While Jolyn Chen was in college, working at the Cheesecake Factory, she would get home after a shift around midnight; without fail, her father would be waiting for her. She’d pull an order of pasta and a slice of cheesecake out of a bag, and the two of them would sit and snack, sipping Folgers coffee and talking about life. “It was such a sacred time; the world, my mom included, was asleep,” Chen writes in a Substack post. “It felt very much like two kids, with our guards down, secretly eating cheesecake together, late at night, when we’re not supposed to.” If her mother woke up, her father would offer her a portion of their “xiao ye” — midnight snack in Mandarin.
When Jolyn Chen and her partner, Louis Lin, wanted to come up with a name for their forthcoming restaurant, opening this summer on Northeast Sandy, Chen remembered xiao ye: a Chinese phrase her father used to describe a sorta-Italian, sorta-American meal. It reminded her of so many meals she and Lin would share after shifts working in lauded Washington, D.C. restaurants — pastas with sauces Lin threw together using leftover takeout condiments and pantry odds and ends. For a restaurant serving what the couple describes as a “first generation American food,” Xiao Ye seemed like the perfect name — intentionally vague, to allow for a wide range of dishes that could include anything from chilled noodles with parmesan and dashi to chayote shoots with clams and mussels.
“When we first started telling people [about the restaurant], the first question they’d ask is, ‘What kind of food was it going to be?’” Lin says. “What can I call my food? It’s me. It’s my lived experiences, the restaurants I’ve worked at, places I’ve traveled to. It’s open-ended.”
Lin and Chen grew up together in Hacienda Heights, California, eventually reconnecting in D.C. The two worked for Michelin-starred restaurants like Pineapple & Pearls and Rose’s Luxury — he was in the kitchen, and she was front-of-house. Chen shifted her focus to interior design and the two moved back to California, where Lin started making pasta at Felix Trattoria, one of Eater’s 2017 Best New Restaurants in America. When they moved to Portland for Chen’s work, Lin contemplated opening some sort of small-scale restaurant, until Chen called him out.
“Jolyn was mad at me for not pursuing a full-service restaurant, like I was ‘half-assing it,’” Lin says. “She said, ‘You’re playing it safe.’ So she agreed to do it with me.”
Naturally, considering her new career, Chen will handle the design of Xiao Ye. She’s envisioning a checkered tile floor with cozy booths, a chef’s counter, and lots of different forms of lighting and seating. Overall, she’s trying to capture a warm, friendly energy. “It’s colorful and not too serious,” she says. “That’s the feeling I want people to have as they come into the space — a jolt of joy.”
After choosing from a handful of low-ABV cocktails and quirky wines, diners will order dishes that reflect Lin’s culinary background: some pastas, snacks, family-style dishes. For example, Lin has been playing with the idea of a large-format coppa steak, served ssam style with lettuce wraps as well as a sort of toum meant to replicate the flavors of Korean barbecue condiments — sesame oil, seasoned salt. “I love massive, family-style entree courses,” Lin says. “Clear the whole table, reset it, and cover the whole table with stuff.”
As promised, many of the restaurant’s dishes will incorporate a range of culinary traditions. Another dish Lin has been workshopping: His take on fuqi feipian, the Sichuan dish known as “husband and wife lung pieces” or “husband and wife beef.” As opposed to using a mix of offal, Lin will specifically use beef tongue, and approach the typical ma la-laden sauce as a salsa macha; he also plans to fold in charred tomatillos. The idea is to emphasize the overlap between the two cuisines’ pantries: cumin, sesame, coriander, dried chiles, cilantro. Some dishes, however, will be pretty straightforward comfort foods: The couple is considering adding a chicken piccata to the menu. “We were chain restaurant kids,” Chen says.
One dish Chen loves: a version of those noodles Lin would make her after shifts in D.C., rotating frequently based on the chef’s whim. She’s particularly set on the name: Jolyn’s Favorite Noodles. “We would call them ‘Midnight Noods’ because that’s when we’d eat them,” she says. “It stemmed from us really connecting toward the end of the night, much later than most people. It was something he made just for me.”
Xiao Ye is set to open in July or August at 3832 NE Sandy Blvd.