Take a walk down Mississippi Avenue one warm afternoon, and these can almost be mistaken for normal times. Here in 2020, a sunny day can be deceptive. The neighborhood is out and about. People are drinking on patios, waiting for takeout on the sidewalk, or circling the block looking for parking.
But look again, and you'll notice the entire block has transitioned into a street scene—an elaborate patchwork of parklets and sidewalk seating mushroomed up seemingly overnight. Creeping fascistic dread and pandemic realities aside, it's almost kind of lovely. We should all be sitting outside on nice days like today. What's not to like?
In the middle of it all is Sunshine Noodles, an avowedly irreverent, none too serious take on contemporary Cambodian food by chef and founder Diane Lam. Here, she's transposing street food favorites and the cuisine of her grandparents—Khmer street corn, fragrant with fish sauce and coconut; daily charred fresh farm greens in subtly spicy oil; and corn pudding balanced just so delicately between sweet and savory—into a new outdoor and takeout concept that immediately feels like part of the neighborhood.
"Cambodian food doesn't really have the spotlight," Lam says, "and so it's nice to represent a style of food that isn't always appreciated in the current day."
A native of Alhambra, Calif., Lam has cooked for State Bird Provisions in San Francisco and Joule in Seattle, both of which have received multiple notices from the James Beard Foundation. In Portland, she was the chef de cuisine at the recently shuttered Revelry, which was Joule founder Rachel Yang's first foray into the city's dining scene.
Housed on the grounds of supernatural-themed Psychic Bar, Sunshine Noodles is Lam's next step—though it may be only temporary. She and her team, including co-founder David Sigal, are currently working on terms through January 2021. After that, who knows?
"We're taking it a month at a time and embracing what it is now," Lam says. "Right now, it's an incubator for a lot of talent—the people who work here are my peers. It feels like a summer camp. Everyone is putting in their energy and time, which is a nice break from everything else we're all going through. It's a nice little echo chamber of good stuff."
And good food. Order the corn pudding: Lam and pastry chef Ally Fortin have made perhaps the best new dessert in Portland this year. Also, get one of the noodle dishes, and the corn if it's available.
But the lime pepper wings at Sunshine Noodle are poised to become the breakout hit. Lam's are inspired by a dish she grew up eating with her grandmother. "She would serve these barely dredged wings, tossed in flour, with a dipping sauce," Lam says. "But nobody wants a communal dipping sauce right now."
In Lam's modern interpretation, these spicy, wonderfully complex wings come perfectly ready to eat, and want for nothing except a beer—and perhaps a napkin. I've got designs on ordering, let's say, two rounds some future sunny Saturday, posting myself streetside, and daydreaming of better days.
SUNSHINE NOODLE’S LIME PEPPER WINGS
Lam and company start with Mary's Chicken wings. "If the item is meat-forward, it has to start with good product," Lam says. These wings aren't huge, nor are they scrawny, with just the right amount of heft and juiciness.
Sunshine does a two-step prep before the wings are cooked. First, "a quick-dry brine," as Lam calls it, using buttermilk powder, garlic powder, sugar, salt and Old Bay seasoning, left to cure for about an hour. Then a wet marinade overnight in buttermilk, fish sauce, and oyster sauce.
Each wing is bathed in a gluten-free dredge made from ground coconut, turmeric, rice flour and tapioca flour before frying. When she pulls the chicken, a bit of excess oil from the fryer is grabbed on purpose, and the chicken and oil are quickly tossed with the juice of makrut limes.
Lam's wing sauce, pre-tossed for your enjoyment, is impressively complex. She uses a blend of Kampot pepper, long pepper, pink peppercorns, and Tellicherry peppers alongside sugar and salt to make a warm, piquant paste. Lam describes it as "a salt-and-pepper mud," and when combined with the fresh, hot chicken and lime juice, the end result is wonderfully complex and textural, with no two bites the same: intricately peppery, slightly bitter, slightly sweet, warm, pink, green and fresh, with spices and citrus in every bite.
EAT: Sunshine Noodles, 3560 N Mississippi Ave., 971-220-1997, sunshinenoodles.com. 11 am-3 pm Thursday-Saturday.