For 35 years, Yen Ha served the Roseway neighborhood and Portland at-large as one of the city’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants. Second generation owner Anh Tran — who grew up around the restaurant, working in the family business as a cashier, busser, and waiter — took over Yen Ha around 2006 and ran it until 2019, when the restaurant lost its lease and served its final bowls of pho while customers sang their last karaoke songs in the lounge.
Now, Tran is back in the game with a new name. His pop-up, Chém Gió, has brought Vietnamese bar food to White Owl Social Club and is currently taking over Mestizo on Sundays. In the near future, it’ll have its own permanent home, sharing a space with the LGBTQ-owned Mosaic Taphouse inside the St. Johns building formerly occupied by Gabagool.
Throughout July, Tran has dished up weekly rotating noodle soups such as bún bò Huế and mì Quảng alongside street food dishes like bánh khọt and xôi xéo. To complement the food, Tran brews strong Vietnamese coffee and tops it with egg custard. In August, the menu will switch over to more of a small plate format, with things like bánh bèo Huế (water fern cakes), bột chiên (fried rice taro cakes topped with papaya), blue sticky rice with braised prawns, and fish sauce wings.
In the literal sense, Chém Gió means “to slice wind,” but as Tran explains, it’s really more of a vibe than anything. It’s shooting the breeze with your friends. It’s taking a load off at the end of a long day. It’s drinking and eating while talking about whatever comes to mind. “The focus of Vietnamese food is really geared towards gathering, drinking, and family time,” Tran says. “That’s why I gravitated toward this new name.”
After closing Yen Ha, Tran decided he needed a break rather than immediately opening a new restaurant. He decided to take some time off to do a deep dive into Vietnamese cuisine. “I went to Vietnam for [a few] months,” Tran says. “I was traveling around and learning how other regions serve stuff and different flavors ... pho in Huế and pho in Saigon are completely different but both good in their own way; you get a grasp on how different regions cook and eat.”
Not long after Tran returned from Vietnam, the pandemic hit, and his plans changed altogether. He started Hey Chaudy, a business selling meat and vegan versions of patê sô over Instagram — the project is currently on hiatus, but Tran hopes to eventually find a permanent space for it.
Chém Gió has been a refresher in running service for Tran and his mom, former Yen Ha head chef Nguyet, also known as Mama Le. But it’s also been an avenue for the duo to get creative with dishes that weren’t previously in their repertoire, including veganized versions of pho and nem chua, a cured pork substituted with beet juice and papaya.
“In the Vietnamese community, we think that other people aren’t adventurous enough to try stuff that we eat at home, so we don’t present it the way that we eat it,” Tran says. “A lot of things that [Vietnamese restaurants] do are dumbed down, which we shouldn’t. It makes it hard; especially if it’s that [diner’s] first experience of that dish.” At Chém Gió, the goal is to avoid that, which the duo has approached by refining a more streamlined menu than that of their former restaurant. They lay the foundation of a dish using Mama Le’s traditional methods, and finesse it with Tran’s modernist approach to flavors and plating.
Although mother and son have worked side-by-side previously, doing the pop-up has forged a stronger bond between them. During Tran’s childhood, they didn’t get to spend much time together since Mama Le spent a lot of time at work.
“Even when we worked together, it was always just work,” Tran says. “I’m trying to get her to be more creative. I want to create something that my mom can say is also hers and that she’s a part of. Before, it wasn’t like, ‘This is me and I created something,’ it was literally selling food just to get by.”
Mosaic Taphouse and Chém Gió hope to open between the end of August and the beginning of September, and Mosaic is currently raising money for its build-out. They will be located at 7955 N Lombard Street.