Three women to watch in Portland’s Southern food scene

Satisfy those comfort food cravings at these women-led restaurants and food carts.

_74A9496-cropTapalaya chef-owner Anh Luu playfully combines Vietnamese and Cajun flavors.
Photo by Ashley Anderson.

When it comes to Southern cuisine in Portland, there are more options than you could ever fit into a weekend of restaurant hopping, from stalwarts like Po’Shines Café to newer favorites like acclaimed chef Maya Lovelace’s eateries Mae and Yonder? How, then, to choose? One way is by supporting businesses owned by women of color. Kee’s Loaded Kitchen, Tapalaya and Wing’s World Chicken and Waffles offer authentic comfort food and inventive fusion dishes to kick any soul food craving.

Anh Luu of Tapalaya

The head chef and owner of Cajun & Vietnamese fusion spot Tapalaya, Anh Luu hails from New Orleans, and started working in the restaurant business when she was just 15 years old. After losing everything during Hurricane Katrina, Luu’s family relocated to Portland, where she went to culinary school. She worked at Mother’s Bistro, Tapalaya and Tanuki before returning to Tapalaya as a part-time line cook, working five to six days per week while in school. After working her way up to head chef, she bought Tapalaya from previous owner Chantal Angot, becoming both head chef and executive owner.

At Tapalaya, Luu joyfully combines traditional Vietnamese dishes with Cajun flavors (and vice versa), all while using local ingredients. Take, for instance, the coconut pork rice bowl, a home-style Vietnamese dish that Luu infuses with Southern flavor by using Coca Cola and coconut milk instead of sugar and coconut water.

Taco Tuesday ingredients and combinations change weekly, allowing for fun and creativity in the kitchen; tacos might be served with truffled avocado crema one week, kimchi barbecue sauce the next. There’s plenty of traditional Southern fare as well, including buttermilk fried chicken, creamy grits and andouille hushpuppies.

“Cooking should be a very thoughtful practice, and should really get to the root of someone’s identity,” says Luu. “You can’t teach someone how to cook a certain dish from your childhood — and believe me, I’ve tried! I can’t tell them why something tastes off if it’s a dish my mother made.”

In addition to her mother, Luu has been mentored by a long line of talented female chefs, including Portland’s Lisa Schroeder (of Mother’s Bistro) and Janis Martin (of Tanuki). “All of the restaurants I’ve worked at here have been owned by incredible women, which has helped me set the tone now for how I operate my own restaurant,” says Luu. “Of course, there have been times when I had to prove myself to older male employees and even customers when they questioned my experience because I’m a woman and also young. Customers are often still surprised that I am the chef here.”

Kiauna “Kee” Nelson founded the Kee’s Loaded Kitchen food cart in 2016. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Kiauna Nelson of Kee’s Loaded Kitchen

Kiauna Nelson (aka Kee) is the owner and head chef at Kee’s Loaded Kitchen, a Northeast Portland food cart known for plates piled high with comfort food favorites. Born and raised in Portland, Nelson founded Kee’s as a catering company. In 2016, she expanded to include a bright red food cart on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Rather than offer a fixed menu, Nelson serves whatever she wants to make on that particular day. Plates are piled high with specialties like loaded mac and cheese, biscuits and gravy, spaghetti and fried chicken, plus a toothsome dessert like cinnamon butter pound cake or banana pudding cake. Kee’s is open Thursday–Sundays, from noon until she sells out (which is always quickly!).

Nelson takes pride in her identity as a completely self-taught chef, and hopes to encourage other Black women to follow in her footsteps. “I would love to see more diversity in Portland,” says Nelson. “It’s important to support local, Black-owned businesses, especially ones that are owned by women. The authenticity of the food people prepare is crucial to the customer experience.”

Nelson’s 18-hour work days are rewarded by booming business, rave reviews and even gifts from her customers — not to mention a devoted online following. (She has over 27,000 followers on Instagram.) Nelson is also strongly involved in the community, partnering with and catering events for Black Parent Initiative and Two Stroke Coffee Shop.

“I’m getting more and more involved in the community as the business grows,” says Nelson. “I want to keep speaking to young single mothers and young people, and encourage and inspire them to go after their dreams.”

Kee’s Loaded Kitchen offers Southern-inspired specialties served with plenty of toothsome sides. Photo by Ashley Anderson.

Stephanie Hudson of Wing’s World Chicken and Waffles

Stephanie Hudson grew up in Portland, but learned to cook from her family in Mississippi. Upon returning to Oregon, Hudson hunted for the best chicken and waffles in town, but found herself disappointed with her options, which were more gourmet and lavish than what she grew up eating. So, Hudson took matters into her own hands.

These days, Hudson owns and runs Wing’s World Chicken and Waffles along with her business partner and ex-husband, Anthony Muhammad. She says her roots and family traditions play a huge role in her business. “When you grow up watching and making certain dishes, it becomes a part of you that has taken years and years to perfect,” she explains. “I know what tastes good to me because I was raised on it; it knows me and I know it.”

It didn’t take Hudson long after opening Wing’s World to grow a loyal following in the neighborhood. “I’m inspired by the kids who walk, run or take the bus all the way out to get my food — even risking being late to class,” she says. “I have kids calling me from class, putting their orders in from Jefferson High School so they can run over and pick it up when they have lunch break. I love being incorporated into their days, and having people say, ‘You have the best chicken and waffles!’ or the best fish, okra, etc. People make a point to support Black-owned businesses, and that’s what keeps the community thriving.”

When visiting Wing’s World, try the $6 special: crispy, buttery, savory-sweet chicken and waffles, plus a drink. And if you have room, get the decadent peach cobbler or pound cake for dessert.

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