Baon Kainan, Portland’s New Filipino-American Food Cart, Is 'Not Your Tita’s Cooking'
In 2019, Ethan Leung was one of Seattle's “next hot chefs,” a sous at the sizzling Ben Paris inside a sleek new downtown hotel. A few years earlier, he had bailed from the financially secure world of his family's dreams: engineering. Monotonous, he called it. Soul-draining. In cooking, he found things that drew him to breakdancing—creativity, self-expression, camaraderie. He learned the fundamentals on YouTube and on the job. At Ben Paris, he was a rising talent headed for the prescriptive food world path.
But Ethan, who holds a degree in physics, and his wife Geri, a tech-world digital marketing specialist, had other ideas. During the pandemic, the Leungs test-drove a Seattle pop-up called Baon Kainan, melding their moms’s Filipino cooking, breakdancing philosophy, some cheffy techniques, and a love of American fast food. Customer comments ranged from “amazing” to “why doesn't this taste traditional?” In a city like Seattle, with a large, established Filipino community, they wondered where their personal style fit.
One diner changed everything: Richard Le, the Vietnamese-American food explorer and chef of Portland food cart Matta. Le, a b-boy like Ethan, visited Baon Kainan last summer on the recommendation of mutual friends in their breaking crews.
As Le tells it, “Filipino food is one of my top five cuisines. I've had all these dishes before, but not like this. I was blown away by his presentations, but it was the little things. Like the cucumber tomato salad with little lime jellies in there. I said, 'Yo, what the fuck is this? Bro, what are you doing? You need to open your own business.’”
Le made the case: Portland, with its supportive food cart community and nascent Filipino food scene, was the place for Baon Kainan (pronounced BAH-ohn cah-e-nahn). “Baon” translates to food you’d take on a journey, or for lunch or to work; “kainan” means eatery. After a few well-received pop-ups at Matta, the couple moved to Portland in April. Baon Kainan plans to open August 7, steps away from Matta at Metalwood Salvage, 4311 NE Prescott St. Opening hours will be Thursday–Monday, 4 pm to 7 pm.
The cart's tagline? “Not your tita's cooking”—no disrespect to the aunties intended.
“We want to tell our story through food,” says Geri. Ethan was born in the Philippines before moving to Washington. Geri grew up eating Italian food in Italy. Southern food is also part of her story, too, after her family moved to the South. And both are influenced by their mom's traditional cooking. “What you ate at tita's party, you won't find it here,” Geri says. “But it will remind you.”
My first taste of Baon Kainan was a dish of kare kare during a spring pop-up. Instead of the traditional oxtails stewed in peanut sauce, to be eaten with bites of rice, Ethan conjured a kind of Filipino poutine, heaping peanut-sauced braised short ribs over french fries sided by live-wire wallops of bagoong (shrimp paste) and pickled chiles. I wolfed it in my car with abandon.
Kare kare looks to be a highlight of the menu alongside chicken (or mushroom) adobo and dinuguan (pork belly in pork blood stew). I'm eager to try the Filipino spaghetti flashing homemade banana ketchup, a condiment typically bottled. Meanwhile, I'm praying that tomato and cucumber salad—a Filipino side dish essential—will still have those lime green jellies that transfixed Le. “It's a cheffy touch,” confides Ethan.
Desserts could be the cart's sweet spot. The couple's karioka are a treat—subtle, delicately deep-fried coconut rice balls that jump to life when plunged into the thick, coconut caramel glaze. Also in the works: turon, a burro banana and jackfruit lumpia glazed with banana caramel sauce, and bibingka, a coconut rice cake baked in banana leaves and topped with a Baon Kainan twist of coconut crumble.
And once it settles in, Baon Kainan hopes to bust out a brunch menu: biscuits and longganisa sausage gravy to breakfast sandwiches on Geri's cart-made pandesal rolls, backed by mayo, American cheese, and a fried egg. The plan also includes a classic Filipino breakfast and champorado, a full-on chocolate rice porridge.
Ultimately, they hope Baon Kainan will be about something more than food, as the restaurant world looks for new models of thinking and being and a path forward.
“Unfortunately,” says Ethan, “terrible truths [in the industry and beyond] have happened and will continue. I've faced not getting paid the same amount as cooks with the same experience, faced some racist comments and discrimination. My personality is very reserved; it's hard for me to speak up. Now, with Baon Kainan, we have a voice.”
Follow Baon Kainan on Instagram @baonkainan