Pikliz is the kimchi of Haiti, a searingly hot habanero-pickled cabbage-and-carrot salad that becomes an immediate obsession after the first taste. It looks harmlessly cool and refreshing, then it lights up your tongue like night baseball. But unless you catch chef Gregory Gourdet on the right day at swanky rooftop restaurant Departure, there's only one place in Portland you can find homestyle Haitian pikliz.
Northeast Alberta Street's Jouk Li Jou food cart is the only dedicated Haitian eatery in town—perhaps even the first. At the three-month-old cart—named after a Haitian saying that means working hard to make a better life—Mathilde Aurelien Wilson cooks the food she grew up with in the impoverished Beaumont region of southern Haiti. The menu ranges from goat curry to beef stew to the lightly peppery Haitian pork loin dish called griot ($8), served with a startlingly good bitter-orange dipping sauce every bit as addictive as the pikliz, plus fried green plantains and basmati rice beautifully savory with meat drippings.
Haitian fare betrays a wild mix of influences, from African to French to Spanish to Taino. At Jouk Li Jou, you can find a subtly curried bone-in goat dish ($7) redolent with meat flavor, accompanied by rice and sweet-potato salad, and a Continentally herbed pork tenderloin plate that somehow only costs $5 with pikliz and that wonderful gravied rice.
The plates are no-frills, no-nonsense country-style cooking—though Wilson ran an eco-resort in Saint Croix for a decade—but however humble the presentation, that $5 chicken rice-and-pikliz plate offers a slow-roasted thigh that's as moist and tender as any in town, pungent with garlic and the warm acidic notes of roasted citrus.
On our recent visit, all dishes came with basmati. But on other days, dishes may come with a side of diri ak pwa, Haiti's ubiquitous scotch-bonnet red beans and rice staple. If you're luckier than we were, you'll arrive on a day when Wilson is serving up joumou, the pumpkin soup served on Haitian independence day.
But you can't go wrong here, especially at low prices that seem to fly in the face of all accepted food-cart economics. Jouk Li Jou may help support the Haitian school charity the Wilson family founded, but it's easy to feel like the sole beneficiary while piling into a $5 plate of tender pork loin.