Ro Tam has been a fixture in the Portland coffee scene for the last five years, grinding her dream into reality from behind the counter of her snug café in Sellwood. Now, with the expansion of her business into North Portland’s Boise neighborhood, coffee and cocktails are officially an Either/Or affair.
In March 2013, Either/Or opened its doors in the historic Old Sellwood Square. Not entirely satisfied with the coffee program’s chai offering, and in need of a creative outlet to pass the time during the slow points, Tam poured her creative energy into experimenting with new recipes, ingredients, and flavors, a hobby that within six months led to her next entrepreneurial venture, Tanglewood Beverage Company, and afforded her the resources to hire her first employee. “What started as a desire to make the perfect Ginger Spiced Chai, both spicy and aromatic with a deep caramelized sweetness, became an obsession to create other beverages that embody the spirit of Portland’s rich culinary scene,” reads the Tanglewood website.
For Tam, a longtime North Portland resident, the opening of the second Either/Or location is the fulfilment of a long-held dream to grow community and bring a café to her own neighborhood. The new Either/Or boasts a full bar with an emphasis on coffee and chai-infused drinks and cocktails, as well as a full menu that highlights Chinese and American comfort food-inspired dishes, with some recipes from Tam’s own family cookbook. “We pick everything blind. Everything is based on taste; that way we don’t think about branding or who is friends with who,” says Tam. “We go with what we really love because that’s what sells. If we’re passionate about it, we can get other people excited about it, too.”
She describes the café decor as a curious blend of “mid-century Chinese restaurant mixed with southern gothic influence.” Meticulously thought-out as well is the musical experience and aesthetic, which includes a turntable booth and a rotating line-up of local DJs catering to the queer and soul-music-loving communities. “I really wanted to focus on the sound in here. A lot of times you go to places and the food is amazing, the drinks are right on, the lighting is good, but the sound sucks and that really makes a big difference. Even if you don’t notice it, you feel it,” explains Tam.
When Tam says it took a lot of persistence and determination to arrive where she is now as a queer woman and entrepreneur of color, she means it. Fresh off the experience of working at average “turn and burn” coffee shops, and opening Salt & Straw’s NW ice cream parlour only to be fired from the job shortly thereafter, Tam, a first-generation Taiwanese American, was ready to do her own thing. “Working at all these other coffee shops, stuff would happen, and I would always think, in my future coffee shop this is what I would do,” recalled Tam.
Today, Tanglewood, in addition to Either/Or, has grown significantly, thanks in part to a grant and business accelerator services from Prosper Portland. With the success of the new cafe/bar, Tam’s next steps include expanding the menu. She’s adding homemade wontons to the fall/winter menu, a food that pays homage to her father, an immigrant who made them to survive the streets of Hong Kong as an adolescent.
The fact that Either/Or North is situated in the heart of a historically Black area of Portland isn’t lost on Tam. “[Gentrification is] happening all over Portland, especially here in the Williams corridor, but...if it’s not me it’s somebody else that’s going to do this,” explained Tam over a Chinese sausage bowl dinner with a side of tequila. “At least we can still respect the neighborhood and have some integrity with the way our business operates and try to support the communities that were here before.”
Photos by Kim Nguyen
Written by: Tiara Darnell
Published: November 2018