BY CLIFF PFENNING, The Portland Observer
Near the corner of Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lombard Street, a pair of hearty business owners is preparing to open a family-style restaurant based on the optimistic view that the surrounding area can support it.
Forget about a tough image of the neighborhood, Jonathan and Angela Park are excited about the city’s economic future and the ongoing revitalization of the busy street, which is promoted by the Portland Development Commission as “The Soul of Portland.”
The one thing they’re doing different is paying for the property and four months of building renovations without any financial assistance from the PDC.
The former Yam Yam’s BBQ site – a longtime neighborhood staple – doesn’t fall within the governmental agency’s Urban Renewal District which was set up to help businesses along the thoroughfare. That district ends at Rosa Parks Boulevard, less than a dozen blocks from the restaurant at 7339 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.
The Park’s Yummy Mongolian BBQ is set to open in the next two weeks with a unique and family oriented business plan.
“We’re not going to serve alcohol, so we’re aiming for families,” Jonathan Park said Friday as the renovation of the building entered its final phase. “We’re going to have a Lego area for kids to play, which we think will be attractive to families. We know what people say about this area, but we think it’s changing and it’s ready for this kind of restaurant.
“Our bank, our financing, has looked at our plan and they’re 100 percent behind what we’re doing. Owning the land is a big part of that because we don’t have to pay rent.”
The business is across the street from Teriyaki Heaven, which features Oregon Lottery games and serves alcohol, and one block south of a Taco Bell, which doesn’t serve alcohol, but has a drive-thru.
The Parks have looked into opening a Portland restaurant since buying Yummy Mongolian Grill in Vancouver, five years ago. They checked into sites in Tigard, Milwaukie and East Portland, but finally settled on MLK because of the availability of the property and its distance from other Mongolian-style restaurants, especially after Chang’s Mongolian Grill closed at Jantzen Beach last year.
Opening a restaurant with no alcohol will be a dramatic turn for the property, which was linked to a drug operation in 2009. James Yoakum, who worked as a cook at Yam Yam’s, pleaded guilty to running a drug operation through the restaurant. Yam Yam’s owner Larry Matthews was exonerated, but the business tanked by the following summer.
In the following year, the property had fallen into a level of disrepair that it needed four large garbage dumpsters to clear all the debris, Jonathan Park said, including chairs off the roof. He said the simple act of cleaning up the property has area business owners and residents stopping by to verbally applaud.
“People are always stopping by to say they appreciate what we’re doing with the property,” Jonathan Park said. “That makes us feel very welcome.”
While the business sits outside the kind of urban renewal district that that has helped other MLK ventures like Vanport Square, south of Killingsworth Street, the location is also without a focused business group. Just blocks away, there’s the Interstate Corridor Business Association and further west the Kenton Business Association.
“We are kind of by ourselves here,” Angela Park said. “It might take some time to get our name out, but there are plenty of people who like our food and there’s no other restaurant like ours around here, so that’s good.”
Jonathan Park said he’s more than happy to enter into a tough situation having grown up in a poor section of Hawaii.
“This is right out of my background, so it’s not something I’m scared of,” he said. “The economy isn’t all that strong right now, and this isn’t an area that people might jump at, but the economy will pick up and the neighborhood is changing to be ready for a restaurant like this.”
Angela Park emigrated from Korea two decades ago and said this kind of business challenge is straight from her past, too.
The Parks looked at the vacant building at MLK and Alberta, which once housed the Adidas Outlet Store, but decided the space was too big even though it was within the urban renewal area. The former Adidas space will soon re-open as a Pizza Hut.
The Parks both say that while they feel the neighborhood is ready to support their restaurant, they can feel a muted sense of community loss from the closure of Yam Yam’s, which had become a cultural landmark.
“When we first started to work on the building, a lady drove up and asked if she could take a picture of the sign,” Angela Park said. “She said she was going to miss the restaurant because it had been there so long. We hope we’re going to be here a long time, too.”