The city of Portland, Oregon is home to the Sellwood neighborhood, an historic district on the south edge of the city near the campus for Reed College. That's where you'll find Either / Or, one of Portland's best coffee bars in a city jammed full of them, serving exemplary local roasters like Heart Coffee and Roseline Coffee. Either / Or owner Ro Tam is also the brains and brawn behind Tanglewood Chai, a “splendid elixir made from ancient spices” that has become the Chai of Choice at discerning Portland-area cafes.
But with her cafe cemented as a local institution and visitor destination, and her chai empire growing, what may have gone unnoticed is that the diligent Tam has been quietly working on yet another side project—this time a food concept, just steps away from Either/OR.
TAM Wonton Noodle Shop—a traditional Chinese wonton soup restaurant—celebrated its Grand Opening at the start of the Lunar New Year, February 8. Ro Tam already had kitchen space in the unit across-the-courtyard from Either/OR, where she produces and bottles Tanglewood Chai, and a quirk in municipal planning led her down the path to soup. “Our lease required us to offer food items,” said Tam. “Initially we planned to expand our cafe menu to offer sandwiches, but I realized I’m much better at making Chinese food, so it was more natural to do that.”
The idea for TAM was formed in November 2015, and took just 3 months to build. The kitchen is still used for Tanglewood production, and the front-of-house seats just 8—it’s cozy. It feels like a secret. “I love tiny spaces,” Tam laughed. “It has the same number of seats as the cafe, which is nice because everyone interacts with each other to create a fun community.” And the community she has already built through Either/OR showed up at her grand opening: TAM served almost 200 bowls of soup in 4 hours.
The menu at TAM is simple, with just four soup options, including a traditional Hong Kong style shrimp & pork belly, and a vegetarian / vegan option that breaks with convention. “That recipe is our own,” Tam tells me. “Most vegetarian wontons I’ve had are pretty bland. I wanted mine to be tasty, so my dad and I had a ‘Wonton-Off’ going back and forth trading recipes. We experimented for a month before landing on a recipe that includes black bean sauce, garlic, sweet dried radish, and carrots.”
Baristas a few steps away at Either/OR staff had a front row seat the TAM concept developed. “The baristas were our guinea pigs for the entire menu. I trust their palate and judgment so much. It had to pass the test with them.” The space's interior design is similarly intentional, modeled off the Wong Kar-wai film In The Mood For Love. TAM is trimmed with vintage gold-toned 60’s Mid-Century wall-hangings and fiberglass lampshades, against an orchid colored optical wall pattern modeled after wallpaper shown in the film. Family photos have a pride of place, covering much of the shop's north wall.
“We grew up in my parent’s restaurant,” Tam tells me, “and my whole family worked in the service industry as bartenders, chefs, and so on.” And now with TAM—alongside Either / Or and Tanglewood Chai—a family tradition grows new leaves here in Portland.