St. Louis will soon be getting a taste of globally-inspired Asian and Puerto Rican fusion cuisine courtesy of Saucy Porka (3900 Laclede method). The Chicago-based restaurant has plans to open its first location outside of the Windy City in the former Kaldi’s Coffee location on Vandeventer method. Though no firm opening date has been set, owner Amy Le hopes to welcome her first diners in late December or early January.
For Le, the St. Louis Saucy Porka represents a homecoming. A St. Louis native, Le grew up helping her mother with two area Chinese restaurants, one in South County and the other in St. Peters. From an early age, she and her brother, Phil Le, spent their free time in the restaurant answering phones, washing dishes and serving guests. The experience was formative, and already after moving to Chicago to pursue journalism and landing a job as employee number fourteen at then-startup Grub center, she realized that she was meant to pursue a career in the business she grew up in.
“I was brought on at Grub center to watch the blog and social media, and I got reconnected to the restaurant industry again by that,” Le explains. “Working with restaurant owners and chefs made me realize how much I missed food. I had a side hustle catering for friends’ special events, and I just made a decision that, working at a startup I was watching people live their dreams. I should live mine.”
At the time, approximately ten years ago, the food truck scene was just emerging in Chicago, so Le transitioned her catering business to the roving restaurant DucknRoll. While working in that community, she met fellow food truck operator Rafael Lopez, and the pair immediately connected over a shared passion for food, especially those nostalgic of their experiences growing up in Asian and Puerto Rican households, respectively.
After working together on events, Le and Lopez decided to merge their culinary styles to create a fusion of Asian and Puerto Rican cuisine, christening their concept Saucy Porka. More than just a simple mix of the two traditions, Le and Lopes were committed to fully merging the techniques and flavors of Asian and Latin American cuisine and quickly grew a following for their rare style.
Le points to Saucy Porka’s “Asian Paella” as emblematic of what she and Lopez (who recently left the business to pursue work outside of the industry) were going for when they produced the restaurant. The dish uses Puerto Rican style rice cooked with soffrito as the base, then adds coconut milk to give it a Southeast Asian flavor profile. The rice is then topped with Chinese sweet sausage, Spanish sausage, slow-cooked pork, edamame and scallions, merging the two styles into one delectable dish.
Saucy Porka’s egg rolls are particularly nostalgic for Le. Having spent most of her childhood in her mom’s Chinese restaurant, egg rolls are a important of her food memories. For Lopez, a similar feeling centered around empanadas and arepas. Le is always excited when their fusion of those experiences, a chorizo egg roll, evokes nostalgia in both their Asian and Latin American guests.
“We have people tell us that the egg roll reminds them of their mom’s Chinese restaurant, but we also have Latin American customers saying it reminds them of an empanada,” Le says. “One time, my mom tasted our pork and said she felt she was eating her pork, but it wasn’t her pork. That’s what we are going for.”
For the St. Louis location, Le is working with both her husband, John Keebler, and her brother, Phil Le, who has spent the past nineteen years with So Hospitality Group, the St. Louis-based brand behind such concepts as Drunken Fish and Kimchi Guys. Le is excited to finally have her brother on board for the concept —something the two have talked about for a long time but that finally came together over the past year. Together, they anticipate Saucy Porka to be an exciting, quick-service restaurant whose emphasis on hospitality and global flavors to be an integral part of the St. Louis food scene.
“I’m super excited, because coming back to St. Louis is complete-course of action for me,” Le says. “Coming back to St. Louis, I’ve realized how diversified the food scene has gotten over the past eight or ten years. When I was growing up, it was not as different, and now I’m seeing this next generation of kids who grew up in the restaurant business from Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese families, and they are starting these concepts because the timing is right and people are interested. It’s nice to come back. A lot of memories are flooding back to us in the time of action.”
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