Lil’ America, a new food cart pod anchored by BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ restaurant owners and backed by the owners of XLB is set to open this fall in inner Southeast Portland.
The new pod will hold down the corner of SE 10th and Stark, previously occupied by Mid City Smash Burger. It’s the first project from Win Win, a restaurant group run by XLB owners Jasper Shen and Linh Tran, with their partner Catie Hannigan; the three say their central goal is to amplify BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ voices in the Portland food scene.
Beer enthusiasts will get their first up-close look at Portland newcomer Fracture. After accumulating a long list of brewing accolades in Vietnam, Fracture owners Ny Lee and Darren Provenzano took over the old Burnside Brewery space earlier this year. (Dimo’s Pizza is in the adjacent restaurant space.)
Fracture’s first taphouse will be central to Lil’ America, supplying beer garden vibes and year-round indoor seating for cart goers. And the people behind the bread at a shocking amount of your favorite sandwich spots, Dos Hermanos, will have a new bakery on site.
ChefStable, the restaurant group working with everyone from Lardo and Grassa to St. Jack,to XLB themselves, has partnered with Win Win to build out Lil’ America.
Rising rents, and a lack of or an upcharge for basic requirements like running water and storage, have been an issue at other food cart pods around town. Lil’ America's backers say they are hoping to break that cycle.
Win Win won't be providing the same services as a more traditional restaurant group, like ChefStable, which both fronts money and handles logistics like infrastructure, accounting and HR. Instead, they'll be consulting with aspiring restaurateurs on menu design, marketing, branding, and legal details like how to get investors and how to negotiate a lease. In return, Win Win will usually receive a stake in the partnering restaurants, though given the catch-all nature of their vision, situations will vary.
The pod hopes to eventually house six to eight carts. Makulít, a Filipino concept from current XLB sous chef Mike Bautista, will be the first. As a partner of Win Win, Makulít will be the test case for the group’s goal of setting talented cooks on the path to becoming chef-owners, aka “the only way to truly succeed in the industry,” says Tran.
After COVID quickly shuttered XLB’s Slabtown expansion, Shen and Tran’s goals shifted. They recently told OPB that, instead of “opening a bunch of restaurants” they wanted to pay forward the knowledge they’ve gathered after decades in the restaurant industry and share their experience navigating the road to restaurant ownership as members of the BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.
Food carts, long seen as a steppingstone, and what Tran rightly calls an emblem of Portland’s food scene, were the perfect jumping-off point. They estimate the startup costs to be roughly one-quarter of a brick-and-mortar's, drastically reducing the economic barriers to ownership.
After licensing and permitting delays, Lil’ America is set to open in September. Fracture’s taphouse will open first, with carts trickling in over the following months. The iconic Nina Chanel Abney mural (you may know her work from the walls of PAM, or a recent cover of the New Yorker) that’s lived behind Mid City Smash Burger is staying in place. (MCSB, Tran says, will move just a block away to make space for the new influx of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+-owned businesses.)
“There’s a lot that we’re just trying and seeing what works with this new project,” says Tran, “but our main goal is to make other bodies visible in the food world.”