Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite places in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant’s ethos, sharing fun personal takes, and fostering a community spirit. Know of a chef you’d like to see featured? Let us know via our tip line.
Jimmy Le’s parents have owned Phở Lê in Vancouver for 30 years. In August, he opened his own Vietnamese restaurant called Thơm (meaning “smells good”) on Alberta. A cozy space with ten seats, four menu items, and no substitutions, the space crystalizes all of the lessons he learned from his family: keep it small, keep it simple, and keep your integrity intact.
“You go out to these restaurants with giant-ass menus and you’re overwhelmed,” Le says. “This menu is the four items that my parents have always been killing it with, since I was a kid. They’re the staples for a lot of customers. So I just thought: you know, why not focus on that?”
Le’s perspective as a restaurant owner is informed not only by his parents’ experience, but by what he’s witnessed at other Portland restaurants: boundary setting, a relatively new phenomenon within the restaurant world.
“My parents are from the generation where the customer’s always right,” he says. “I fuckin’ hated that. They’re immigrants who came here and all I saw was them getting taken advantage of and saying ‘yes’ all the time ... Seeing my parents work so hard and get walked over was really frustrating. I started eating out a lot around Portland and just seeing how you can say ‘no.’ It was kind of refreshing in a way. So here, it’s like: this is it. Take it or leave it. No subs.”
In this month’s Dining Confidential, Le shares not only his go-to date spots, delivery standbys, and Alberta favorites — he shares a little bit of his philosophy, as a restaurant owner, a Portlander, and his parents’ son. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eater: What was one of those places where you saw people saying “no” that inspired you?
Jimmy Le: Nong’s Khao Man Gai. I remember my brother taking me there when the chicken and rice was like seven bucks. Just a couple items, that’s all you need. Seeing her grow with such a limited menu was really cool. I always get the dark meat and a side of the crispy chicken skins.
How much are you [at Thơm] during the day?
Right now, every day. I’m doing the prepping and everything myself. Phở is usually my breakfast. I just started getting help from my mom.
Portland’s a really tough town for after-work eats. Do you have any spots that you like?
Now? I don’t know, with COVID? It fuckin’ sucks, dude! What is there? Fast food? That’s another thing I wanna do here, is late night.
You’ll have a huge audience that is sick of going to Popeye’s at midnight.
I’m not rushing it, but that’s the eventual goal. I could go for a good Seattle dog at Donnie Vegas, down the street.
Do you frequent any of your other neighbors on Alberta?
Gumba, for unexpected pastas. Alberta Market, their chicken wings. The Filipino food truck down here on Prescott, Baon Kainan, they have a really good chicken adobo. Editor’s note: Baon Kainan has moved to 807 NE Couch Street.
What about a place where you would wanna take a date?
Next door, Urdaneta, probably the best tapas in Portland. The vibe, the food’s great, kind people. Javier (Cantreras), the owner, is a great dude. Brasa Haya is a good one, like a nice little cozy house, I remember taking a girl there. When I go out to eat, my cuisine of choice would be tapas. Bar Casa Vale is a good one. You just get variety and you get to try everything and it’s not all like twenty dollars a dish.
Do you have a spot you like to go to with a group of friends?
I like Rontoms… Usually with my friends, I would be the person to approach to go eat, we used to do tasting menus every weekend. Now… I don’t know anymore.
Now there are people who were the ‘you’ of their friend group who are gonna read this and look to you for recommendations.
I had a phase where I went to Kachka every week. Their Siberian pelmenis (dumplings made with beef, pork, veal, and onion) and horseradish vodka, I’d just drink that like water.
I just made their frozen dumplings! You can get them everywhere now.
Charcuterie boards are big for me when I go out, too. Love Cheese and Crack, it’s fun. Another spot on that street is Stammtisch; I can go for a good sausage every now and then. A bar I like over there is Angel Face — the food is more than just your average bar food.
Oh, Chicken and Guns. I get extra green sauce. Like, seven extra ones.
It is life. It is so perfect.
Since COVID I order so much fuckin’ food.
What are your delivery staples?
(Jimmy immediately pulls out his phone)
Yeah, pull up the history!
Phở Mekha on Sandy, a Vietnamese spot, they have a good hủ tiếu, a pork noodle soup.
You’re, like, a big soup guy.
Yes. Yes. Asian soups, mostly. Fork and Spoon over on Sandy, they have really good sinigang, it’s a Filipino sour soup.
Could you throw out maybe one or two Vancouver spots for people that live out there?
That’s the most important, right?
Thơm is open for onsite dining and takeout at 3039 NE Alberta Street.