PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A new restaurant opening Thursday is bringing nostalgic bites, coziness and community to northeast Portland.

Xiao ye means more than “midnight snack” in Mandarin, Xiao Ye General Manager and Co-Owner Jolyn Chen explains. The restaurant name also invokes a dining experience surrounded by your favorite people.

“When we think about hospitality and the kind of restaurants we’ve always wanted to open, we really dug into what it should feel like, not necessarily the food first. Then we kind of decided while brainstorming on concept that, you know, one of our favorite dining experiences wasn’t really at a restaurant per se, but it was more like an experience and that’s what xiao ye means,” Chen says.

The dining experience inspired the name of Xiao Ye, which is opening on the corner of Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 38th Street.

“It’s one of those words in Mandarin that means a little bit more of a feeling than actual meal period or time. It’s like a meal period that’s always enjoyed with your favorite people. It’s a very intimate dining experience. It’s always cozy, the food is very comforting. That’s the whole point of it,” Chen added.

She continued, “we felt like that was such a good representation of who we are as hospitality folks and just how we eat too. We are not very formal people, but we do have formal training and, something about, you know, bridging the gap of a comfortable hospitality experience but at a higher level just felt really us.”

Chen, who co-owns Xiao Ye with Chef Louis Lin, are serving what they call “First Generation American food” including tom yum shrimp cakes, glazed pork ssam and chrysanthemum gelato.

  • Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'
  • Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'

When conceptualizing their dishes, Chen and Lin wanted to think outside of “old” food categories such as new American, eclectic or fusion.

“Calling it First Generation American food was very important to us because it was the truest thing in terms of a label because everybody wants a label from us,” Chen explained. “We understand labels help people understand who we are so that is why we’re so staunchly First Generation American food. We’re not Chinese food, we’re not Asian food, we’re not fusion.”

Taking inspiration from food they ate as kids or while traveling, Lin added “all of our food is nostalgic and reminiscent of certain things in our lives, and they’re all dictated by our own lived experiences.”

The pair are also drawing from their experiences working in restaurants across the country. Both grew up in a suburb outside of Los Angeles before Chen studied hospitality at Cal Poly Pomona and Lin studied at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone.

Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'
Xiao Ye Co-owners Jolyn Chen and Louis Lin are bringing First Generation American food to Northeast Portland (Courtesy Carter Hiyama).

The two re-connected in Washington D.C. where they both worked at Rose’s Luxury and the two-Michelin-starred Pineapple and Pearls.

After working in D.C., Chen and Lin moved back to L.A. where Chen studied interior design and worked for an English interior designer. The two later moved to the Rose City when Chen secured a job working for a French interior designer before they decided to open their own restaurant.

“It just turned into a really personal project where we’re going to do more than just open a restaurant, we’re going to explore a little bit about this sort of really intimate mealtime that we loved and has dictated a lot of our lives and also who we are identity-wise as people,” Lin said.

Xiao Ye calls on Chen’s interior design background — adding European influence to the restaurant’s design.

“I learned so much of European design so, that became essentially an aesthetic that I kind of adopted and fell in love with and I always kind of felt like that aesthetic was the coziest and really fitting for climates like Portland,” Chen explained. “We just wanted the whole space to feel like you’re dining in our home, something very cozy.”

She added “I don’t want everything to feel like a museum or too precious to sit on or to touch. So, we have vintage chairs, things that are used, they’re not brand, brand new.”

  • Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'
  • Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'
  • Portland, OR restaurant serving 'first generation American food'

Xiao Ye has also made Bon Appétit’s list of the most anticipated restaurant openings over the summer.

“It was cool to see that our story was resonating beyond just Portland,” Lin said. “It was kind of flabbergasting because we hadn’t done the traditional PR stuff. We hadn’t put ourselves out there in that way. Just to get people to know who we are was cool.”

Ahead of Thursday’s opening, Lin is looking forward to “that moment of service of being able to see people in the space,” he said, adding “it’s just going to be really exciting.”

Chen noted, “it’s been us for so long and all of a sudden we have some staff on and it’s so cool to see them here working, producing things that you’ve been working on for so long and your ideas come to life because of them.”