Lil’ America, a new food cart mod anchored by restaurant owners BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ and supported by XLB owners is set to open this fall in Southeast Portland.
The new pod will hold the corner of the SE 10e and Stark, previously occupied by Mid City Smash Burger. It’s the first project for Win Win, a restaurant group led by XLB owners Jasper Shen and Linh Tran, with partner Catie Hannigan; the three say their primary goal is to amplify BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ voices in Portland’s food scene.
Beer lovers will get their first up-close look at Portland’s newcomer, Fracture. After racking up a long list of brewing accolades in Vietnam, Fracture owners Ny Lee and Darren Provenzano took over the former Burnside Brewery space earlier this year, in partnership with Culmination founder Tomas Sluiter. (Dimo’s Pizza is in the adjacent restaurant area.)
Fracture’s first taphouse will be at the center of Lil’ America, providing beer garden vibes and year-round indoor seating for cart lovers. And the people behind the bread to a shocking amount of your favorite sandwiches, Dos Hermanoswill have a new bakery on site.
ChefStable, the group of restaurants working with everyone from Lardo and Grassa to St. Jack to XLB themselves, has partnered with Win Win to grow Lil’ America.
Rising rents and the absence or overload of basic needs such as running water and storage have been a problem in other food cart pods around town. Lil’ America fans say they hope to break that cycle.
Win Win won’t provide the same services as a more traditional restaurant group, like ChefStable, which both copes with the money and handles the logistics like infrastructure, accounting and HR. Instead, they’ll consult aspiring restaurateurs on menu design, marketing, branding and legal details like how to get investors and how to negotiate a lease. In return, Win Win will typically receive a stake in partner restaurants, although given the catch-all nature of their vision, situations will vary.
The pod hopes to eventually house six to eight carts. Makulit, a Filipino concept by current XLB Sous Chef Mike Battista, will be the first. As Win Win’s partner, Makulít will serve as a test case for the group’s goal of putting talented cooks on the path to becoming chef-owners, which is “the only way to truly succeed in the industry,” says Tran.
After COVID quickly shut down XLB’s Slabtown expansion, Shen and Tran’s goals changed. They recently said OPB that instead of “opening a bunch of restaurants” they wanted to pass on the knowledge they had gained from decades in the restaurant industry and share their experience on the path to restaurant ownership as members BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities.
The food carts, long considered a stepping stone, and what Tran aptly calls an emblem of Portland’s foodie scene, were the perfect starting point. They estimate that start-up costs are about a quarter of that of a brick-and-mortar business, significantly lowering the economic barriers to ownership.
After licensing and clearance delays, Lil’ America is set to open in September. Fracture’s taphouse will open first, with carts arriving over the following months. The iconic Nina Chanel Abney mural (you may be familiar with his work on the walls of PAM, or a recent cover of the New Yorker) who lived behind Mid City Smash Burger remains in place. (MCSB, Tran says, will move a block away to make room for the new influx of BIPOC and LGBTQIA+-owned businesses.)
“We’re trying a lot of things and seeing what works with this new project,” Tran says, “but our main goal is to make more bodies visible in the world of food.”