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Matta’s Vietnamese Dishes Will Get a Remix at a New Northeast Portland Location

Chef Richard Le will close his cart, instead incorporating Oregon produce into Vietnamese cuisine at Matta’s new Lil’ Dame digs

A bowl containing a colorful salad.
Matta’s farm salad.
Christine Dong

For the last four years, Matta’s Richard Le has served steak frites with fish sauce and breakfast sandwiches on pandan buns out of a Northeast Portland food cart. The chef has described his food as Việt Kiều — a term that refers to the Vietnamese diaspora. His interpretation of the Việt Kiều experience is a collection of dishes born from memories of what he ate growing up in California, and what was passed down from his mother, aunt, and grandmother. But after years of exploring his culinary past, Le has started to feel the urge to get more seasonal with his cooking, or more intricate. He found that complex dishes were well-received whenever Matta would do a restaurant pop-up, but less so at the cart, which went from focusing on family recipes to sandwiches and burgers incorporating a Vietnamese culinary palette.

So in the near future, Le will let his interpretation of Việt Kiều cooking shift, once again. By the end of August, the Matta team will say goodbye to their food cart and move into Northeast Portland restaurant collective Lil Dame, where Le will cook homestyle Vietnamese dishes heavily influenced by whatever Catherine Nguyen, the Vietnamese farmer behind Mora Mora Farm in Troutdale, is harvesting. Herbs like fragrant purple basil will garnish a variety of dishes, in-season vegetables like beets and tomatoes will star in salads, and chard and other greens will be braised or pickled as accompaniments to protein dishes.

“Because we’re working off of a farm model, we’re relying on whatever [Nguyen] has, but the menu will change every month,” Le says. “[The menu] will showcase her work as I showcase mine.”

It’s not as if Matta is shrugging off its past, however. The new incarnation will also bring back dishes from the cart’s early days, staples like thịt kho (braised pork belly with soft-boiled egg), short rib curry, and Le’s mom’s omelet, studded with shrimp and tomato. Those loyal to the cart’s popular breakfast sandwich may spot its pandan-green buns at the occasional brunch service. Keeping the food cart operational took up bandwidth that Le hopes he can now devote to tapping into his creativity. “The cart is always viewed as street food, so pushing out farm-to-table food out of a cart was a little more difficult,” Le says.

The move from cart to residency is the next chapter for Matta, but one that feels right to Le at this point in time. “Even within the food cart model — summer was the time where we’d make the most money, but then that money would be redirected to keeping us alive during the wintertime,” Le says. “It’s self-cannibalistic to a certain degree, you’re eating away at whatever you earn to [stay] open and then you do the whole cycle over again.”

His original end goal was to open a restaurant, but with an economy that has been especially unforgiving to the restaurant industry, opening up his own space felt daunting. Running the numbers painted a bleak picture. But a middle ground presented itself when Dame owner Jane Smith extended the offer of doing a residency, a part of the Northeast Portland wine bar and restaurant’s larger collective. Le was excited by the prospect of continuing to engage with guests from the restaurant’s open kitchen and intimate seating area while growing Matta in new ways.

“My mindset in the last five years has changed to: If I’m afraid to do something, I should probably be doing it,” Le says.

For Le, food is just one piece of the Matta puzzle. He envisions it as a lifestyle brand, and anyone that’s been following Matta’s journey would be inclined to agree; there’s been t-shirt drops, a podcast, breakdance battles, collaborations with brands like San Francisco’s Studio Mondine, and of course, documentaries as part of All The Homies Network — which earned them a James Beard Award.

Matta will host a party on August 13, the closing day of its food cart; it will reopen at Lil Dame on August 21.