"That was fucked-up good," a guest said to their server, on the first night of a month-long pop-up takeover by Astral PDX.
"I couldn't hear you, a little louder?" the server said, with a smile. He nodded towards the kitchen staff in the back.
"Fuckkked-up good!" the guest said, with emphasis.
At the time, we were barely biting into the first course of Astral PDX's five course prix fixe meal, but—awash in the umami chintextle of the menu's opening tostada—it seemed like a perfectly accurate statement.
The courses began with the tostada and closed with a dessert worthy of even more impassioned expletives: a custard-center fried doughnut, topped with coconut sorbet and garnished with rhubarb in its own sauce. Clocking in at $55 for five dishes, the takeover is one of the more affordable set menus we've seen within recent memory. It seems like they just want you to try their food.
Astral PDX is the project of chef John Boisse and pastry chef Lauren Breneman, and though it would seem that only one dish of the five was a pastry, Boisse was quick to point out to the Mercury that Breneman has been integral to getting flavors "to the right point," across the menu.
Boisse said he can't pinpoint what particular cuisine Astral PDX makes, but a lot of what he's doing right now is about exploring his Mexican cultural background, particularly after a conversation he had with República's chef, Lauro Romero, about Mexican cuisine in Portland and getting diners to take it more seriously.
"If I hear about how tacos need to be cheap again, I'll lose it," Boisse told the Mercury. "If I go to Birriria La Plaza, I'll tip a hundred percent because they aren't charging enough."
Boisse learned to make flour tortillas, spending Sundays at his grandmother's house in Dallas, Texas. "That red rice in the croqueta, in the second course, is something I learned to make from my family," he said.
The combination of food and family atmosphere are important to Boisse's work and something that united he and Breneman in Chicago, where they met after Breneman took a job as the pastry sous chef at a restaurant where Boisse was the morning sous chef.
Together, they've been hosting dinner parties and pop-ups since 2017. But this month-long Han Oak takeover is their longest project yet.
Boisse and Breneman have worked with Han Oak's Peter Cho and Sun Young Park on various projects over the years, ever since Breneman and Cho met in the kitchen of Beast. Cho was running his own pop-up with Johnny Leach, Stray Dogs. For a spell, Breneman ran the Han Oak grill. She and Boisse worked on Han Oak's pandemic brunch box together and then shifted into helping Toki's brunch program get on its feet in 2021.
"That's a long way of saying that we've just been friends for a long time, and he and Sun have been generous and open with us using the space," Boisse said. "Peter wants things to be about the long haul, the bigger picture. He's just always pushed us to do something more consistent."
Cho suggested Boisse and Breneman make their Astral PDX pop-up a longer takeover, which Boisse says he likes because it helps reduce food waste and gives them the ability to innovate "within the bones of the menu." Astral PDX plans to serve the same five courses all month, but may deviate, here and there, as inspiration strikes.
"Mexican food has such a massive range and regionality to it," Boisse said. "I don't want to be pinned down to one thing. Like the sauce on that tostada, the dried shrimp and smoked chiles chintextle. I wanted to try that and see what it could be. The reaction was like 'whoa, what is this?' And I'm like 'yeah, that's what Mexico has to offer. There's this whole world that we don't even know about.'"
Astral PDX pops-up Mondays and Tuesdays through April 12 at Han Oak, 511 NE 24th (it's in the back of the parking lot). Make a reservation here. Reservations for Han Oak's well-regarded Friday and Saturday hot pot nights are also available, through that same Resy link.