IN THE GREENHOUSE Green Spark’s Austin Chadd at work.
After years spent working in some of Portland’s finest restaurants, two chefs looking to open their own restaurant ultimately decided to start small. Now cooking out of a 26-foot mobile kitchen, Karl Deuben and Bill Leavy are serving a small, but distinctive menu using local and sometimes unusual ingredients.
The two chefs launched Small Axe food truck this year, after more than 10 years of friendship. They met working together in the kitchens of Hugo’s and Miyake, restaurants known for their carefully wrought preparations of the best local foods. The aim of their new venture, Deuben says, is to “cook carefully crafted food that tastes good.” At breakfast you’ll find eggs over hash browns with a green chili gravy, egg sandwiches with a peanut satay sauce, homemade granola, and yogurt sweetened with vanilla and star anise; the lunch menu includes curry rice bowls, fried haddock sandwiches, grilled cheese and tomato jam, and savory hand pies.
The meat, fish, dairy, and produce Small Axe serves is all from local sources, drawing on Deuben’s and Leavy’s longstanding relationships with nearby purveyors. Small Axe’s vegetables come from two farms, one in particular that focuses on unusual varieties appealing to chefs: Green Spark Farm. Deuben first noticed the attractive display of Green Spark Farm’s produce at the Portland farmers’ market while shopping for Miyake’s tasting menu. He was further drawn to the farm for the varieties of produce growing there, in particular Asian greens and cabbages like totsoi and red choi.
Green Spark Farm is a small organic operation in Cape Elizabeth, farmed by Mary Ellen and Austin Chadd. Drawing on Mary Ellen’s extensive knowledge of herbal medicine and botany, the Chadds sought to set their product apart when they started their farm in 2009. They grow traditional vegetable varieties, but also types they know will be attractive to chefs, like spicy Japanese stir-fry mustards, Asian salad greens, and Shishito peppers (a sweet, Japanese pepper also called the “Russian Roulette” of peppers because about one in ten peppers is slightly spicy). They are trending on menus, appearing at El Rayo and Grace as an appetizer, seared and sprinkled with sea salt.
Small Axe’s smokestack lightning burger had people buzzing this summer, a cold-smoked beef patty, with Jack cheese, Shishito peppers, and Gochujang ketchup on a soft 158 Pickett Street Bakery bun. I never had a noticeably spicy Shishito pepper, but they added a nice crunchy, almost bitter element to the otherwise rich burger. But on the day I spoke to Deuben and Leavy, the last of the season’s Shishito peppers were in their cooler. “That burger was made for those peppers,” Deuben told me. So when the peppers are gone, the burger is done for the year.
Small Axe’s menu items follow the seasons, says Leavy — for instance, the curry bowl, once stocked with zucchini and broccoli, now contains thinly sliced rings of Delicata squash. Although the smokestack lightning burger is gone, you might find a tempting pork belly sandwich with slaw and pickles when the truck is parked at Bunker Brewing Co. or Rising Tide Brewing in East Bayside. Deuben and Leavy frequently add a menu item that they think will appeal to their location’s customers. Pairing pork belly sandwiches and local craft beer seems about right to me.