It’s a rainy Thursday shortly before noon, and the food cart pod on SE Tacoma Street in Sellwood is empty— with the exception of a line six people deep at Papa Lee’s Kitchen. Dreary wet weather does not deter Lee’s fans; every single one of them tell me that this cart serves, hands down, the best food in Portland.
“When I find a food cart I like, I try to eat a lot of different options on their menu,” said Rick Canfield of Portland, a regular at Papa’s. “Here, I’ve been stuck on the same menu item since I’ve been coming. It’s so good I haven’t needed to try anything else.” His plate is laden with an enormous steak burrito bowl, exploding with vegetables and meat marinated in one of Papa Lee’s proprietary sauces. “You always have to wait here because they make every single menu item fresh,” Canfield continues, “but the food is so good, you don’t even mind.”
Lee “Papa” Warren is the gregarious and big-hearted owner of Lee’s Kitchen. Food has always played a significant role in Lee’s life. Growing up with a Spanish mother and German father who were both passionate about food, he saw early-on how love was expressed through the preparation of a meal. Cooking in the Warren home was a collaborative effort, and Lee learned early-on the difference between a tasty sauce and flavor that takes a meal to a different level altogether.
Warren’s first job at age 17 was working at the famed Original Taco House as a busboy and prepper, but he knew almost at once that he would have a future in food. Those plans were put on hold while he served in the military as an Army Ranger for twelve years before he finally had the chance to put his dream into action. He attended the New York campus of the Culinary Institute of America after finishing his time in the military. After graduating, Warren moved back to Portland, where he worked in a number of the best restaurants in town, including Via Delizia and Gilda’s.
It was the birth of his daughter, now 21 months old, that inspired Lee to open his own operation. “I do what I do because of my daughter. I want to make something wonderful for her, and to show her how to share her own gifts when it’s time for that.”
Warren combined the food traditions of his dual heritage to create his own spin on German, Mexican and Spanish food. His menu is divided into “Bad Ass Dawgs” and “South of the Border” options, but there is plenty of crossover. Take, for example, his “Jalapeño Cheddar Bratwurst,” A house made brat covered with Spicy Pesto Chicken Fettuccini, or his mushroom tacos, a vegan option of sautéed mushrooms and caramelized onions in a house made red mole sauce covered with pico de gallo and avocado.
Lee is serious about providing top quality food from the freshest and best ingredients. He cares deeply about the food he serves, and the experience people have when they eat it. “I don’t want to stress about what I could have done better. Each customer, each dish is important. I won’t fake it to make it—I don’t believe in that.”
His dedication to his craft and customers shines through. Chris Glenn, another Papa Lee’s regular, says, ” One thing I really like is that he’s awesome in how he remembers his customers. He knows what his regulars like to eat and he makes it seem like it’s an honor for you to be eating at his cart every time. That’s pretty rare, and it really makes a difference in how you feel coming to eat here.”
I order the Fresh Ahi Tuna Tacos. The fish is marinated in Lee’s Aji Limo Sauce (a Peruvian chile paste) topped with chipotle aioli, pico de gallo, cabbage and lime. It is so ridiculously good I have a hard time concentrating on talking to Papa. The burst of flavor from the Aji Limo combines perfectly with the earthy garlic tang of the aioli and punch of lime. The tuna is just barely seared and somehow its flavor is released and enhanced in a way I have not experienced before. I won’t lie—my mouth literally watered after eating my first bite. It was that good.
Also highly recommended are the Jaeger Schnitzel, served on a house made ciabatta bun topped with mushroom gravy, lettuce and tomato, as well as the pork carnitas and fresh from the garden Caesar salad. In fact, there was not one item on the menu that did not receive raves from the regulars.
When asked if there is some sort of secret to eliciting the sort of response Papa Lee’s Kitchen has had, Lee smiled and said, “It actually isn’t all that complicated. Use fresh, high quality ingredients and put love in your food.”
If Sellwood is too far afoot for you to make the journey to visit Papa Lee’s kitchen, take heart! Lee will be opening his second location at the North Mississippi Food Cart Pod on the 11th of July. A brick and mortar location is also on the agenda in the year ahead. Just be sure to arrive early-Papa’s opens at 11:00 a.m., and this week Lee had lines of people waiting at 10:55 a.m.
Look for us on Facebook at Papa Lees Kitchen