The chef: When Amy Le’s first restaurant, Saucy Porka, opened in May 2013, Chicago Now promptly called it “the best new lunch spot in the Loop.” Le, a former journalist who wrote for both the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune, and handled PR and social media for Chicago’s online food-ordering hub GrubHub, came from a restauranteur family; when she was growing up, her mother owned multiple restaurants in St. Louis. “My uncle still runs one of them, so it’s still in the family,” Le told The Dissolve. “Mom’s retired. She just celebrated her 66th birthday yesterday. She’s enjoying a lot of golfing lately.”
In 2011, Le left GrubHub to launch DucknRoll, an Asian-fusion food truck specializing in curries and banh mi sandwiches. The food was terrific, and Le described food-truck work as “the best job ever,” at least during pleasant weather. But Chicago’s anti-food-truck legislation made the business more difficult and less rewarding, so when DucknRoll fan Michael Yousef offered a partnership in a brick-and-mortar location, Le sidelined DucknRoll to launch Saucy Porka. She says she still “secretly does food-trucking,” partnering with other trucks for special events.
As the co-owner and chef, Le designed the menu alongside Puerto Rican executive chef Rafael Lopez, whom she met when he was working Chicago’s Wagyu Wagon food truck. Both brought their cultural history and personal tastes into the menu, and for Le in particular, memory and family history are heavily tied into the food she cooks. When The Dissolve asked about her favorite film, she immediately brought up Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, about a lovelorn man (Jim Carrey) who visits a service to root out his memories of his ex (Kate Winslet), who has already had him erased from her mind. And when asked to suggest a menu item to serve with a showing of Eternal Sunshine, she said her family’s pho has the same personal ties between memory and emotion that Eternal Sunshine explores. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
The Dissolve: Why pho for this film?
Amy Le: This is a family recipe that my mother passed on to me, and she got it from her mother. Pho is a staple in every Vietnamese household; you can’t grow up not eating it. If you go to different Vietnamese restaurants, every single pho tastes slightly different, because each family puts something unique or different in theirs. So there are a couple spices in my recipe that are common in all phos—star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper—and then there is my mom’s special five-spice, which is my family recipe which we do not disclose. I’m not even allowed to write it down. [Laughs.] The other special technique I learned from my mom was putting the cloves in the onion and roasting them together. For me, this dish evokes the feeling of my mom and home.
When I first moved to Chicago and went to college, I was really, really homesick, and I walked into a Vietnamese restaurant, and suddenly the smells… I almost started crying, because it reminded me of home. It’s so funny how food can just trigger memories. Just walking into the space, and hearing people talk, and smelling the things… It evoked all these feelings. So when I saw that movie, it just reminded me, no matter how much you try to run away or forget, there are always going to be things that tie you back to the things you love most. That’s what pho represents to me, too.
The Dissolve: Do you consciously try to evoke certain memories or moods with food?
Le: Yes, yes. Food takes me back to… If I’m in a certain mood, or there’s certain things I want to feel or think about, there are certain dishes, definitely, that get me there. Our new Cubano sandwich came about because I hadn’t been on vacation, and I was really wanting to be down in South Beach, lying on the beach.
The Dissolve: Why did Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind become one of your favorite movies?
Le: It just reminded me of trying to forget your past, because things aren’t going the way you want them to, or because you want to forget some hurt or pain, or whatever. It’s always going to be with you. In trying to forget the bad times, though, you start to relive all the things that were great in your life, as well. I think that’s why that movie is so hopeful. When you’re feeling down and want to get away, and you stop and dig deep down in your memory, you start to think, “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it was.” This beautiful, positive message comes out of it—in the end, they come back together even though they’ve both tried to erase their memories of each other. There’s something greater in life that connects us to each other, and I like that idea.
The Dissolve: The ending is controversial even among people who love the film—some see it as defeatist, some think it’s sweet. It depends on whether you interpret them as willing to try again, or doomed to endlessly repeat their mistakes.
Le: I’m a lot more optimistic. [Laughs.] I always look at the world that way. For me, it’s about starting over again. People are allowed to make mistakes, and sometimes if people can find their way back to each other and try again, then so be it. I think there’s something great about that. I’ve related to both those characters so strongly. I think we’ve all been in the situation where, like with her, the easiest thing is to try to forget and run away from it. And then for him, it’s about remembering all the good things, and trying to hold onto them, and not wanting to let go. People do that all the time in their lives. Because relationships aren’t simple, right? I don’t know how many times I’ve told an ex-boyfriend, “Lose my cell-phone number; don’t ever call me again,” but then in this day and age, you’re on Facebook, checking to see how they are and what they’re doing, you know? We want to forget them, but we want to hold onto them. And I think both those characters represent how people react in relationships in their lives.
The Dissolve: When Kirsten Dunst’s character finds out she erased her memory, she regrets it so much that she sends all her company’s clients their files. Whether they want to remember or not, they suddenly have all this evidence of what they tried to forget. She makes everybody’s choice for them. How did you react to that?
Le: This is actually something my mom has taught me my whole life—no matter what happens, there’s a lot of things you can never control, because other people will dictate how things are going to happen. How you choose to react to it distinguishes each individual person’s reaction. People would act differently—maybe some would want to try to hold on and say, “I don’t care anymore. I’ve tried to forget, and I’m not going to try to remember.” And maybe other people are curious what they lost. But that’s life. We’re allowed to make mistakes and figure out why we made those decisions that we made.
The Dissolve: Kate Winslet’s character is all about acting on impulse, while Jim Carrey is more hesitant and conservative. Do you identify with either of them more than the other?
Le: [Laughs.] You’re asking a girl who quit her job during a recession to start a food truck, and gave up health benefits. So yes, I definitely do. Maybe there’s enough of her in me to inspire me to really like her character. That also reminds me, from a relationship standpoint, is that having those differences—she pulls him out of his shell. At the beginning of the movie, he’s very routine—“My life isn’t that interesting, I go to work, I go home.” He goes through life without experiencing anything. And then suddenly she injects herself into his life and flips it upside down. I think we need other people who aren’t like us to bring out parts of us that we’re afraid to be. I know some people find her character really annoying, but I love her so much.
The Dissolve: As a chef, do you ever see films in terms of food, even if they aren’t expressly about food?
Le: I think both evoke a lot of emotions, and people have certain foods and films that remind them of the past. I grew up watching all the movies from the ’80s, so a lot of Molly Ringwald. Whenever I watch John Hughes films, it reminds me of being 8 or 10 years old again. I think about what I was thinking when I was at that age.
The Dissolve: Does Eternal Sunshine feel like it’s tied to any particular time or aspect of your life?
Le: Yes. Maybe that’s why I had such a huge attachment to it—I was at the tail end of a seven-year relationship at the time. It reminded me that each part of your life has shaped who you are. And as much as you want to forget things, you shouldn’t, because that’s who you are.
The Dissolve: That’s a really emotional film to watch just before or after a breakup.
Le: Yeah, it evoked so much emotion, thinking about my past, the future, and how you move on with your life. That’s why I look at it as an optimistic view. Even though they got back together in the film, I didn’t want to get back together with my ex. But there was this idea that you could start over again, and that your past isn’t there just to haunt you and drag you down—it’s there to remind you of who you are and who you can be.
The Dissolve: How much of the menu at Saucy Porka reflects your memories and your family identity?
Le: They’re not just memories of my family; they’re memories of… Food has been such a huge part of my life, when I think about different milestones. So a lot of the food on there, whether it be family recipes or my comfort foods, like nachos… [Laughs.] My chef and I had a really long discussion, and he’s like, “I don’t want to put nachos on the menu.” I’m like, “That’s my comfort food.” It’s simple and it’s basic, but it reminds me of going to fairs when I was a kid. I wanted to do a play on nachos, because they’re part of my memory and my life. The banh mis, too. When I created our banh mi sandwiches—they’re not your traditional Vietnamese-style banh mis, so they don’t have pickled daikon and carrots and cilantro on there. And I did the meats and the toppings differently. It’s about taking things you remember but making them new and different, and bringing in things I really like, that I’ve found as I’ve traveled, or gone to restaurants. So it’s about connecting the past with the present, and thinking about the future when we’re creating our menu, too.
Amy Le’s Saucy Porka Pho Broth recipe:
5 pounds of beef bones
2 white onions (1 chopped, 1 left whole)
1 bunch of scallions, chopped
2 whole ginger root (1 sliced, 1 left whole)
2 cinnamon sticks
2 ounces whole star anise pods (4 or 5 stars)
1 ounce of dry cloves (roughly a handful)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon white sugar (rock sugar is preferred)
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Ramen or Dry Flat Rice Noodle
Sriracha hot pepper sauce
1. Add the bones to a large stockpot, cover with cold water, then bring to a boil. Boil for a few minutes, then throw the water and bones into a strainer. Discard the water, then rinse the bones to get rid of all the impurities. Make sure to give the pot a rinse, too — there will be scum on the bottom and sides of the pot.
2. Stick the cloves into the top of the onion. To create that distinctive, deep flavor of great pho, place the onion and the whole ginger root under the broiler, with the onion clove-side down. Broil both the onion and ginger root until well-charred. That’s going to give you nice depth and color.
3. Place the ginger, scallions, and chopped white onions in a very large (9 quart or more) pot. Add a little oil and sauté on low heat to let them sweat. Season with salt, then fill the pot with 2 gallons of water. Add the bones and charred onion and ginger root. Bring to a boil, and cook the bones for 1 hour.
4. Skim fat from the surface of the soup, and add anise pods, cinnamon stick, cloves, peppercorns, and ginger, wrapped in cheesecloth or a spice bag; add to the soup. Stir in sugar, salt, and fish sauce. Simmer over medium-low heat for at least four more hours. (The longer, the better. Each hour, you see the flavors develop differently. By the time the soup is done, you can taste all the layers. That’s what makes a great soup, if you have the patience.) At the end of cooking, taste, and add salt as needed. Strain broth, and return to the pot to keep at a simmer. Discard spices and bones.
5. Boil ramen or rice noodles. Add noodles in a bowl and top with fresh basil, mint leaves, cilantro, green scallions, bean sprouts, and jalapenos. You can also add cooked pork, beef or chicken to the soup.