Q&A: Chef Sam Smith, Your New Go-To for Restaurant Recs and Food Memes
What would life be without good friends—especially ones who can give you great restaurant recommendations? Chef Sam Smith, formerly of Tusk and now at Sweedeedee, has been that friend for many people since moving to Portland in 2009. And with his new food Instagram account @slamb_eating, he’s about to become that person for many, many more.
“I kind of became the person that people would text and be like, ‘I’m around 82nd and Powell, where should I go eat right now?’ or ‘I have to go run an errand in Beaverton, where should I go eat?’” Smith says.
But don’t come to Smith’s Instagram expecting tweezer food, meticulously made cocktails, or TikTok trends. In fact, Smith and I have a pretty similar philosophy when it comes to picking noteworthy places. He focuses on places that don't traditionally get a lot of mainstream attention: mostly immigrant-owned, family-run businesses, whether they’re just getting off the ground or are longtime traditions for Portlanders. He also spends most of his time at places in farther out parts of the city—plus Beaverton and Gresham—rather than the central areas of Portland. Posts from his travels in LA and Tijuana also make it to the feed, as well as from the further reaches of Oregon and Washington. Look out for bonus posts, like one of Smith wearing a baked beans, eggs, and bacon mask, and peep his stories for some truly bizarre food memes that he's reposted.
“Coming from my background and my experience with food media in general and how places are chosen to be highlighted in larger publications, I wanted to be a little bit of pushback against that and try to go to more places that are really special to me that I wasn't seeing come off in traditional media as much,” Smith explains.
We talked with Smith about his approach to finding restaurants, his personal favorites, and his undying love for memes.
So how do you find the places that you put on your Instagram page?
Well, [some are] recommendations from other people. Honestly, Instagram too, just coming across [them], whether it's random accounts or looking at geotags and stuff like that. Sometimes it's just like driving around being like, ‘Oh, that place looks cool, I'm going to go there.’ And honestly, I use Google Maps. A lot of it will revolve around like, ‘Oh, I have a dentist appointment in Beaverton,’ and looking that up on the map, and then looking at a mile radius and every single place that’s around, and choosing two places to check out while I'm in that neighborhood. So it's not totally random. If I end up being somewhere that I wouldn't normally be, I'll look at what's around and then choose a place based on that. It doesn’t have everything, but it’s pretty extensive.
I love getting recommendations from people, honestly, and I think when that happens, too, it creates a little bit more context, especially with someplace that has nostalgia for people that grew up around here. They're like, ‘Oh, this is the Korean place that was my favorite growing up, we should go there,’ or ‘These are my favorite crunchy tacos, we need to go there.’
How’d you pick the name @slamb_eating?
People call me Slamb as a nickname sometimes, and my partner Jess calls me that all the time. And in my head, slam-eating stuff is how sometimes I feel when I'm aggressively eating something that's really delicious and slamming it, so it was a double entendre a little bit.
How many times a week are you going out to eat at different places for your Instagram?
It's honestly totally random. Sometimes stuff that I post is stuff that I ate like three months before, because I'm not super good about going somewhere to get a picture and posting when I'm in my car or whatever. I have a backlog of stuff that I've eaten that will [eventually] make its way there. But I would say generally once or twice a week I try to go either check out someplace new or go somewhere that I've been before that I want to put on there.
I’m trying to be a little better [about it]. So many people, when I post somewhere, will go to that place within a few days. So even though it might be minimal, it’s really nice to feel like I'm adding extra support to these places that are really special to me. The pandemic has been so hard. Not that I make assumptions about whether people are struggling or not, because I never know, but I do feel it's a hard time for everybody. To be able to be like, ‘This is really awesome. This is why I like it. This is what I get there’ kind of thing, and then people show up for that place and discover it for themselves also, is part of what I love about it.
I know a lot of people are really resistant to driving out to, say, Beaverton to eat. Have you convinced anybody successfully to drive out and try a place?
Beaverton, for sure, but even going out to 82nd or Gresham! I mean, it takes, like, maybe 15 minutes, maybe 12 minutes to get to some of these spots, and people are really resistant. That's one thing about Portland, especially after being in LA. It takes 15 minutes to drive anywhere you're going here, [but] there's some mental barrier that’s harder for people to get past, or people are less willing to travel for food, and I don't really understand. That's something I'm trying to break down. I think it's so much more fun going through a neighborhood I’ve never been to and driving around and running through there—it's kind of like an adventure. I get a lot of pleasure from it.
What are some places from your Instagram that really stood out to you?
Desi Bites (16165 SW Regatta Ln #300, Beaverton), I’ve been there twice, and I loved it both times, but the portions are really big, so I’ve only had maybe five items there total, and at least the stuff I’ve had so far there, I was excited about.
I've been going to JinJin Deli (8220 SE Harrison St #138) for quite a while and I love it there. I like the beef satay noodles—it’s egg noodles and spicy beef. And then they have the bot chien, stir fried rice cake with egg. Last time I went I also got a clay pot rice bowl with ground pork and added soft tofu to it, and that was really really good. I just think that place tastes really homey and almost like soul food. It's made with love and it's not like every single thing there is always perfectly executed—it just tastes really good to me.
Banh Mi Nam Loc (328 SE 82nd Ave), I really love. They have these like shrimp crepe kind of things, banh kot, that are so fucking good. They also have the bot chien, and they do a bo kho, beef stew, that I get with French bread that’s like, perfect. I've tried a couple other things there, but every time I go I get those three things, and it's honestly a perfect meal.
Los Alambres (6331 E Mill Plain Blvd, Vancouver). I went there once and it was really awesome not only for tacos, but the taco del barrio is the one with French fries on it, and that was really rad. They also do this thing called a queka—that one has cheese and salsa and stuff on it, and they do those big machete quesadillas, and they have really good birria and tortas and stuff. In the area, it’s some of the better Mexican food I’ve had.
Gonzalez Taqueria (1540 N Killingsworth St) is in a gas station parking lot at Interstate and Killingsworth, and Eloise, my business partner here [at Sweedeedee] was like, ‘Oh, they have the best burrito.’ I love chile rellenos, and she was like, ‘That’s the only thing I get there.’ We were talking about burritos and how we really liked the flour tortilla more griddled and not just a steamed flour tortilla. And so that was the first thing that drew me there. The chile relleno burrito, it’s actually not a fried chile relleno. They just take the pepper and stuff it with cheese and then griddle it so it gets a little charred on the outside, and the cheese gets melty. Their avocado salsa is fucking perfect. I get six of them when I get a burrito, and I use almost a cup on every bite. I think it’s the best of that style of burrito I’ve ever had.
How much time do you spend looking at food memes every day? What are some of your favorite accounts?
Ha! I don't know. It's funny, I don't go on Instagram specifically looking for food memes, I’m just on my phone too much in general, and I happen to come across them. A lot of the meme accounts just end up having a lot of random food memes in there. And I think that those are funnier than most meme accounts that are more food-specific.
Boys Who Can Cook is definitely a classic [food-specific] one. The Charlie Sheen Machine, I just sent myself one from, Melvin Kaminsky, Tripod Palace. Dead Pickles. A lot of the things these accounts are posting, I don't really think is that funny. It's kind of like, one out of every 100 things. But I have a very useless talent for this very specific niche.