When they opened, Ethan and Geri Leung branded their new cart “Not your tita’s cooking.”
While the tagline has since disappeared from Baon Kainan’s Instagram, the food cart’s original ethos is true: The food may not be strictly Auntie authentic, but it certainly hits all the right comfort buttons.
The couple moved to Portland from Seattle to open their cart at the Fallout-like environs of Metalwood Salvage (think repurposed metal sculptures and seating with a steampunk aesthetic) on Northeast Prescott, next to Vietnamese soul-food sensation Matta.
As the Leungs told Portland Monthly, they met Matta’s owners Richard and Sophia Le through break-dancing communities, and after a series of pop-ups in Matta’s cart, they made the leap here. Ethan left behind a high-pressure position at Seattle hotel hot spot Ben Francis; Geri her job in marketing.
Their food is a companion to the work at Matta: an interpretation of a cultural cuisine through the lens of a first-generation American. The results are unique and addictive.
Baon Kainan’s biggest standout is also the best interpolation of the blend: kare kare fries. The classic braised beef peanut stew is thickened and poured over fries, aided by a dollop of shrimp paste and bright red pickled Fresno chiles. The result puts poutine to shame, but be sure to eat them as soon as they come out of the cart’s window—the fries hold up, but they’re best when eaten hyperfresh.
The menu rotates monthly, though the fries appear to be a mainstay. If you can roll through this month, the vegetarian and gluten-free Sisig Gulay is the other must-order. (Though frankly, if you nasty, just get one of everything and have a bit of leftovers.) Jackfruit and mushrooms are braised in tamari and citrusy calamansi, then served with chile mayo and a just-right soft-boiled egg that oozes its richness into the blend. The texture is hearty. And the sauce is a combination of umami and sour that pinged off the backside of my tongue in a tantalizing way that few dishes manage.
Chicken adobo, made with tamari and vinegar sauce was served with a (slightly too cold) steamed bok choi—the garlic rice, flecked with bits of fried garlic and extra flavor, is a worthy $2 upgrade.
Also on for September is a Filipino spaghetti, an occasional special that is likely unseen heretofore in Portland’s fledgling Filipino cuisine scene. A true blending of the food diaspora, the dish is made of spaghetti noodles topped with a tomato sauce made with sweet (but not too sweet) banana ketchup, with ground beef and hot dogs. It is a dish that smacks of childhood nostalgia: salty, a little sweet, and all sorts of comforting.
Finally, don’t skip the bibingka for dessert, a gluten-free friendly square of sweetened coconut rice cake baked in a banana leaf. A close cousin to Hawaii’s butter mochi, it’s chewy and moist, topped with a crumble of coconut shreds, butter, brown sugar and dehydrated pieces of the cake itself. It’s a dessert that would be at home on any fine dining menu for the low price of $3.
While there are a few stellar representations of Filipino cooking around town, Baon Kainan’s casual and boundary-expanding take on the classics fills a slot that’s gone unfilled in Portland (and likely the Pacific Northwest). Get there early and often to see where these two take the concept.
EAT: Baon Kainan, 4311 NE Prescott St., baonkainan.com. 5-8 pm Thursday-Monday.