Saucy Porka Brings a Fusion of Asian and Latin Flavors to Midtown


click to enlarge Amy and Phil Le celebrate a homecoming with their Midtown location of Saucy Porka. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Amy and Phil Le celebrate a homecoming with their Midtown location of Saucy Porka.

Amy Le has achieved great success and received national acclaim for her Chicago-based fast-casual brand, Saucy Porka (3900 Laclede Avenue, 314-818-2700), but when it came time to open a location in her hometown, there was one important person who insisted on putting her stamp on the place: Le's mom.

"My mom is the matriarch of the family; she's retired, but she never stops moving," Le says. "When we first opened, she was helping us roll egg rolls. She's 72 and I could see that she was getting tired, so I said, 'Mom, sit down and relax,' but she told us no, that this is what she wanted to do. So we pulled up a chair and let her roll egg rolls sitting down."

Though Le opened the first two locations of Saucy Porka in her current hometown of Chicago, this third location, in Midtown St. Louis, represents a homecoming for the chef and restaurateur. A St. Louis native, Le, together with her brother and business partner Phil, grew up in their mom's two area Chinese restaurants, helping out with everything from answering phones to washing dishes. The experience was formative for Le and instilled in her a love for hospitality. Even after moving to Chicago to pursue journalism, and landing a job as one of Grub Hub's first employees, she still felt the pull of the restaurant industry and eventually left to pursue those dreams.

click to enlarge The ropa vieja bowl blends Puerto Rican and Korean flavors. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
The ropa vieja bowl blends Puerto Rican and Korean flavors.

Le began her culinary career in catering, then eventually transitioned that business to the food truck, DuckNRoll. There, she met her eventual business partner, Rafael Lopez, and their friendship inspired them to work together on a restaurant concept that would reflect their respective Asian and Latin American-Caribbean heritages. That concept, Saucy Porka, first launched in Chicago in 2013.

Le and Lopez (who has left the restaurant business to pursue another career path) received immediate acclaim for their unique blend of Asian-Latin American-Caribbean flavors. The success led them to open a second location five years later, and ultimately a feature on the Food Network show "Diners Drive-Ins and Dives." Last year, Le decided to parlay that success into her first location outside of Chicago, and there was no place that made more sense to do so than in her hometown.

"What we've noticed about St. Louis over the past few years is that there are a lot of different ethnic cuisine restaurants being opened," Le says. "People are open-minded about being introduced to new cuisines. When I was growing up, if you brought kimchi to school for lunch you'd be shamed for it, but now, everyone knows what kimchi is. That's made people so welcoming and receptive to the concept."

Saucy Porka's St. Louis location takes up residence in the former Kaldi's Coffee Midtown storefront. While the building's historic elements that were celebrated by its predecessor remain, the Le siblings have transformed the space into a colorful oasis meant to evoke midcentury Havana. Salmon pink-colored walls, blue and white water-inspired wallpaper, stunning ceramic tiles and a wall of greenery and tropical flowers create a warm, tropical atmosphere.

click to enlarge Guests order at the counter and can then choose either takeout or relax in the comfortable dining room. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Guests order at the counter and can then choose either takeout or relax in the comfortable dining room.

That vibrance extends to the food. Saucy Porka's Asian and Latin American fusion menu features a variety of dishes that reflect both regions' vast culinary traditions, including a ropa vieja rice bowl, which features chili-citrus braised brisket, jasmine coconut rice and kimchi. The restaurant also serves a variety of "bacos," or ba0-inspired tacos, which pair fillings like guajillo shrimp, brisket or Panang curry chicken with fluffy steamed buns. "Funky Monkey" fries, a house specialty, feature crinkle-cut fries seasoned with a housemade spice blend called "monkey spice," then topped with picadillo ground beef, chihuahua cheese, jalapeño aioli and scallions.

Le has been heartened by the response Saucy Porka has received from the hometown crowd since opening on January 24, and she is excited to be a part of the bustling and growing Midtown area. She's been happy to see the neighborhood embrace the restaurant; students and workers from nearby St. Louis University and Cortex have been generous with their business, though she's been surprised that she regularly serves guests from all over the area. Knowing that people are coming out from Creve Coeur to North County to support her family's efforts has touched her more than she can express.

"This is incredibly sentimental and emotional," Le says. "On one wall, I have photos of my brother and I growing up and of my family's restaurant. This is a homecoming for me, but it's also the fulfillment of my mom's dreams. She's seeing the dream she began continue on through my brother and me, not as the Chinese restaurant she started but as an extension of it. Watching her take this all in and see her dream continue is very heartwarming."

Saucy Porka is open every day from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m. Scroll down for more photos of Saucy Porka.

click to enlarge A vintage gramophone is a nod to the buildings historic feel. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
A vintage gramophone is a nod to the buildings historic feel.

click to enlarge The order counter. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
The order counter.
click to enlarge A wall of flowers adds a vibrant touch. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
A wall of flowers adds a vibrant touch.

click to enlarge A selection of "bacos," or bao inspired tacos. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
A selection of "bacos," or bao inspired tacos.
click to enlarge Tostones are topped with pineapple salsa and served with curry aioli. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Tostones are topped with pineapple salsa and served with curry aioli.

click to enlarge "Monkey Fries" are Saucy Porka's version of poutine. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
"Monkey Fries" are Saucy Porka's version of poutine.
click to enlarge Nutella-filled doughnuts have been a crowd pleaser. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Nutella-filled doughnuts have been a crowd pleaser.
click to enlarge Amy and Phil Le are excited to be working together, just like they did as kids at their family's restaurants. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Amy and Phil Le are excited to be working together, just like they did as kids at their family's restaurants.
click to enlarge Saucy Porka's dining room has an Old Havana vibe. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Saucy Porka's dining room has an Old Havana vibe.
click to enlarge Ample seating is available for those who choose to dine in. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Ample seating is available for those who choose to dine in.
click to enlarge Saucy Porka is now open in Midtown. - Vu Phong
Vu Phong
Saucy Porka is now open in Midtown.


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About The Author

Cheryl Baehr

Cheryl Baehr is the dining editor and restaurant critic for the Riverfront Times and an international woman of mystery. Follow her on the socials at @cherylabaehr
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