When NFL running back Marshawn Lynch announced plans to open a restaurant in Portland last fall, the chatter surrounding the news had less to do with the kitchen and more to do with the name. Lynch’s restaurant, inside the Hotel Vance, would feature recipes inspired by his Filipino grandmother; Kevin Yamada, of the Forest Grove Hawaiian restaurant Kama’aina, would serve as the restaurant’s chef. In reference to Lynch’s on-field ‘Beast Mode’ persona, the restaurant would be called Beast. However, the team quickly realized the name coincided with the celebrated restaurant from chef Naomi Pomeroy, and decided on Beastro instead.
But Beastro changed more than its name: Instead of specializing in Filipino and Hawaiian fare, the restaurant transforms from an eclectic brunch spot to an evening Korean restaurant each night. Beastro co-owner Jun Park, who also owns Pacific Northwestern sushi franchise Musashi’s, developed a Korean dinner menu of stews, stir fries, and snacks, like budae jjigae and tteokbokki. But executive chef Helen Nguyen’s contributions are a playful testament to the chef’s professional and personal background, creating a truly unique Portland brunch.
Nguyen, known by many in the Portland food world for her custom cakes business The Cake Batch, transitioned away from pastry somewhat spontaneously. When Nguyen’s former commercial broker, a silent partner at Beastro, initially reached out to her to make pastries for the restaurant, they both realized she could be doing more. Nguyen and Lynch connected over the similarities of their childhoods; when Nguyen learned about Lynch’s role in the non-profit Fam 1st Family Foundation, along with the cannabis reform nonprofit Last Prisoner Project, it resonated with her — her father was in prison for 10 years.
“When I was hired on, the very first thing they said was welcome to the family,” she says. “When we’re dealing with any type of issue, we’re always keeping each other in mind.”
For both Nguyen and Lynch, food is a connection to family, but for Nguyen that connection stems from a childhood marked by food insecurity. “My parents immigrated from Vietnam with hardly anything. When I was growing up, my sister and I used to go hungry every night,” she recalls. “We would play make-believe that we were eating from these grand buffets, and each night we’d say, ‘That was delicious. What a great meal.’” The imaginary meals from those buffets inspired her interest in the culinary arts.
Over time, however, she became more interested in pastry over savory cooking: Nguyen wanted to capture the nostalgia of childhood birthday parties via cakes and desserts, completing a degree in Bakery & Patisserie at Portland’s Le Cordon Bleu. Although she comes from a pastry background, she has experience in restaurant cooking as well: She ended up working for Oswego Grill assisting as a pantry & pastry cook, also hustling alongside Compass Craft Catering’s Christian and Janelle Ephram during busy summer meals.
“Typically when you work in pastry, people don’t tend to do savory,” she explains, “but there’s a saying that every baker can cook but not all cooks can bake. So I feel like that is very true to a T.”
As executive chef, Nguyen has taken charge of the day menus, assembling elaborate brunch plates and pastries that utilize her talent in desserts and her passion for Southeast Asian flavors and ingredients. For one dish, she encases a pandan mousse in a marble-etched chocolate shell dipped in toasted coconut, serving it with a mallet to break the exterior and expose the mousse. The restaurant’s eggs Benedict arrives on an ube English muffin, topped with bright yellow hollandaise, Chinese crispy pork belly, and poached eggs. And she serves the matcha pancakes chiffon style, thick and fluffy, garnished with strawberries and mascarpone whipped cream. Beastro’s beverage director, Yancy Violi, takes a similar yet innovative approach as Nguyen to the cocktail menu, incorporating flavors like toasted sesame, green tea-infused agave, and pandan demerara for the restaurant’s drink menu. Satisfied with Park’s evening Korean fare, Nguyen has left it as-is.
Outside of what she makes herself, Nguyen likes to source sauces and ingredients from Portland businesses owned by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Portland Ca Phe is Beastro’s coffee provider, and chai comes from Cafe Diaspora, which she also uses for a candied walnut salad. HAB Sauce gets cooked into the Portuguese fried rice with fried shallots, and visitors can order Vietnamese pastry vendor Hey Chaudy’s patê sô for takeout from the restaurant. The latter is owned by Anh Tran, formerly of the family-owned Vietnamese restaurant Yen Ha — both Tran and his mother work for Beastro. “I really want to focus a lot of my sourcing and collaborations with families [who identify as] people of color,” she explains. “I want to be very intentional with my menu and who I feature.”
With brunch being an all-around pan-Asian fare, a future happy hour featuring Vietnamese-Korean fusion, and nighttime encompassing Korean cuisine, it can be safe to say that the restaurant is a little bit of everything at the moment — and Nguyen is proud of that.
“What I’m thinking is that night and morning don’t have to be cohesive,” Nguyen says. “Especially with the food scene here, there’s always places that do pop-ups in the morning and something else at night. I’m completely okay with that. As long as people vibe with either.”
Visitors will still find traces of Marshawn Lynch sprinkled throughout the brunch and dessert menus. The “Taste the Rainbow” macaron is filled with mixed berry compote and lime and served with Skittles, reminding fans of his obsession (and sponsorship) with the candy. The breakfast sandwich gets seasoned with “Ding Ding sauce,” a spicy Korean honey mayo that references Lynch’s celebratory crotch grab at touchdown. Nguyen’s popcorn fried chicken is also a favorite of his, seasoned with basil and topped over a pandan puff waffle — a dish for them both.
Beastro is located at 1455 Southwest Broadway in Portland.
Correction: This story has been corrected to show Hotel Vance was open when the restaurant was originally announced.