Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite places in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant ethos, sharing fun personal takes and fostering a community spirit. Do you know a chef you would like to see featured? Let us know through our tip line.
Jimmy Le’s parents have owned Phở Lê in Vancouver for 30 years. In August, he opened his own Vietnamese restaurant called Thơm (meaning “it smells good”) in Alberta. A comfortable space with ten seats, four menu items and no substitutions, the space crystallizes all the lessons it learned from its family: keep it small, keep it simple and keep your integrity intact.
“You go out to these restaurants with giant menus and get overwhelmed,” Le says. “This menu is made up of the four dishes my parents have always killed him with since I was a kid. These are the staple products of many customers. So I just thought, you know, why don’t you focus on that?
Le’s perspective as a restaurateur is informed not only by his parents’ experience, but also by what he’s witnessed at other restaurants in Portland: boundary setting, a relatively new phenomenon in the restaurant world.
“My parents belong to the generation where the customer is always right,” he says. “Damn, I hated that. These are immigrants who came here and all I saw was that they were being exploited and saying “yes” all the time… Seeing my parents working so hard and being walked on above was really frustrating. I started eating out a lot at restaurants around Portland and just saw how you could say “no”. It was kind of refreshing in a way. So there, it’s like: that’s it. Take it or leave it. No submarines.
In this month’s Dining Confidential, Le not only shares his must-visit spots, delivery expectations and Alberta favorites — he shares a bit of his philosophy, as a restaurant owner, a Portlander and his parents’ son. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eater: What is one of those places where you’ve seen people say “no” that inspired you?
Jimmy Le: Khao Man Gai from Nong. I remember my brother taking me there when the chicken and rice was about seven dollars. Just a few items, that’s all you need. Watching her grow up with such a limited menu was really cool. I always get the dark meat and a side of crispy chicken skins.
How much you’re [at Thơm] during the day?
Right now, every day. I do the preparation and everything myself. Phở is usually my breakfast. I just started getting help from my mother.
Portland is a really tough city to eat after work. Do you have spots that you like?
Now? I don’t know, with COVID? It sucks, man! What is it ? Fast food? That’s another thing I want to do here, it’s late at night.
You will have a huge audience that will be tired of going to Popeye at midnight.
I’m not rushing, but that’s the end goal. I could pick up a good Seattle dog at Donnie Vegas down the street.
Do you hang out with any of your other neighbors in Alberta?
Gumba, for unexpected pasta. Alberta Market, their chicken wings. The Filipino food truck here on Prescott, Baon Kainan, they have really good adobo chicken. Editor’s note: Baon Kainan has moved to 807 NE Couch Street.
How about a place where you would like to take a date?
Next door Urdaneta, probably the best tapas in Portland. The atmosphere, the food is good, the people nice. Javier (Cantreras), the owner, is a great guy. Brasa Haya is a good, like a nice cozy little house, I remember taking a girl there. When I go out to eat, my favorite cuisine would be tapas. Bar Casa Vale is a good one. You just have variety and you can try everything and it’s not like twenty bucks a dish.
Do you have a place you like to go with a group of friends?
I like the Rontoms… Usually with my friends, I would be the person to approach to go eat, we did tasting menus every weekend. Now…I don’t know.
Now, there are people who were the “you” in their friend group who will be reading this and looking to you for recommendations.
I had a phase where I went to Kachka every week. Their Siberian pelmenis (beef, pork, veal and onion dumplings) and their horseradish vodka, I would drink that like water.
I just made their frozen dumplings! You can get them everywhere now.
Canard is a good place, the steam burgers are always a hit. I have to pick them up when I go there. I was just on Someday eating oysters. Oysters are big for me, and mussels at La Moule and St. Jack.
Charcuterie boards are great for me when I go out too. I love cheese and crack, it’s fun. Another place on this street is Stammtisch; I can go get a good sausage once in a while. A bar I like there is Angel Face – the food is more than your average bar food.
Oh, Chicken and Guns. I get extra green sauce. Like, seven more.
That’s life. It’s so perfect.
Since COVID, I’ve been ordering so much fucking food.
What are your delivery essentials?
(Jimmy immediately pulls out his phone)
Yeah, go back in history!
The salmon nigiri is my favorite sushi order. Sushi Chiyo, conveyor belt, affordable. Momoyama in the Pearl. I thought fish and rice was a really good counter service point on 23 NW.
Phở Mekha on Sandy, a Vietnamese spot, they have a good hủ tiếu, a pork noodle soup.
You’re, like, a big soup guy.
Yes. Yes. Mainly Asian soups. Fork and Spoon on Sandy, they have a very good sinigang, it’s Filipino sour soup.
Could you reserve maybe a spot or two in Vancouver for people who live there?
My parents’ place.
That’s the most important, right?
Thơm is open for dine-in and take-out at 3039 NE Alberta Street.