I want to start by saying that both Matta, the Vietnamese soul food cart on NE Alberta, and Jojo, the eponymous purveyor of epic fried chicken and jojos, are two of Portland’s best food carts.
Owners Richard Le (Matta) and Justin Hintze (JoJo), swept onto the scene with a burst of fresh energy and great food that make them part of the next generation poised to take over Portland dining. So when the two announced that they’d be taking over the menu at the SE Grand bar Lulu, I figured this would catapult the space into an instant classic.
Three months in, that’s not quite happened. Chơi Luôn, which loosely translates to “I’m Down” in Vietnamese, is lacking a true melding of the juicy chicken ways of JoJo and the deep flavors from Matta.
Where they’ve dialed it in, it’s a treat. The jojos ($5 small/$7 large) at Chơi Luôn take the breading and frying technique Hintze mastered at his cart and hit those potatoes with just the right level of Vietnamese spices. Dip them in nớc chm (fish sauce) aioli, and you’ve got a hit. Similarly, those same jojos loaded up with Le’s bò kho ($12)—marinated beef brisket with a nice round kick of spice on the back end, with pickled cucumbers and cilantro—create a perfect fusion.
But then, somehow, there’s not much magic in the mains: bánh mì and fried chicken. The fried chicken is juicy, whether served in a sandwich ($12) with that fish sauce aioli and all the fixings, or on its own ($9). But in a town of fantastic fried chicken and ample bánh mì, it’s missing some chemistry that you know Hitntze and Le have. More acid on the bánh mì would help, and maybe a more succulent and savory breading for the chicken (making it “Saigon hot” for an extra $1 adds a bit). The fried Brussels sprouts ($5 small/$7 large) were too greasy both times I tried them.
But there are also signs that the two are gearing up to really get there with the menu. They’re both back from a joint trip to Vietnam, and just added a fried chicken sandwich that blends the alchemy of Jojo and Matta far better than the bánh mì: It’s topped with a Vietnamese potato salad made with Duke’s mayonnaise and coconut curry. As of March 1, they joined the owner of North Portland’s fantastic JinJu Patisserie to host a Sundays-only $35 brunch called 86 Pho, with a greater melding of flavors like a jojo hash with egg and fish sauce (!!) gravy. (The next one is March 29.) No matter what, I recommend keeping up with developments by following both Chơi Luôn and JoJo on Instagram, where Hintze writes some of the most absurdist and hilarious posts, guaranteed to confuse most over the age of 50 and delight the rest of us.