Chef Louis Lin has a question he asks his kitchen staff as they’re pitching a dish for the menu: What’s the memory that inspired you? Was it a typical order at your family’s neighborhood bar and grill? A favorite family meal from your first restaurant job? A date night dinner? A midnight snack?
“The whole point of the restaurant, the whole point of what we’re doing is that we’re showing what we’re influenced by,” Lin says, sitting at a table in a corner of the yet-to-open restaurant Xiao Ye, which translates to “midnight snack” in Mandarin. “We’re showing who we are as cooks and creators in general, but also as first generation American people, what made us who we are.”
Opening Thursday, September 21 in Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood, Xiao Ye is, in many ways, a portrait of both Lin and his business and romantic partner, Jolyn Chen. The two grew up in suburban Los Angeles County, eating at chains and a wide spectrum of restaurants representing various Asian cuisines. When they reconnected in adulthood, they were both working in the food and drink industry themselves; over time, they sunk deeper into the world of critic-revered, Michelin-starred restaurants, like Rose’s Luxury in D.C. and Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles.
Thus, the opening menu at Xiao Ye walks visitors through their decades of dining, memories overlapping and blending. Every item on the menu has its own respective story as a jumping off point, in an effort to balance a sense of personal history with inventive, dialed-in dishes imbued with the warmth of reminiscence.
Chef de cuisine and fellow Rose’s Luxury alumnus Samuel Meoño moved to Portland to open Xiao Ye with his friend and former coworker. Little touches of the chef appear on the menu, like a grilled snapper with chipotle and chile negro butter, served with a side of curtido — Meoño was born in El Salvador, spending in childhood in Costa Rica before moving to Northern Virginia. However, most of the menu’s ideas came from Lin’s mind; Meoño helped Lin actualize each dish, turning the memory into food on a plate.
Some of the restaurant’s dishes begin with suburban nostalgia. Masa-mochiko madeleines, using coarse-ground masa from Three Sisters Nixtamal, arrive with whipped butter and jalapeño powder; they’re meant to evoke the jalapeño corn pudding at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, or jalapeño cornbread. Some dishes are odes to takeout staples: Quart containers of Thai tom yum soup, red-and-white parcels of sweet-and-sour eggplant. The pear and beef tartare is Lin’s take on yukhoe, a common order for Lin’s family when they went out for Korean food: cuts of Revel Meat sirloin tip and bottom round — both, for texture — support slices of pears from Kiyokawa Family Orchards, in place of the Korean pear typically used in the dish. “It’s really a pear dish as opposed to a beef dish,” Lin says.
Others are pulled from Lin and Chen’s culinary career: The tomato toast is something he picked up working in D.C. kitchens around many Southern expats. “For them, in the summer, that is a religion, tomato on white bread with Duke’s mayo,” he says. The rigatoni — almost a classic alla gricia, though the kitchen uses a Pecorino Toscano as opposed to Romano — is a nod to Lin’s years in Italian restaurants like Felix.
One particular dish is Lin’s love letter to his partner: ‘Jolyn’s Favorite Noodle V. 1’ is a play on a post-shift meal Lin would make for Chen after work, when they were living in D.C. He’d throw together a pasta made with the condiments they found in their pantry, as well as leftovers in the fridge; the first version on the menu uses a blend of sesame, Taiwanese black vinegar, and Lao Gan Ma. The couple would end up eating the pasta at midnight, their own xiao ye.
Chen left the industry to pursue design, which brought the couple to Portland; as such, her creative voice is more visible in the restaurant’s dining room. In a corner space off Sandy, the mismatched tables and chairs within the space steep in sunlight, perhaps aided by the various hanging and mounted light fixtures. The scallop-edged plates, checkered curtains, and sage green back wall lined with hidden built-ins feel almost evocative of a grandmother’s cottage; they’re juxtaposed with the restaurant’s sleek marble bar and chef’s counter, giving its diners a view of the subway-tile-lined kitchen and shelves of seemingly vintage bowls and plates. “We wanted it to feel like you’re dining in your home,” Chen says. “It’s not precious.”
That sense of casual warmth is meant to translate to the restaurant’s service and drink menu — the beverage list is a collaborative effort with Chen, Lin, assistant general manager Molly Kirk, and Someday cofounder Graham Files. Cocktails, which are listed with their percent alcohol by volume, lean heavily on lower-proof liqueurs, amari, and fortified wines, as well as fresh produce. For example, the Sho-Time blends soju and shishito with honey and lemon, while the Winter in NY pairs the smokiness of Scotch with blueberry and allspice. “The first day I came in, to see the spread of ingredients they got at the farmers market, and to taste the food, it added that extra level of clarity,” Files says.
The wine list was Kirk’s domain, and was a challenge of honing in on a short, 10-wine list, all available by the glass or bottle. The final list includes things from Hungary and Croatia, as well as pretty Loire bubbles and steely Etna Bianco. “In the past, I worked with pretty big wine lists,” Kirk says. “It was definitely a change to create something that was more paired down and really intentional.” All the wines are available in four-ounce pours, which Lin and Chen hope will allow folks to try multiple wines at a lower price point.
“We want it to be a regulars place; we want it to be an industry place,” Lin says. “We want to be the best night you can have in Portland... how we talk to each other, our service, our hospitality, the way it feels when you walk in the door.”
Xiao Ye opens Thursday, September 21 at 3832 NE Sandy Blvd.