At the end of 2019, Diane Lam was thinking about her own growth. She was 29, ready for new challenges, excited to develop her own voice as a chef and personality. She had just started a new pop-up called Sunshine Noodles with Mian chef David Sigal, playing with inspiration from her years cooking across the country, as well as her childhood growing up in California. She was talking with the team at her restaurant, Revelry, about changing things up, turning it into a noodle bar after a short renovation — “industrial-utopian,” she imagined, with unfinished stone and pastel colors. She saw an end of the traditional restaurant model coming, and wanted Revelry to be ahead of the curve, looking toward the future.
Six months later, a lot has changed: The traditional restaurant model evaporated with the spread of COVID-19, dining rooms and bars sitting empty, chairs and stools collecting dust on top of tables. When Lam pictured how she’d be spending her year, she didn’t exactly expect that she would be packaging up tuna burgers and spaghetti in to-go containers for takeout during a pandemic. But now that Revelry has closed permanently, the chef is now out on her own, and she’s actually pretty excited about it. Starting this July, Lam is bringing back her pop-up as a standing lunch spot on North Mississippi, serving tomato curry noodles and Cambodian fried chicken three days each week through the end of the year.
The new locale for her longterm pop-up sort of fell in Lam’s lap. She heard through the accountant at Revelry that the team at Psychic Bar — the pseudo-spooky North Mississippi cocktail bar in a converted house — was looking for someone to run the space through the end of the year. Suddenly, Lam had a platform, a place to start cooking and figure out her next move. So she and Sigal started working out how to mold Sunshine Noodles into a COVID-friendly business. “These owners are so ideal; they’re just interested in helping out,” Lam says. “They don’t need us to do this, but they wanted to be there for people.”
On July 2, Sunshine Noodles will begin serving diners out of Psychic, but customers won’t be sitting down for cocktails and dinner inside. Instead, all of the pop-up’s dishes will come pre-packaged for takeout, potentially with optional outdoor seating separated by canvas sheets. The food itself will be heavily influenced by Cambodian cuisine, which Lam grew up with. For example, the restaurant will serve a version of its kuy tiev Phnom Penh, also known as Phnom Penh noodles, that became a hit at the original pop-up. In addition to the Phnom Penh noodles, Lam is working out an intricate catfish curry noodle — Lam makes a fumé out of the bones of the catfish, and then poaches the meat in that stock with lime leaf, pickled peppercorn, lemongrass, galangal, and other spices. The fish gets mixed with kroeung paste, a Cambodian spice paste, then tossed back into the soup, which cooks down until it develops a thick, gravy-style consistency.
However, Lam doesn’t want to stay too strictly within the limits of a specific country. “Minority groups are the only group where you have to be ‘authentic,’ but if you’re a classically trained chef, you have French technique.” she told Eater back in 2019. “There’s so much I can’t do because people expect me to be authentic.” So the menu at Sunshine Noodles, with its Cambodian dishes, will also serve Lam’s popular potato chip salad and jalapeno poppers stuffed with crab rangoon filling. “The dipping sauce nuoc cham ketchup,” Lam says. “I think it’ll be really fun.”
The choice to return to Sunshine Noodles, beyond her interest in actualizing the noodle bar she started to develop last year, had to do with self-sufficiency. “When the job market opened, I didn’t want to compete with anyone for a job,” Lam says. Her goal is to encourage currently out-of-work chefs to do the same, hosting them for small-format prix-fixe dinners within the Psychic space. “I hope that other business owners who read this who are in a bind want to work together with the community,” she says. “There are a lot of chefs out there who are antsy to do something.”
Next year, however, Lam isn’t sure what will happen. She may sell the Sunshine Noodles concept to the folks at Psychic, she might start a pop-up collective, she may get into Instagram videos or home-cooking tutorials, but she doesn’t see herself simply joining a traditional restaurant line once again. “Everyone’s just so locked in on what they’re doing. It’s nice to have this moment to really reflect and see how you can personally change the food movement, especially right now,” Lam says. “This moment in time just makes me feel like there has to be some sort of change in the way we create and sell food, and I’m not quite sure — I’ve never been sold on the idea of a restaurant.”
Sunshine Noodles will open July 2 at 3560 N Mississippi Avenue.
• Sunshine Noodles [Instagram]
• Psychic [Official]
• Chef de Cuisine Diane Lam Is Molding Revelry Into a Hip Noodle Bar [EPDX]
• Revelry, the Southeast Portland Korean Cocktail Bar and Restaurant, Has Closed Permanently [EPDX]