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A plate of Chilean sea bass at Hidden Kitchens in Portland, Oregon.
Chilean sea bass in beurre blanc, with fennel, culantro sauce, and pickled veggies.
Hidden Kitchens

At Hidden Kitchens, the Tran Family Is Reclaiming Fusion Cooking

Thang and Linh Tran, who also own Xinh Xinh Vietnamese Bistro, use their own melting pot family dinners as inspiration for this eight-course tasting menu restaurant

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Forty years ago, Thang Tran’s family dinners looked remarkably different from how they look now. His family had just arrived in the United States from Vietnam, and holiday dinners consisted of Vietnamese staples like bo luc lac and thit kho. Over time, his family started to introduce prototypical American standards: turkey, prime rib. These days, the meal is almost unrecognizable from those first holiday dinners in the states. “Now we have sushi and Thai ... set in the middle of the potluck,” Tran says. “We started to wonder, ‘What does it mean to have traditional food for the family?’”

Tran is the co-owner of Xinh Xinh Vietnamese Bistro, a Southeast Madison restaurant serving Vietnamese classics like pho and banh mi. He had worked as a chemical engineer for 20 years; when his wife, Linh Tran, wanted to open a restaurant, he supported her, and the couple opened Xinh Xinh in 2018. But five years later, the couple is ready for something new. “We didn’t want to just do just Vietnamese anymore,” he says. “We wanted to do something more exciting for us.”

Enter: Hidden Kitchens, the newly open tasting menu restaurant tucked into a space off Southeast Clinton. The menu is an amalgamation of extended family recipes, dishes developed by Tran’s sisters, and new creations, pulling from the larger catalogue of Southeast Asian cuisines. At Hidden Kitchens, Tran wants to reclaim the idea of fusion food in a way that feels true to his family.

The term “fusion” itself often evokes dusty memories of one particular chef: Wolfgang Puck, who opened Santa Monica restaurant Chinois on Main in 1983 and is considered one of the most well-known “Asian fusion” chefs globally. But over time, that descriptor began to garner valid critiques from, particularly, Asian American chefs, who found the explanation dismissive of the longstanding blending of culinary traditions inherent in immigrant and first-generation cooking. “It gives this nostalgic memory of the nineties or early 2000s TV chefs that really coined the word ‘fusion’ where they took multiple cuisines and combined it into one,” Filipino chef John Boutwood said in an interview with Tatler. “I feel like that term fusion did more damage than good.”

But for KimLien Tran, Thang Tran’s sister, Wolfgang Puck was an inspiration. Her brother remembers her voraciously reading and recipe-testing through Puck’s cookbooks. When he first told her about his idea for a restaurant, she was thrilled; so Thang and Linh Tran flew out to Indiana to cook with her.

The first dish on the menu at Hidden Kitchens is a take on one of her favorites. KimLien loved the preparations of gently charred octopus she encountered in Southern Europe, places like Greece or Italy or Spain: boiled, chilled, slathered in olive oil, and grilled. Tran paired the octopus with banana blossoms, fish sauce, and rau ram, giving the octopus a lightness and gentle Vietnamese touch at the finish.

Another dish, “Lunar New Year,” is another adaptation of a KimLien original. Thit kho, or coconut water-braised pork belly, is a classic Vietnamese dish; KimLien, however, also pan-fries the pork and serves it with sushi rice. At Hidden Kitchens, chefs pan-fry the pork in ghee, rendering out more of the fat, and serve the final product over sushi rice with pickles for acidity and balance. “Some people in our family, it reminded them of Tết, of the flavors of a Lunar New Year celebration,” Thang says. “So we called it Lunar New Year.”

For dessert, Hidden Kitchens pits two often-compared flavors against each other. The dish Pandan vs. Vanilla starts with a foundation of pandan-vanilla coconut panna cotta, topped with strawberries macerated in cachaça rum and finished with apricot-yuzu jam.

While much of the menu involves flavors from around the world, the wine pairings stick close to the restaurant. The restaurant’s bottles exclusively come from Oregon and Washington wineries, including places like Domaine Serene and King Estate. “We don’t have a sommelier or wine director,” Thang says. “We wanted to highlight the Pacific Northwest, so I had a couple wine tastings, we came up with different ideas, and we went to wine parties and asked people what they thought.”

The eight-course menu starts at $90, plus wine pairings, and menus will change seasonally, incorporating more family recipes and the ideas of other collaborators, like chef Kenny Deaver. The idea is to keep leaning into the idea of blended cultures, and let the whole family be a part of the creative process. “Portlanders, including myself, want unique, eclectic flavors,” Thang says. “They want to try different things.”

Hidden Kitchens is located at 2625 SE 21st Avenue, Unit B.

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