Smash Hit Food Cart Erica’s Soul Food wants to open a full restaurant

Erica Montgomery, chef and owner of the food cart Erica’s Soul Food in northeast Portland, has a fantasy: In a crowded restaurant, Prince’s “International Lover” starts playing over the speakers. She walks out, dressed head to toe as a drag prince. She bursts into song, while her regulars and newcomers roll their eyes in laughter.

“I visualized this scene, where everyone is having a good time and people are like, ‘What’s wrong with her?'” she says.

Montgomery has wanted to open her own place since she started her food cart, originally displayed outside a convenience store on Southeast 82nd. It’s a common trajectory: Countless Portland food carts have turned into restaurants, from famous Portland chains like Lardo to 38 Pillars like Gracie’s Apizza. But what Montgomery envisions for her joint juke is more than a restaurant – instead, its plaza would serve as a larger community space, complete with live music, events and fundraisers.

“I really want this space to feel like an experiment,” she says. “I want you to feel like you’re in my grandparents’ lair. You are invited to the secret bar for the night.

Erica’s Juke Joint would be both a restaurant and a live music venue, regularly hosting events and pop-ups. A small stage in the corner would host people like her father, a touring musician who performs mostly on Carnival cruise ships. The kitchen was churning out her greatest hits, as well as fried chicken and experimental dishes she couldn’t try on the cart. She baked treats using family recipes — things like cinnamon rolls and yeast buns — to raise money for causes and organizations close to her heart. And she regularly hosted pop-ups for small businesses and other black leaders; one of the events she wants to organize first is a large-scale collaborative dinner with a number of Black Portland chefs. But more than that, Montgomery wants Erica’s Juke Joint to be a safe space, both in terms of customers, staff and the community as a whole.

“In Georgia we have these gas stations called QuikTrip; it’s a safe space,” she says. “It’s well known in the city that if you’re in danger, if you’re hungry, if you need help, you can go to a Quiktrip. I want this place to be like this, you can come here if you need help.

Opening her own home is more than just a personal growth step for Montgomery; she sees it as an act that specifically challenges gentrification and the displacement of black people in Portland. She is specifically looking for a space in the area where her cart is currently parked, the area in North and Northeast Portland once known as a predominantly black neighborhood. development projects such as Memorial Coliseum, I-5 Extension and Legacy Emanuel Hospital moved Black Portlanders in Albina neighborhoods throughout the 20th century, and organizations like Don’t Shoot Portland and Fair Giving Circle have actively prioritized the recovery and purchase of properties in these areas. Montgomery says she used community leaders like Teressa Raiford as a model.

“I would like my business to be in a predominantly black area and then buy as many properties as possible in those areas to fill them with more black-owned businesses, people in general,” she says. “I want to take up space in terms of holding a lot of real estate. My story and the things that I went through, it was super important for me to share parts of myself, to give people something to relate to. …I want to remind people, it’s possible.

Montgomery is currently fundraising to fund the Juke Joint, but hopes to open by winter. “Early next year, I want to be dressed as Prince hitting the floor,” she says. “I want to give us something to do when it’s all cold and raining. We are on a clock here.