Judith Stokes

Tip of the Hat

WORDS Byron Beck   PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden

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At the intersection of North Interstate Avenue and Argyle Street, a towering statue of Paul Bunyan, created in 1959 for Oregon’s big centennial celebration, welcomes locals and visitors alike to North Portland’s bustling Kenton District. 

Earlier this year another legend, native Oregonian Judith Stokes, 41, opened the doors to her brunch-centric restaurant, Derby, just a block away from Big Paul, giving everyone just one more reason to check out this quirky neighborhood to the north.

Derby is located on North Denver Avenue in the space that was once home to Karen Harding’s Cup & Saucer Cafe. With Derby, Stokes, who for the last six years was living and working on the north coast in Astoria, Oregon, saw a chance to return to her roots—she grew up just across the Columbia River in Hazel Dell, Washington—and also contribute to a quickly evolving community.

A former food cart owner in both Portland and Astoria (she is perhaps best known for the much-missed North Mississippi Avenue-based Tita’s Pista), Stokes’ Derby primarily focuses on breakfast options with specials that highlight her Filipino heritage, including the spring rolls known as lumpia (she loves them so much she has one tattooed on her arm).  

Portland Interview Magazine had a chance to speak to Stokes between her shifts at Derby. Here’s what she had to say:

What was it like growing up in the Northwest?
Hazel Dell was a good neighborhood for doing all the kid stuff of the ‘80s like riding bikes, playing at friend’s houses, skateboarding, and also getting into mischief like you do as most kids without supervision. And trouble. I got into lots of trouble, especially as a teen. One thing for sure is that I’ve always loved and been grateful to have grown up 15 minutes from Portland where I spent my teens in the ‘90s going to shows, watching the resurrection of Burnside (skatepark) and frequenting the old landmarks. I’m one of those who still obnoxiously relishes the ‘90s in Portland. Folks just don’t know.

What was your favorite meal as a child?
Growing up in a Filipino house, you always have a pot of rice on the counter. It’s pretty much our religion. My sister and I usually had a choice between a can of chili or a can of sardines to put on top of the rice with balut. Just kidding about the balut (duck embryo, boiled and eaten from the shell, is a Philippine street food favorite) but the sardines were my jam. There was also a lot of ramen. When my mom had time, she would make chicken adobo and lumpia. Lumpia is and will always be my steadfast go-to.

What did you do before Derby?
I spent the last six year in Astoria where I thought I’d leave food for good to open a spa/holistic skincare and cosmetic shop. I ended up opening a food cart in the parking lot of that business two years later.

How did you end up back in Portland?
On a visit home for Christmas last year it hit me that I needed to move back to be closer to family. I still had my businesses in Astoria and didn’t quite know which direction I’d take professionally if I came back. Two days later I run into an old friend whom I also worked for at his restaurant 14 years prior. He tells me he had been thinking we should collaborate and open a new restaurant and that he heard that Karen Harding, owner of Cup and Saucer, might want to sell her Kenton location. I knew at that moment I wanted that spot. My best friend, James Bradley, who I’ve known for 25 years and has been my closest mentor, is the chef a block away at Po’ Shines. I’ve mostly lived in the North as far as Portland goes and I’ve always loved Kenton as it still feels like a neighborhood, and it’s not inundated with condos…yet. It all just felt so right. The friend decided to go another route and bought a different restaurant, and I called up Karen after not seeing her for 10 years. We had dinner a few days later. We both acknowledged that she could stand to make a mint off the influx of outsiders – that California money – but she’d rather it go to someone local. Another woman. So, all in just a week, there it is.

What is your favorite meal to make for yourself?
I’m awful about cooking for myself. I eat like most people do who are in the industry, which is not good. At times I graze but mostly I’m downing whatever I come across after realizing it’s 2 pm and I haven’t eaten anything yet. When my schedule is more merciful, I cook and eat a lot of plant-based foods. I stay fairly active and healthy, but until then it’s Asian takeout, canned soup, and peanut butter.    

What is your favorite meal to make for others?
I’m proud at having the chance to make Filipino food for friends and customers. Primarily my chicken adobo and pancit. The last few years…I enjoyed cooking and introducing various Asian foods to people like pho, Korean short ribs, kimchee dishes, ramen etc. which you’d be extremely hard pressed to find on the coast. Filipino food is some of the best eating, yet unfortunately is still not as accessible as you would think it would be in a town with so much food.

What is it like to be a restaurant owner in Portland, Oregon?
It feels right because I’m home again, although home has clearly changed quite a bit. I’m grateful and am constantly humbled by the talent around me, but more so by friends I’ve known for 25 years, and family who pay me surprise visits weekly. That’s how I know I made the right choice to come back, even though the place is tripping me out…

Can you tell me what community means to you as a business owner?
First and foremost, keeping an eye out for one another’s safety. It should be our duty to keep a watchful eye on things and those that may be detrimental to one another. I believe it is just as important to encourage one another in their endeavors, especially small business. Folks are so quick to criticize…instead of applauding them. If it’s not your bag, then don’t carry it. Let’s contribute to how we can all make things better ‘cause if you’re not doing good, I ain’t either.  A lot of our dreams are alike, more than we know.  

Derby, 8237 N Denver Ave, Portland, OR