In June, Smokin Fire Fish owner Chris Cha thought he was done.
The chef, who was just picking up steam for his Broadway Hawaiian restaurant, closed his restaurant in March as coronavirus surged through the Pacific Northwest. He hoped to reopen at some point, but it just didn’t seem possible where he was, even when people could begin serving customers onsite once again. “It was hard enough with 100 percent capacity; at 50 percent capacity, I couldn’t wrap my brain around how people could make it through,” he says.
However, on the day he decided to start selling his equipment, a solution waltzed through his door. Jaime Soltero Jr., the owner of the popular Mexican restaurant brand Tamale Boy, stopped in to buy some gear; within weeks, he was talking about moving Cha and Smokin Fire Fish into his Russell location. Now, that Tamale Boy has become a tiny ghost kitchen with all-local businesses: Tamale Boy continues to operate in the space, but starting as early as Friday October 16, Smokin Fire Fish will begin serving poke, plate lunches, and spam musubi there, as well. Down the line, Soltero will introduce a torta concept in the space, as well, with cemitas and sandwiches filled with cochinita pibil. All three will be available for takeout and delivery.
Smokin Fire Fish opened in late 2018, exploring the culinary influences that make up Hawaiian cuisine. The restaurant — a counter-service spot with fast-casual vibes — served an array of poke, plate lunches with shoyu chicken and kalua pig, and rotating specials throughout the week. At the new Smokin Fire Fish ghost kitchen, Cha will make his original pokes, a handful of plate lunches with rotating proteins, and small selection of appetizers like Korean fried wings and musubi. The meats will rotate, but Cha is pretty set on keeping his super-tender kalua pig on most — if not all — of the time.
Cha also plans to add collaborative specials with Soltero, a sneak peek into a potential new concept from the two chefs coming sometime next year. “I don’t want to say too much, but it’s going to be about the mix of our two cultures,” Cha says. “I feel we have a strong concept that would be one-of-a-kind in Oregon.”
Soltero is currently focused on opening his new Tamale Boy in Clackamas, but once that location is set, he’ll focus on Tortas de Mexico, the third brand that will live in the Tamale Boy on Russell. “We’re basically taking the same strategy of what Tamale Boy is — highlighting different parts of the region, the cuisine — and applying it directly to the torta,” Soltero says. That means many of the restaurant’s sandwiches incorporate regional Mexican dishes, from the Yucatanean torta de cochinita pibil to the Puebla classic, a cemita, with fried chicken and a cemita bun made by the team at Dos Hermanos. Tortas come stacked with everything from barbacoa to chiles rellenos, often topped with avocado, beans, and queso Oaxaca. Each sandwich comes with a house pickled vegetable escabeche.
Each business will have socially distanced ordering systems for takeout, and Soltero is helping Cha figure out a financially feasible way to land on delivery apps. It’s an experiment, making sure everything fits in this single space, but they think it should be set up to work well. “Things are changing so much in terms of how kitchens are utilized,” Soltero says. “Down the road, if we’re successful with these incubator ideas, we might be able to do 2-3 mini-concepts within a kitchen.”
Portland has started to experiment with these ghost kitchens, commissaries and carts housing multiple delivery-only restaurants. Earlier this year, companies like Reef Kitchens began to roll into cart pods with mobile commissaries, bringing with them big-name restaurants like David Chang’s fried chicken chain Fuku. Fuku soon left the Portland market, but as delivery became a major player in coronavirus-era dining, the city seems to have warmed up to the concept. Portland’s most prolific restaurateur, Kurt Huffman of Chefstable, turned the company’s catering kitchen into a hub for concepts like Charlie’s Hot Chicken and salad brand Waldorf & Cobb. Andy Ricker partnered with Reef to bring back his Vietnamese fried chicken brand Pok Pok Wing. Just last week, Portland’s John Plew and Keith Castro (Thirsty Lion) launched a six-restaurant “online food hall” called Central Kitchen. The general idea is that it makes sense as a survival mechanism: Housing several restaurants within one building allows for higher returns with lower overhead, pulling orders from several potential groups of customers instead of just one.
But Soltero’s concept is different: Generally, within ghost kitchens, a single group of restaurant workers tackle the dishes from the various restaurants. Here, Cha is representing his own restaurant, cooking his own food; meanwhile, the Tamale Boy staff is handing their own menu, within the same space. For Cha, that difference has been life-changing for him: He gets to keep his business alive.
“I feel like Jaime was an angel who came to save me,” Cha says. “I don’t know, maybe that’s corny.”
“Definitely corny, bro,” Soltero replies.
Smokin Fire Fish will open for takeout and curbside pickup within Tamale Boy at 668 N Russell Street.
• Tamale Boy [Official]
• Smokin Fire Fish [Official]
• How David Chang’s Fried Chicken Empire Flew into Portland Under the Radar [EPDX]
• The founders of Valley Growlers partner with Ranch PDX, Tamale Boy, and others to bring a novel concept to Happy Valley [NWBG]