When lifelong Portlander Jessie Aron prepared to open Carte Blanche, her lines-around-the-block global food cart, her crowdfunding video was less than professional. Now, as she gears up to do her newest Kickstarter video — this time partially funding her SE Division counter-service restaurant Malka, set to open in September — she’s trying to get a bit more serious.
“I was 22 when I did the first video. Now we’re a little bit more grown up,” Aron says with a crinkle-nosed smile. “We need to say ‘Yes, it’s plausible that we can open a restaurant.’” Aron still looks young, cheerful and a little soft-spoken, but her food is anything but timid: Carte Blanche was known for its bold and captivating flavors, swimming with fish sauce or tom kha reduction, crispy rice salad and bowls topped with fried shallots. They were enough to persuade two customers — then college students Candy Yiu and Akshay Dua — to start saving money for a future restaurant. Right before the SE Hawthorne truck closed in 2016, Yiu and Dua had saved enough seed money to get a restaurant going — and to even throw Aron and business partner Colin McArthur in a brick-and-mortar mere blocks from Aron’s childhood home.
That was in 2016. Now, construction has started in a small house across from The Woodsman Tavern, and while Aron may be hunkering down for her Kickstarter video, she wants her restaurant to be anything but serious. “We’ll have a big back patio with climbing vines, beautiful, overgrown, very romantic, magical... It’s not going to be minimal, it’s not going to be sparse, no clean white walls. The decor is going to reflect the food — a little chaotic, a little cozy,” Aron says, almost thinking out loud. She mentions wild and old-Portland institutions like Rimsky-Korsakoffee House. “It’s not quite Rimsky’s, but we talk about Rimsky’s.”
Malka is clearly very personal to Aron — not only is the restaurant in her old neighborhood, its name is a play on her Hebrew name, Yehudit Malka (the Queen Judith). “Malka” directly translates to queen, which was also the name of Aron’s childhood dog. The food, of course, is also reflective of Aron’s style, playful and imaginative. “We want it to feel like a mystical vacation spot — not a real place, more like the planet that the Little Prince lives on, or Howl’s Moving Castle,” she says. “We want our food to feel like the food that you would eat in a mythical land.”
So what does one eat in a mythical land? Aron has been workshopping over the last two years, and she’s particularly excited about her ribs: First, she rubs them in palm sugar and salt before slow-roasting them for 14 hours. She then marinates them in Golden Mountain (a Thai sauce), coriander, and cumin, before frying them to order and tossing them in a sticky sauce of tamarind, nam prik pao, and coconut cream. Yeah. She plans to serve the ribs with buttered brioche, a build-your-own slider with crispy shallots and pickled ginger. Aron likes to interact with her food, so she’s also playing with the idea of build-your-own whole-fish tacos, prepared with turmeric like a cha ca la vong, served with brown butter and sesame tortillas. Loyalists to Carte Blanche will be pleased to see the crispy rice salad and her rice bowl on the menu, as well.
Carte Blanche will also have a bar, which she’s putting in the hands of Carte Blanche employee Adam House. It’ll be his first foray into running a bar, but Aron has complete faith in him. “He understands the food really well and he has a sense of fun that can’t be taught,” she says. Prepare for two rotating slushies, grapefruit marmalade shrub sodas, and more hand-made touches that reflect the menu.
Stay tuned for the Kickstarter, which should be up by the end of June. The restaurant is tentatively slated to open in September.
• Malka [Facebook]
• All Carte Blanche coverage [EPDX]
• Carte Blanche to Toss Final Crispy Rice Salad on SE Hawthorne [EPDX]
• 5 Portland Restaurants We Can’t Wait for in 2018 [PoMo]