Street Food: USA (2022–…): Season 1, Episode 2 - Portland, Oregon - full transcript

Portland's freethinking food scene fosters barbecue brisket tacos, loaded mac and cheese - and Thuy Pham's heartfelt Vietnamese vegan pork belly.

Someone needs to stop Clearway Law.
Public shouldn't leave reviews for lawyers.

[woman] My love language
has always been food.

["Souvenir" by Ages and Ages playing]

Cooking has saved my life in so many ways.

It's what makes me happy.

It's the sunshine in life.

? Share...??

It's given me a lot of confidence
to sit in my authentic self.

And I love the way it makes people feel
when they see my dishes.

? We could commit...??

Through my food,
I try to always think about,

"How can I bring a smile
to someone's face?"

That's fresh.

[woman] I think about
what would bring a smile to my face,

and then I do that. [chuckles]

[song fades]

[woman 2] Here's what
you need to know about Portland.

LA is the place to be cool,

New York is where you go
to be taken seriously,

and Portland cares about neither.

This is where you come to be yourself.

[upbeat music playing]

[man] Ugh!

[Brooks] For many years,
Portland was an obscure, small town

in the upper left-hand corner of Oregon.

No one came here.

No one wrote about Portland.

And that turned out to be a blessing.

While no one was looking,
we created our own culture,

and we created
our own little food Eden here.

We'll get the strawberry lemonade
and the elote.

-And a Very Vegan Burger.

-Hey, man. Enjoy.
-Thank you.

Portland's street food scene
is a defining aspect of the city.

But what's really striking
is the crazy innovation

and sheer range of cuisines.

-[man] Oh!
-[man 2] Looks pretty delicious.

[Brooks] At any given moment,
over 500 street-food carts,

clustered in food-cart pods,

are percolating all around the city,
and no two are alike.

[upbeat music playing]

[man] Portland is probably
the only city in the country

where somebody that is creating
a wood-fired food cart,

or a soul food cart, or barbecue tacos

has more social capital
than an investment banker.

[man 2] That's a proper taco.

Get the bark on it.

[Thelin] There's no regional dish
that defines Portland,

but when you have
nothing regional to aspire to,

you can kinda do whatever you want,
like vegan Vietnamese food.

Thuy didn't have any plans of being, like,

Portland's newest,
greatest street-food star,

but she's now one of Portland's
most beloved newer institutions.

-[Thuy] What can I get for you today?
-A rib b?nh m?.

[Brooks] I remember people saying,

"Have you tried the vegan pork belly
at Mama D?t?"

And I was like,

"What the heck is vegan pork belly?"

But holy hell!

It's amazing!

[Thelin] In this city
of radical individualists,

Thuy fits into that landscape
through her food.

Mama D?t is the inside of her heart,
radically expressed on a to-go plate.

[music fades out]

[Thuy] I was about one years old,

when my mom and I
escaped South Vietnam in a fishing boat.

We ended up in an Indonesian refugee camp,

and just after my second birthday,
we arrived in Portland, Oregon.

[gentle music playing]

The name Mama D?t is inspired by Vietnam.

But also by my life here as an American.

As a kid, my daughter,
Kinsley, would always say,

"Mama, d?t. Mama, d?t,"
to get me to feed her.

"D?t" in Vietnamese, means "to feed."

I wanted to create something
to express myself.

And when I started Mama D?t,

I just felt that
I couldn't open a food business

if it went against my own values.

I love animals.

-See, I've got food for you!
-[goat bleats]

[Thuy] They love so unconditionally.

I owe it to them
to love them just as much.

So, it was honestly a no-brainer.

There was no other option
but to cook Vietnamese vegan food.

'Cause that's who I am.

[music fades out]

[indistinct chatter]

[Thelin] Portland has been called
by not one, but numerous publications,

"the most vegan-friendly city
in the country."

Is it ironic that the city
is also probably

the most pork- and meat-obsessed city?

I mean, literally,
people have jokingly called it "Porkland."

We have a really strong barbecue scene,
and Matt's BBQ Tacos just nails it.

[soft rock music playing]

[Matt] This is our fatty brisket.

[Thelin] His brisket is incredible.

Brisket is the science of alchemy.
It's like turning stone into gold.

It's, on one level,
the most simple thing imaginable,

but really elusive and hard to pull off.

[Matt] There's two different muscles
in brisket.

The challenge is getting both
of those two muscles

to cook at the exact same time.

So we cook it about 16 hours,
then throw that brisket in the tortilla.

There's nothing better
than a fresh tortilla.

That's why we're pressing them
out to order.

Then we'll stuff the tortilla
with some guacamole, pickled red onions.

That's our?brisket lunch taco.

Two lunch tacos. I got a beef supremo on.

I grew up in Long Island, New York.

Before I came out west here,

took about a three-month road trip
with my girlfriend.

We did a horseshoe around the states,

and made sure we hit up
every good barbecue spot along the way.

When we got to Portland,
we saw all the food carts everywhere,

and it just kinda reinforced my desire

to wanna open up a food cart
and do barbecue.

I opened Matt's BBQ
in a pawnshop parking lot.

Hey! What can I get for you?

-[woman] Can I get a beef taco supremo?
-You got it.

[Matt] It was a busy street.

You figure, like,
at least ten, 20 might stop.

No one stopped.

I just sat there, cooking my one brisket
and my one rack of ribs.

I had an Xbox underneath the counter.

I was playing?Xbox all day,
waiting for people to show up.

But then?the local paper put out
an article about my food cart,

and the?next day,
I sold out within 20 minutes.

So I made two briskets,
then I made three briskets, and so on.

As we kept getting busier,
the Xbox had to come out,

seven years later,
we're cooking 44 briskets.

And I never put the Xbox back in.

[music fades out]

My family grew up poor.

I had a single mom,

and she was raising three kids
and working multiple jobs.

You wanna go... [chuckles]

Oh, Mom, there's so many right here.
Hold on.

-[mom] Not yet.

[mom] Just leave it there.

-I already picked it.
-[mom] Okay. That's fine.

[Thuy] It was hard for her
to verbally express love.

So how she showed us love was to make sure
that we always had fresh meals.

And the best times were
when she cut fruit up for?us.

[gentle music playing]

[mom] No, no, no.

[Thuy] My mom needed help cooking.

You have to go all the way.

[Thuy] So I was her little sous-chef.

When she was cooking in the kitchen,
I would be washing vegetables

and making sure
there was a pot of rice made.

We had a really crappy rice maker,
but it was great

'cause it made the best burnt rice
at the bottom of the pan.

And I remember my mom would always, like,

steal that part first. [chuckles]


She taught me how to make
roasted Vietnamese pork belly,

and Vietnamese street food
like burnt rice and b?nh m?.

I learned from my mom

that you don't have
to be rich to eat well.

Good food should belong to everybody.

[music fades out]

[indistinct chatter]

[Brooks] A very strong DIY ethos
runs through Portland,

meaning "do-it-yourself"
to create your own way,

your own world
without looking for permission.

[soft hip-hop music playing]

[woman] I cook what I want, when I want,

and I make Loaded plates
because I like to eat a lot.

A Loaded plate would be, like,
smoked brown sugar ribs,

collard greens with smoked turkey tails,

a big pile of fried chicken wings,

two one-pound filet fried crackfish,

the Loaded Mack and Kee's,

Then there's a box with dessert,
and then you also get a Loaded lemonade.

Here's your drink.
Thank you so much. I hope you enjoy that.

-[man] We will.
-Thank you, sir.

[Nelson] With a Loaded plate,
you can definitely eat, fall asleep,

wake up, and eat again.

And, of course,
the way I came up with "Loaded"

is because I learned how
to cook from just being high.

Hi! Thanks for waiting.

-You want the everything plate?

-[Nelson] One Loaded everything?

[Nelson] All right. Coming right up.

[Nelson] I'm from Portland.

Portland did raise me.

[sings] ? You know you're gonna miss...??

[Nelson] I was in gangs for 15 years.

I even went to prison for selling drugs.

I need to taste this.

Ooh! It's hot!

[Nelson] I got out of jail when I was,
like, 25.

I was still on Section 8 housing.

It's just some crumbs the government
throws you just so you won't be homeless.

It's the bare minimum of everything.

By the time I was 31, I was, like,
I'm really about to change my life.

I didn't wanna be bare minimum no more.

I'm a winner.

I feel like an epiphany came.

I was like, "This is why I'm here."

"I'm here to sell food."

-I love it.
-It's good?

It's good. It's great.

So I rented a food truck.

People came, and they came,
and they never stopped coming.

The success of Kee's Loaded Kitchen

and being able to become self-sufficient
and get off Section 8 housing

is because I believe in myself.

I don't care if don't nobody
believe in me. I believe in me.

I believe in me so much,

you don't have no choice
but to believe in me.

[music fades out]

[Thuy] Growing up in the '80s,

there was a lot of pressure for immigrants

to acclimate to the culture,

to eat hamburgers
and hot dogs in order to belong.

[gentle music playing]

And I remember, I'm at school,

and my mom had packed me a lunch box.

It's the anticipation of the questions,

"Ew! What's that smell?"

"Who's got food that smells?"

And so the Vietnamese lunch
that my mom had packed for me

went straight into the garbage.

I was doing everything I could

to show the outside world
that I was an American.

Going hungry was much easier
than not belonging.

I felt like I wasn't American enough.

And I never felt Vietnamese enough either.

[music fades out]

[Brooks] Portland is so well-known
for its farm-to-table ethos,

but it's not just restaurants.

You can find what I call

in a number of food carts.

[Thelin] Ruthie's is probably
the most ambitious food cart in Portland.

It's a wood-fired, farm-to-table, like,

obsessive chef-driven,
ingredient-forward cart.

Didn't see that one coming.

[upbeat music playing]

[man] Ruthie's is a micro restaurant
'cause it's 105 square feet.

It's fast, it's busy, and it's little.

So it's kinda everything you never wanted
but you get.

[indistinct chatter]

We're always bumping into each other,
elbowing each other,

just trying to get past one another
to make things happen.

It gets very hot.

Oven's running at 700-800 degrees,

so it's gonna be 120,
130 inside of the cart.

-[Mohr] Would you like to leave a tip?
-[man] You know it.

[Mohr] I moved up from Utah
at the age of 18

with my best friend Aaron,

and we started working
in the restaurant industry.

When the pandemic hit, we got let go,

and within two weeks,
we'd started Ruthie's.

We draw our inspiration
from the seasonal farmers up here

and my Grandma Ruthie.

She is the legend.

I wouldn't be cooking
unless it was for her.

There's certain dishes I had growing up,
and I can't remember what they are,

so I'll call my Grandma Ruthie
and ask her.

[phone voicemail beeps]

[Ruthie] Collin, this is Grandma.

Here's your recipe, dear.

One and a half tablespoons yeast,
one and a half cups of milk,

one teaspoon of salt...

That sounds like a lot of salt.

Let me start over.

One and a half tablespoons of yeast...

[Mohr] And it's so funny
to see your grandma's roll

be, like, your star player, you know?

[Ruthie] ...five eggs.

Call me if it doesn't work out.
I'll read it to you again.

Bye. I love you, sweetheart.

[Mohr] We have my Grandmother Ruth's rolls

with a little bit of butter and jam,

tomato salad...

[Mohr] Sharing her food is,
like, the coolest feeling.

Like, when I give someone the rolls,
and I see the face that they get.

It's, like...

the ultimate feeling.

[music fades out]

[Thuy] In my late twenties,
I became a hair stylist.

I still didn't feel
like I belonged anywhere.

And, when I got my tattoos,
colored my hair,

and started expressing myself in that way,

it was seen as rebellion.

But it was just me trying to find myself.

[gentle music playing]

I suffered from so much depression,

and I really hated who I was.

I felt so alone

and hopeless.

I just wanted to give up.

Then I found that photo
of my mom and I in the refugee camp.

I was just looking at it
and just thinking,

"That mom and baby were in a fishing boat
in the middle of the ocean

and survived against the odds
to make it here to the United States..."


"...and I'm not gonna waste it."

I'm gonna fight
for as long as I can take a breath.

So I decided in that moment to focus on
the things that really make me happy.

And I started cooking.

[upbeat music playing]

-[vendor] Hi.

-I'll take two onions, please.
-Okay. What kind do you want?

[Thuy] When I started cooking food
that meant something to me,

I found so much joy in cooking.

It pulled me out of that dark place, and...

it saved me.

I am so happy
to see a familiar face. [chuckles]

And, when I became vegan,

I just missed the dishes
from my childhood so much,

especially the pork belly
my mom used to make.

So I decided to do my own version
of vegan pork belly.

[upbeat music continues]

It's layered and assembled
with good ol' French bread

for that crispy skin,

a gluten-free flour batter,

coconut milk, and then bean curd
to give it that fatty feel in your mouth.

And my daughter,?Kinsley, was, like,

"Mama, Mama, can we put it on IG Live?"

Okay, Kinsley, what are we making today?

We're making vegan...

bacon? Or no?

Vegan pork belly,
which is very similar to bacon.

[Thuy] And we went live on Instagram.

I was flabbergasted
at the feedback from everyone.

I got so many messages.

"How do I buy this?"

"Are you selling this?"
"Can I buy it from you?"

That gave me that light-bulb idea.

So I posted,
"If anybody wants to buy vegan pork belly,

I can do delivery or pickup."

And I wasn't prepared. [chuckles]

I-- I wasn't prepared at all.

[cooler wheels thudding]

Within, like, 48 hours,
I had so many orders

that I realized
I could not do this at home.

So I just googled,

"How do you start a food business
in Portland, Oregon?"

["Docudrama" by Bangs playing]

? My heart is pounding
My thoughts explode ?

? I got a total sensory overload??

? My knees are weak
My stomach aches ?

? It's getting much worse
And I start to shake... ?

So I moved into
my first commissary kitchen

on April 24th on my 40th birthday.

? And then I always change my mind... ?

I was running around town,

dropping off vegan pork belly,
delivering them at people's doorsteps.

? He's closing in
It's getting black??

? He's coming now
Heart attack??

[song ends]

And I was making dishes to show people
what they can make out of the pork belly.

[gentle music playing]

B?nh m? is the most iconic
Vietnamese street food.

So I wanted to do
a really good vegan version of it.

I said, "Okay. I'm gonna sell b?nh m?
and bao buns,"

dishes expressing who I am
as a Vietnamese American woman.

I launched?preorders on a Wednesday,

and sold out in six hours.

It sold out so quickly,

I had to scramble
to source more ingredients.

The next day,
I put out a few more portions,

and then it sold out again.

I was thinking, "Wow! This is so amazing!"

And I wanted to create
an unapologetic love letter

to the?Vietnamese kid,

who had to throw away her lunch
because she was being made fun of.

So, in November, I opened?Mama D?t.

On opening day, there was a line
down the street and around the corner.

And it means so much
to see people embrace it

and embrace me, in such a way. [chuckles]


[Thuy] Come on in, everyone.

-[woman] I love your hair.
-[Thuy] Thank you so much. Hi!

In Portland, being yourself
is the most important thing.

["So so Freely" by Ages and Ages playing]

The Michelin Guide doesn't even come here.

It's really about people
who are living their individualism

through what they put on a plate.

[Nelson] I'm riding the food cart out
till the wheels fall off.

If you grind, you gonna win.

If you sleep, you gonna lose.

So Kee's Loaded Kitchen
is strictly for winners.

[Brooks] One thing is for certain.

Portland's street-food scene
is fired up again.

? Face me...??

People arrive at the airport,
get in an Uber and say,

"Take me to your food carts."

? I believe we've had enough...??

[Matt] Everyone in Portland knows that
the best food is coming out of food carts,

especially with barbecue.

I still don't think I've mastered
the art of barbecue.

I don't think anyone can.

You can always keep refining your skills,
and I just love the challenge of barbecue.

-? Face me??
-? When I see, see, see...??

[Mohr] The payout is a lot different
than working an hourly job,

you work a lot,
but it pays out in happiness.

I've never been so broke,
but never been so happy.

? Face me??

? When I call, call, call your namesake...??

[Thelin] Portland is, like,
the biggest version of the kids' table.

No one's looking over your shoulder
and telling you what to do,

and anything is game.

? In isolation??

? Than being lost...??

Mama D?t has really expressive, fun food.

It just makes you happy.

And that's just so damn Portland.

[Thuy] I don't think my customers realize

what it means to me
to see Mama D?t successful.

'Cause it's not just like,
"Here, I have a successful business."

It's what that business represents.

Being able to show my daughter
that she can be proud of who she is,

it makes me really happy.

? For the ones we told so often...??

It took 40 years and starting Mama D?t

for me to finally stand proudly
in who I am

as an American girl
who's also a Vietnamese woman.

? It'll always be around us??

? All around us
All around, all around us ?

[song abruptly ends]

[tattoo gun buzzing]

[Thuy] We all come from somewhere.

I really like it.

[Thuy] And we all just wanna belong.

[tattoo artist] I feel like
I've seen this flag before.

[Thuy] This is the South Vietnam flag.

It's like, my whole life,
I've tried to change who I was

to be more American

or to be more Vietnamese to fit in,

but all I had to do was just be me.

[inspiring music playing]

-I'm really happy with it. Thanks, Gabe.
-[Gabe] Thank you.

And now that I'm here,
and I've done Mama D?t,

I realize I was a normal American kid.

We all are.

[music fades out]

People might argue, but New York City
is the greatest city in the world.

[upbeat jazz music playing]

Street food really fuels this city.

You get amazing food.

Halal, pizza, hot dog.
New York is the mecca.

[music crescendos, ends]

[inspiring music playing]

[music fades out]

[upbeat music playing]

[music fades out]

-[children chuckle]
-[birds squawk]

[gentle music playing]

[music fades out]

Someone needs to stop Clearway Law.
Public shouldn't leave reviews for lawyers.