Erica Montgomery, the chef and owner of Northeast Portland food cart Erica’s Soul Food, has a fantasy: In a restaurant space filled with people, Prince’s “International Lover” starts playing on the speakers. She steps out, dressed head-to-toe in Prince drag. She breaks out into song, while her regulars and newcomers roll their eyes with a chuckle.
“I visualized this scene, where everyone is having a good time and people are going, ‘What the fuck is wrong with her?’” she says.
Montgomery has wanted to open her own place since she started her food cart, originally posted up outside a convenience store on Southeast 82nd. It’s a common trajectory: Countless Portland food carts have transformed into restaurants, from famous Portland chains like Lardo to 38 stalwarts like Gracie’s Apizza. But what Montgomery envisions for her Juke Joint is more than a restaurant — instead, her place would serve as a larger community space, with live music and events and fundraisers.
“I really want this space to feel like an experience,” she says. “I want you to feel like you’re in my grandparents’ den. You’re invited to the secret speakeasy for the night.”
Erica’s Juke Joint would be part restaurant, part music venue, regularly hosting events and pop-ups. A small stage in the corner would host people like her father, a touring musician who primarily performs on Carnival Cruise ships. The kitchen would churn out her greatest hits, as well as fried chicken and experimental dishes she hasn’t been able to try out on the cart. She’d bake treats using family recipes — things like cinnamon rolls and yeast rolls — to raise money for causes and organizations she cares about. And she would regularly host pop-ups for smaller-scale businesses and other Black chefs; one of the events she wants to host first is a large-scale, collaborative dinner with a number of Black Portland chefs. But more than that, Montgomery wants Erica’s Juke Joint to be a safe space, both in terms of customers, staff, and the community at large.
“Down in Georgia, we have these gas stations called QuikTrip; they’re a safe space,” she says. “It’s well known in the city that if you’re in danger, if you’re hungry, if you need help, you can go to a Quiktrip. I want this place to be like that, you can come here if you need help.”
Opening her own place is more than just a step for personal growth for Montgomery; she sees it as an act that specifically challenges gentrification and Black displacement in Portland. She’s specifically looking for a space in the area where her cart is currently stationed, the area of North and Northeast Portland once known as a primarily Black neighborhood. Development projects like the Memorial Coliseum, the I-5 expansion, and Legacy Emanuel hospital displaced Black Portlanders in the Albina neighborhoods throughout the 20th century, and organizations like Don’t Shoot Portland and Equitable Giving Circle have actively prioritized reclaiming and buying property in those areas. Montgomery says she’s used community leaders like Teressa Raiford as a model.
“I’d like my business to be in a predominantly Black area, and then buy up as much property as I can in those areas to fill them with more Black-owned businesses, people in general,” she says. “I want to take up space in terms of keeping a lot of real estate. My history and the things I’ve experienced, it’s been super important to me to share parts of myself, to give people something to identify with. ... I want to remind people, it’s possible.”
Montgomery is currently raising money to fund the Juke Joint, but hopes to open up by the winter. “At the beginning of the next year, I want to be dressed as Prince hitting the floor,” she says. “I want to give us something to do when it’s all cold and rainy. We’re on a time clock here.”