This month, Chameleon Restaurant & Bar celebrates 20 years of business in Portland. The under-the-radar Hollywood neighborhood spot serves plates inspired by chef-owner Pat Jeung’s global travels — Italian meatballs with lemongrass and Thai chilies, duck ravioli settled in red curry. Many of the ingredients come from Jeung’s 30-acre farm in the Columbia River Gorge.
Chameleon’s food and theatrical atmosphere have attracted many regulars over the years. More than one Portland mayor has frequented the restaurant, and Jerry Lamb, one of James Beard’s closest friends, tells Eater Jeung’s fusion plates still surprise him after extensive travels through Southeast Asia and Europe. Yet, Chameleon has received little media attention.
“One of the biggest editors in Portland used to eat here all the time, but we never got coverage,” says Jeung. “Was I blacklisted?”
It turns out Chameleon has deservedly earned its following with an eclectic mix of hat parties, dog shows, and a hard-to-pin down, constantly evolving food menu.
The ‘Perfect’ Job
Chameleon Restaurant & Bar is an extension of Jeung’s personality. Jeung grew up in Laos on the Thailand border, and he says he and his family had to regularly hide from roving militias in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Jeung plays down the danger but admits “a bullet did once hit my brother’s hair.”
At age 16, he relocated to Portland’s Gateway neighborhood, along with his brothers and sisters; they’d all received refugee status. Jeung says he was lucky to be naturally outgoing because he and his siblings did not have many tools to integrate in American society.
“Lots of Southeast Asian refugees immigrated to Portland in the ’80s — ash from Mt. St. Helens still in the air,” Jeung says. “I went to high school at David Douglas High, and I didn’t speak any English. I would carry around a Laos-English dictionary and point to the words I wanted to say.”
Still in high school, and while taking English classes at night, Jeung got “the perfect job” working at McDonald’s. He’d had to show up every day for weeks asking for work. When the manager finally got sick of him, he gave Jeung the job of cleaning grease off a chain link fence with a wire brush.
The “perfect” part of the job came when someone got fired and Jeung got promoted to swing manager, which involved supervising personnel and food production.
“It was perfect for me because I got to interact with people and practice my English,” he says.
Jeung clocked out nightly at 2:30 a.m., getting home with just a few hours to sleep before heading off to school, but he says the position taught him values he still relies on today, like team work and time management.
Make It or Break It
After high school, Jeung moved to Los Angeles with dreams of becoming an actor, and that’s when he got his first cooking job. He learned how to break down and cook “every type of seafood” at a restaurant with its own fish market, called Seafood Broiler.
At age 22, Jeung returned to Portland to open Thai Cuisine, at 11411 NE Halsey, in the late ‘80s. He funded it by borrowing money from his siblings and a well-paying job recruiting others in the immigrant community for agricultural work.
Thai Cuisine’s run lasted seven years, closing in 1993. Jeung says he needed a change and decided his next venture would be his own style of restaurant. He opened Chameleon Restaurant & Bar in 1997, at 2000 NE 40th Ave., where it operates today.
Food by travel
The backbone of Chameleon Restaurant is Jeung’s cooking, which he describes as “fusion” cuisine. It is unlike anything elsewhere, because it is completely representative of Jeung’s personal travels.
“I’m not one of those people who cooks things just because they’re trendy,” he says.
Jeung estimates he takes one big trip a year, after which, about 80 percent of the menu changes. A trip to Thailand resulted in a riff on fettuccine alfredo using rice noodles. A tour of Argentina paired fried yucca with a curry aioli.
Wherever he goes, Jeung likes to stay awhile, setting up stages (unpaid cooking internships) whenever possible. Sometimes this just means connecting with local chefs and cooking for them. The hospitality is usually returned the next meal.
Over the years, Jeung has traveled extensively through Western and Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, China, and South America. He says he was afraid he’d lose all his customers when he spent three and a half months cooking at Pasticceria Salza in Tuscany, but when he returned, he says his loyal diners were waiting and the restaurant was packed.
A handful of dishes always remain on the menu, like the Thai salad, Chameleon wraps with ground chicken and accompaniments, and coconut cream pie. The dish to look for, the one with the longest tenure, is the rack of lamb. It’s marinated in rosemary and red wine and comes out charred and smokey from grilling over an open flame at high heat. Whereas much of Chameleon’s menu focuses on bold flavor combinations, it’s a simple, satisfying dish served with a red wine reduction and fried potatoes with garlic.
A Flair for the Theatrical
Like the food, Chameleon has a cultured and festive atmosphere. A grand piano and chandeliers great eaters inside, and the lush 200-seat patio poses endless opportunities for parties. Photos from raucous events over the years are tucked throughout — ranging from hat parties to fire dancing and blow-out New Year’s Eve bashes.
“When we started, we always hired a creative staff and did a lot of performance art. We used to do fire dancing and tribal belly dancing. Today, we have the annual dog fashion show, movie nights in the summer, and lots of private events.”
Jeung says he’s amazed how fast 20 years can go by. When asked how he did it, Jeung says, “I think it’s because my food is really authentic. I cook from my soul. But I’ve been very lucky. The people who come here are very loyal.”