Amy Le's most foundational memories revolve around restaurants, a fact that should be no surprise considering her actual formative years revolved around restaurants. The daughter of a restaurant owner, Le found herself in the same situation as other kids with hospitality-centered lives: She and her older brother, Phil, would go to school, head straight to their mom's Chinese restaurant after dismissal, park themselves in a booth to do homework, have a snack and take a brief nap, then finish their night answering phones, packing to-go orders, doing dishes and helping out with any tasks their mother needed to keep the family business going.
It was tough work, but for the Le siblings, it was far from drudgery. The two loved the business (for the most part) and saw the restaurant as a magical land where they could concoct sweet treats in the kitchen when the chefs were out on break, make themselves fried rice in the wok and even try their hand at using the fryer. Le was so fascinated with the dish station that she insisted on using it before she was old enough to reach the handle. She had to stand on a stack of dish racks.
Saucy Porka (3900 Laclede Avenue, 314-818-2700), the restaurant that Le and her brother opened in Midtown this past January, is the natural outgrowth of those foundational experiences, though it took a while for them to get there. Though both Le and Phil now recognize that the industry was their destiny, they fought against it; Le went to journalism school and got a job in Chicago as one of Grubhub's first employees, while Phil established a successful career in banking and finance.
Phil was the first to crack, leaving behind his finance job 19 years ago to work with St. Louis restaurateur Munsok So's group, So Hospitality. Le took a little longer because she was scratching the itch by working in restaurants and helping to cater events for her friends even while working her writing-focused day jobs. But she decided to finally take the leap when she noticed the Chicago food-truck movement taking off around 2011, launching the truck Duck and Roll.
Duck and Roll gained a loyal following and allowed Le to make connections with fellow operators. One of them, Rafael Lopez, became a dear friend and collaborator, so when Le was approached about opening a brick-and-mortar spot, she wanted him to be part of the equation. The two had often talked about how their respective cuisines — hers Asian fusion and his Puerto Rican — have similar and complementary flavors, so they decided to turn that observation into its own concept, the Asian Caribbean–inspired Saucy Porka.
Saucy Porka launched in Chicago in 2013 to immediate success, which Le and Lopez parlayed into a second Chicago location and an appearance on Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. When they opened their second spot, Lopez (with whom Le remains great friends) decided to pursue a career outside of the industry, leaving Le to think through her vision for Saucy Porka. She kept coming back to a St. Louis location, seeing it as a way of coming full circle in her restaurant career. Enlisting a very encouraging Phil to help her make this plan a reality, she spent three years looking for the perfect place. Once they found the former Kaldi's Midtown location on Vandeventer — complete with the exact same tile Le had in one of her Chicago restaurants — they knew they had their spot.
This subtlety abounds at Saucy Porka. Bacos, a portmanteau for bao tacos, make so much sense you wonder why they aren't yet ubiquitous. The fluffy, springy bao cradles a variety of proteins, like guajillo-braised pork that is so tender you could spread it on a biscuit, then topped with juicy pineapple for a burst of sweetness. Grilled shrimp is an equally excellent filling; the shellfish is pleasantly snappy and pairs well with the accompanying corn salsa and aioli.
Saucy Porka offers a variety of banh mi that use flaky Vietnamese bread as a canvas for a variety of dazzling ingredients. The Five Spice Duck version is a nod to Le's first venture, Duck and Roll, and features succulent duck confit that is dressed in tangy plum aioli and crispy Asian slaw. The Panang Curry Chicken Banh Mi, is stuffed with decadent chili and coconut-milk-dressed chicken that soaks into the bread like a Thai version of a chicken cheesesteak (the same chicken makes an excellent salad when served over bean sprouts, lettuce and fresh herbs).
The Ropa Vieja bowl — a play on a quintessential Caribbean dish — pairs pull-apart chili-citrus braised brisket with kimchi over jasmine rice. Here, you understand Le and Lopez's light bulb moment when you experience how beautifully the piquant funk of the fermented Korean cabbage complements the chilis and citrus on the beef. The equally stunning Puerto Rican rice bowl with guajillo braised pork is another must-try main course; the meat is so succulent it's like a Latin American pot roast.
Mexican Pho is another no-brainer fusion dish. Instead of the usual Vietnamese proteins (brisket, meatballs, tendon), Saucy Porka fills the soup with luscious pork carnitas; the meat both flavors the deeply savory broth and soaks in all of the flavor from the liquid's herbs and spices like a sponge.
Le admits it's a lot running three restaurants in two different cities, though she credits her brother with lightening the load. In fact, Saucy Porka has become quite the family affair; even her mother, who retired from her own restaurant career, can't stay away from the kitchen, insisting on coming in once a week to help roll egg rolls — once a Le's soul catches the restaurant-business spirit, there's no staying away.
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