Owning a food cart in the year of our lord 2023 requires more footwork and power moves than a breakdancer.
Chef Richard Văn Lê should know: Until recently, he was behind the iconic Matta food cart, which he opened to immediate success in 2019. Critics, myself included, fawned over Lê’s interpretations of family dishes he learned growing up in California.
Lê always wanted to open a restaurant, a dream that faded as the realities of the industry—escalating food, rent, and labor costs among them—grew more stark during the pandemic. The next idea was a catering and event planning business, focused on breakdancing and other hip hop culture facets that Lê loves. That was the plan when Lê announced the cart was closing.
But then came another pivot: an opportunity to cook at Lil’ Dame in Northeast Portland, where Lê can incorporate more seasonal vegetables and craft more intricate dishes.
“The theme this year is: Go with the flow,” Lê said. “Like you can’t really stop momentum, especially since I’ve been lucky to win a James Beard [for his work with All The Homies Network] and a StarChefs award. If I continue to lean into the wave and ride it as long as I can, it will eventually play out in a really cool way.”
Early on at Matta, Lê focused on Viêt Kiêu cooking, representing the Vietnamese diaspora and directly drawing dishes from his family members. His recipe for thit kho—pork belly braised with coconut water, chilis, and caramel—came straight from his aunt. A delectable omelet packed with shrimp, fresh herbs, tomato, and onions was inspired by his late mother, who is also the namesake of the cart.
But as Lê refined and responded to customers, Matta’s signatures turned more casual, including burgers and breakfast sandwiches encased in a signature shamrock green pandan bun.
“The cart has been great for us to launch the brand, and get all of our ideas and stuff out, but it’s also been a creative block,” Lê explained. “It’s been seen as street food.”
So in the middle of an August heat wave, Lê and his co-owner and wife, Sophia, closed down Matta by closing down the block, hosting a barbecue and DJ, and bidding farewell to Matta the cart.
And starting August 21, Lê takes the helm at Lil’ Dame, an intimate restaurant space at the corner of Northeast 30th and Killingsworth. He’ll be the latest of a line of accomplished chefs to join the rotation at the Dame collective, where his menu will run every Monday through Wednesday. As part of the shuffle, Clandestino moved from Lil’ Dame into the larger Dame space after Chef Luna Contreras’ Chelo vacated.
“With this residency—with the model they’ve created—we get to share the business with other businesses, so you offload the pressure of making the rent yourself,” he said. “To alleviate that pressure is really dope to see. We’re sharing that space together, and making it work together.”
Lê said he’ll be working closely with local growers Mora Mora Farms, and he’ll be incorporating more dishes like Cha cá Lã Vong, rich turmeric marinated fish that’s a speciality in Hanoi.
“I’m definitely excited to use more shrimp paste, that’s not seen a lot in the inner city,” he said. “The idea is just to obviously lean very hard into Vietnamese flavors, use as much local produce as I can, and shrimp paste, fish sauce, random herbs.”
While working in the cart, Lê said he was always listening to music, but it’s been difficult to share that with diners. He’s been working on playlists “for years,” anticipating a time when he could play to a crowd. Boom bap hip hop, Nas, Wu Tang Clan, Pharcyde, “eclectic funk from over the years, stuff I break to or just listen to,” will all be in the mix, he said.
“Also that old G-funk shit that I listened to in Cali,” he said. “It will showcase the musical background of my experience growing up, and be a fun way for people to step into my world based on the stuff I listen to.”
Dame’s program allows chefs to stay as long as they want, and Lê said that he wants to use his time there to host future block parties and breakdancing events, with food and merch, naturally.
“We’ll make the space lively and fun, keeping people coming through the door,” he said. “I think (collaborative restaurant spaces) are going to be the future for a lot of places—not everyone has a million dollars in the bank account.”