s Chinatown to stock up on groceries and visit his grandfather’s store and barbecue house. His favorite part of the trip: the samples of roast duck and char siu that the butchers gave him to snack on. Now, he’s partnering with Micah Camden to bring a new Cantonese barbecue takeout-only joint called YāYā to 1451 NE Alberta St, scheduled to open June 23.
The centerpiece of the menu will be Cantonese roast duck, but other barbecue meats will be available, too—char siu, soy sauce chicken, crispy pork belly, and five-spice fried chicken, sold as rice plates with pickles on the side. There’ll also be sides like fried rice, scallion noodles, won ton soup, spring rolls, and gai lan.
Though this is Chin’s first restaurant, he’s no stranger to repping Chinese American culture. Back in New York City, he was involved with the New York Chinese History Project, where he compiled oral histories that were broadcast on the radio and targeted toward Cantonese-speaking restaurant workers and garment workers. With the group, he also led walking tours of the neighborhood and curated a traveling Smithsonian exhibit. He then moved to the Bay Area, where he worked as a journalist, created Asian American website Channel A back in 1996, and created the first Asian American beat in the San Francisco Examiner.
The barbecue recipes from Chin’s grandfather’s shop have since been lost, but he has another mentor helping him learn about Chinese roasted meats: celebrity chef Martin Yan. Chin has known Yan since the 90s, when Yan filmed instructional cooking videos for Chin’s website—long before the days of YouTube cooking channels. When Chin decided to start his restaurant, he reached out to his old friend.
“We came full circle, because right before moving to Portland, I called him ... and he has just been amazing,” Chin says. “He’s been mentoring me, giving me advice on restaurants, helping me meet good barbecue chefs, and setting up stages for me.” Chin ended up staging at H. L. Peninsula in South San Francisco, a China-based chain of restaurants known for its roasted meats.
And when Chin mentioned his fledgling restaurant concept to a friend in Portland, that friend connected Chin with one of their friends: Micah Camden. Camden had been working on a similar concept, so the two teamed up to open YāYā, which means “duck duck” in Mandarin.
Amid the current climate of anti-Asian violence and vandalism in the country, Chin is determined to open his restaurant as an act of pride. “The vandalism against all these small Asian business owners has been just extreme,” he says. “And so in the middle of all this darkness, we’re hoping that this is a bright story.”
Chinese barbecue isn’t new in Portland, of course—Best Taste on 83rd is a standby for this cuisine, as is Chen’s Good Taste in Chinatown—but YāYā will be the only place in Northeast Portland making this style of food, and will roast Mary’s ducks and chickens. Chin hopes that by bringing Chinese barbecue to a new neighborhood, he’ll popularize the cuisine with a new audience.
“I think people think of barbecue as just the American South. But my idea is to diversify that and expand on that notion of what barbecue is—that the Chinese actually produce great barbecue, and it's famous around the world,” Chin says. “Wherever I go in the world, I seek out barbecue places first. I head right down to Chinatown and I ask people where the best barbecue is, because that's what I want to find out about and that's what I crave.”