Aaron Lee

ON FEBRUARY 8, Jook Joint excitedly tweeted a picture of its first customer—a smiling twentysomething woman—through the window of its brand-spanking-new cart. Later that day, she left a glowing five-star review on Jook Joint's Facebook page, extolling the virtues of the crispy pork belly bao and coconut-corn fritters she ate for lunch.

And so it goes. By March 17, the line for Jook Joint's wildly inventive lunch creations was easily 15 deep, with a 30-minute wait. Ready or not, the early breakout food cart star of 2016 has already hit the big time.

The term "Asian fusion" can induce culinary shudders, but chef Ryan Ostler is pounding out complex, nourishing meals that blend Southeast Asia's umami and spark with the soul and smoke of the American South.

Take that first order, for example: There are two hemispheres' worth of flavor in the pillowy steamed bao ($8), which are stuffed like a taco with miso aioli, cilantro, kimchi, and smoked Lan-Roc pork belly. Be prepared to get that aioli on your sweater if you're not careful. Hand-puffed chicharrones rest atop each bao like the cherry on a sundae.

The coconut-corn fritters ($4)—like most of the menu, a mashup of Ostler's Austin, Texas, background and his travels through Southeast Asia and China—are four generously sized and piping hot cornmeal balls, coated in sweet Thai chile sauce with a soft interior of corn, scallions, and coconut. Another side, the deep-fried crispy Brussels sprouts ($4), is a show-stopping take-out carton of brassica nuggets jazzed up with a pineapple reduction and chilies. Although consistency is a bit of a problem—on one visit, they were too sweet and begged for acidity—I gobbled down the entire helping nonetheless.

  • Aaron Lee

In fact, the only issue so far with Jook Joint is consistency: Some days the belly is a little fattier than others, and I never dipped my spoon into the same bowl of jook twice. But I'll be damned if that jook (AKA congee in China or rice porridge to the uninitiated) isn't the most insidiously addictive gruel. House-made chicken stock is blended with ginger and lemongrass, topped with cilantro, a perfect soft-boiled egg, and a smattering of crispy wontons. Then choose from crispy pork belly, smoked Draper Valley chicken, smoked tofu, or a 12-hour smoked brisket. Our vote's for the brisket, served in long, pepper-flecked strips that take the whole jook experience to 11.

The menu also features a decent banh mi ($8.50), served on An Xuyen bread and topped with the usual assortment of pickled veggies and a sambal aioli. There have also been specials like a Northern Thai sausage papaya dog with a green papaya mango slaw, although Ostler says that with the recent crowds, he's focusing on the main dishes.

Ostler, who worked at a Michelin-starred restaurant and in barbecue in San Francisco before coming to Portland in 2014, told Portland Monthly that he makes everything by hand. That includes the innocuous-looking container of garlic chile paste at the counter, right next to the figurines of topless pigs with breasts. Put several heaping spoonfuls of this not-too-spicy but insanely flavorful condiment on any of the entrées. It will also end up on your sweater if you're not careful.

It isn't hard to see Jook Joint posting up in a real restaurant super soon, but as Ostler said when he was scrambling to assemble orders, things like a phone have to come first. That's Jook Joint 2.0, he said, laughing. Here's to this joint jumping off in 2016.

  • Aaron Lee

Jook Joint
530 SW 10th
twitter.com/jookjointpdx
Open Mon-Fri 11 am-5 pm