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Birria and Borscht Meet at Rusa PDX, a Standout Sellwood Food Cart

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I’ve never seen so many people rubbernecking at a food cart pod as I have at Sellwood‘s Piknik Park, where Rusa PDX, which melds Latin American and Eastern European flavors, sits near the entrance. As I sat at a wooden bench at the front of the pod, about half of the people I watched walk by did a double take. Some commented on the cart with intrigue, others with skepticism. But after tasting Rusa’s food—and talking with one of the chefs and co-owners, Sasanna Babashoff aka Chef Sassy—the combination makes perfect sense.

The concept is close to Babashoff’s heart. Her father’s side of the family were Russian immigrants to Mexico, who spoke Spanish and made hundreds of tamales for family celebrations. Her mother’s side of the family came straight from Russia to the United States and made huge vats of borscht to share with family, friends, and neighbors. As a kid, she’d often have those dishes together at celebrations—and a few years back, she began experimenting with combining the flavors into a single dish.

“It’s a very personal menu for me, because it brings up so many memories,” says Babashoff. “Taste memories, sense memories, memories of my grandmothers.”

Because this food is important to her, Babashoff is careful to keep to the spirit of each dish. “With fusion, it can be really muddy and tricky. I try to keep the original dish as intact as possible,” says Babashoff. In her lamb stroganoff tamales, she uses Three Sisters Nixtamal masa, which is fluffy, light, and full of fresh, nutty corn flavor. She slow-roasts the lamb in a traditional Mexican style with ancho chiles and chipotle before adding the hearty mushroom and sour cream stroganoff on top.

And while gooey, cheesy beef birria tacos are popping up left and right, these stand out—not just for the super-tender beef, but for the borscht served on the side rather than the usual consummate. Sounds strange, but it actually works; along with the sweet flavor of beet and deep, beefy broth, Babshoff adds cilantro and lime to tie all the flavors together.

Almost every item on the menu has a vegan counterpart, complete with a homemade plant-based filling rather than processed, store-bought proteins like Beyond or Impossible. The vegan pierogies, stuffed with sweet potato and ground walnut-mushroom “chorizo” and topped with vegan sour cream, cilantro, and dill, are just as good as their meaty brethren—an instant comfort food must-have, with a toothsome wrapper and hearty filling.

Even the aguas frescas are special, and it’s hard to imagine how Rusa can come up with such creative, refreshing, and well-composed combos every week, from apple-tamarind-lime to hibiscus-beet-ginger. For dessert, grab blini stuffed with farmers’ cheese and seasonal produce—a couple weeks ago, it was backyard-grown figs.

The menu shifts slightly with the season. This winter, look for chicken and vegan pozole, a torta, and possibly some dishes taking influences from other Latin American and Eastern European countries.

The story behind Rusa’s creation is an unusual one. Babashoff opened the cart in June with co-owner Teng Xiong; Xiong used to run the cart alone under a totally different concept. Nam Pa was a Hmong and Southeast Asian food cart that opened in 2019, serving dishes like barbecue pork, kapoon, and papaya salad. Babashoff has lived all over the country, including Maui, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and previous stints in Portland; she moved back to Portland in 2022 after Hurricane Ida destroyed her New Orleans home, and worked at Nam Pa helping out Xiong, an old friend, at his cart.

“I’d worked in kitchens, but I’d never done a food cart before, and he was showing me the ropes with Nam Pa. And I was like, ‘This is a complicated menu!’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, I work 80 hours a week,’” says Babashoff. Xiong suggests shelving the Nam Pa concept for the time being and supporting Babashoff with her dream of starting Rusa.

Soon, Xiong and Babashoff plan to start a series of chef pop-ups, where they’ll not only revive the Nam Pa concept with a sit-down multi-course meal, but also showcase up-and-coming cooks. The pop-up will take place at locations including Maui, New Orleans, and Portland. Stay tuned on Rusa’s Instagram for further details.

Rusa, 1122 SE Tacoma St, @rusapdx; open Fri-Wed, 11 am-8 pm