“Here’s what you need to know about Portland: LA is the place to be cool, New York is where you go to be taken seriously, and Portland cares about neither. This is where you come to be yourself.” These are the wise words of Portland Monthly’s very own food critic Karen Brooks, encapsulating the spirit of Portland in a single sentence in Netflix’s new series, Street Food USA, that streams today, July 26.
In a glorious tour of some of the city’s most beloved food stops, we get to know the people behind them—Mama Dút Foods, Matt’s BBQ Tacos, Kee’s #Loaded Kitchen, and Ruthie’s—who have done just that, put their own personal passions and life stories into the food they serve. Narrated by Brooks along with Feast co-founder Mike Thelin, the show is a glorious insight into what makes these places feel like such heart-and-belly-filling, essential stops in the city.
These are the four places that Netflix spotlights:
Watch PoMo cover star Thuy Pham feed goats as she talks about her journey from Vietnam as a child, returning the unconditional love that animals give us, and creating a food business that lines up with her personal values. “There was no other option but to cook vegan Vietnamese food, because that’s who I am,” Pham says.
Through the episode, we dive deeper into Pham’s life story, including her childhood growing up poor in Portland where food was one area that felt abundant. ”I learned from my mom that you don’t have to be rich to eat well,” she says. “Good food should belong to everybody.” We also learn about the pressure she felt to assimilate growing up, the struggles she had with identity in her late twenties as a hair stylist, and how cooking sparked joy and helped her find herself. Don’t miss the behind-the-scenes look at how vegan pork belly is made, featuring her daughter Kinsley.
Get a close-up of the barbecue brisket taco from Matt’s BBQ Tacos, from the 16-hour smoked brisket to the freshly made flour tortilla to the guacamole, green salsa, and pickled red onions on top. What’s hard to imagine now that Matt’s BBQ, its sister taco cart, and sister restaurant Eem, are super popular, though, is that when he first started off, owner Matt Vicedomini spent his time sitting in the back playing XBox, waiting for customers to show up, until a 2015 Oregonian article drew crowds.
“The way I came up with #Loaded is, I learned how to cook from just being high,” says owner Kiauna “Kee” Nelson with a grin on her face. Could anything be more Portland? Indeed, her #Loaded plates—the one in the episode featured brown sugar smoked ribs, greens with smoked turkey tails, fried chicken wings two pounds of fried “crack fish” (the best fried catfish ever), Mac ‘n’ Kee’s, dessert, and a #Loaded lemonade—are designed to be able to “eat, fall asleep, wake up, and eat again.” (Calling it a “plate” is a bit of a misnomer, as one #Loaded plate fills a towering stack of takeout containers.) But as we learn, Nelson’s food cart isn’t just a way of making money—it’s how she found a sense of purpose and stability after growing up in Portland selling drugs, being in gangs, and going to prison. “I didn’t wanna be bare minimum no more,” says Nelson. “I’m a winner.”
Her confidence is infectious. “The success of Kee’s #Loaded Kitchen and being able to become self-sufficient and get off Section 8 housing is because I believe in myself. I don’t care if nobody believe in me. I believe in me. I believe in me so much, you don’t have no choice but to believe in me,” she says.
“Ruthie’s is probably the most ambitious cart in Portland,” says Mike Thelin of this seasonally-driven, wood-fired cart run by best friends Collin Mohr and Aaron Kiss who grew up cooking in Utah, inspired by the recipes of Mohr’s grandma Ruthie. I already loved the food at Ruthie’s, from the famous rolls to the popped sorghum tomato salad to the roast pork coppa with peaches and padron peppers. But this episode gave me new appreciation—apparently that wood-burning oven fires at 700-800 degrees, and the inside temperature of the cart is around 120-130 degrees, essentially meaning those guys are working through a heat wave all the time. Bonus: we get to hear an adorable voicemail from Grandma Ruthie herself, reciting a recipe.