About a year ago, two food carts opened during the same week: In Southeast Portland, former real estate agent Justin Hintze started serving fried chicken sandwiches out of his baby blue Jojo cart, while former City of San Jose employee Richard Le began preparing caldrons of thit kho for his NE Alberta Street cart Matta. Although both cart owners represent different cuisines and different quadrants of the city, they’ve felt connected throughout their time as business owners — two newbies in the culinary industry who happened to kill it on their first go. “We’ve been on this journey together,” Hintze says.
Starting December 12, just past their respective carts’ first anniversaries, the two chefs and friends are coming together for a new business. Hintze and Le are moving into the SE Grand cocktail bar Lulu to handle the lounge’s food menu, specializing in what Le calls “bougie banh mi.”
Chơi Luôn, which roughly translates to “I’m Down,” will be the restaurant-within-a-bar at Lulu, serving banh mi and jojos with Vietnamese flavors. For instance, Le will use his bo kho for banh mi and loaded jojos, using brisket instead of the traditional oxtail, chuck, or shank. Hintze is now leaning heavily on lemongrass, Thai peppers, and ginger for his fried chicken’s dry rub. Plus, the two will also offer a Saigon hot chicken, their take on a Nashville hot with sesame oil, shallot oil, and Thai chiles. All of those proteins will arrive in Binh Minh baguettes with nuoc cham aioli, pickled carrots and shallots, a roasted pepper relish, and various aromatics. “It’s not mashing [Jojo and Matta] together,” Hintze says. “We’re trying to be really thoughtful.”
Still, Le is taking advantage of the opportunity to take things a little less seriously: “This is more to just have fun,” he says. Matta will cut down its hours to just lunch service until the team gets situated. “If things go well, we can hire out, to make sure our ship is running fine,” Le says. “Hopefully we can make chicken easy enough that a fucking idiot can do it.” Jojo, on the other hand, will remain open with normal hours.
For those unfamiliar with the new locale, Lulu is a cocktail bar near Kachinka and, interestingly, Dig a Pony — the latter bar did something similar, hiring burger champ Don Salamone of Burger Stevens to run the bar’s culinary program. The cocktails themselves lean heavily on fresh fruit, all served in a space lush with living plants, teal touches, and lounge-y vibes. “We’re really excited to work with the lulu guys, it’s kind of funny — they mirror us in funny ways,” Hintze says. “We have a lot of respect for their cocktail menu. Their overall vibe is going to work well with what we’re doing.” Chơi Luôn will be located within Lulu at 726 Southeast Grand Avenue.
Update: December 10, 2019, 10:50 a.m.
This story has been updated to include Chơi Luôn’s opening date.