Sunnyside Neighborhood: Getting to Know Your Neighbors

Monster Smash Burgers food cart on Southeast Stark, is serving up some great pub fare including—of course—an excellent smash burger made from grass-fed beef on a brioche bun made by Dos Hermanos bakery. (For the uninitiated, a smash burger is minced beef and salt, smashed flat over a searingly hot ungreased grill until you get a thin, crispy patty that’s both juicy and caramelized.) We asked Rico about his culinary experience and what it’s like for him living in Sunnyside and serving his neighbors through his new food cart. 

When did you start Monster Smash?

Rico: When I got laid off from my previous job at Malekko Heavy Industry during Covid in 2021. Our official opening day was February 6th 2021. 

What was the inspiration for opening the cart?

Rico: I had been a chef for about 15 years in the Bay Area. I burnt out, decided on a career change, and went into the music industry which, weirdly, led me into building synthesizers. I moved to Portland about nine years ago to take a job with Malekko building synthesizers and guitar pedals. While at Malekko, I started to miss cooking and at the same time I was feeling the need to do something of my own. When we moved into our Sunnyside house I became friends with Monk who was running Monk’s Deli at the time (a beloved cheesesteak cart). He was starting to burn out and as we talked more we began to discuss me buying the cart from him. When Covid hit, it was the final straw for him and I had the time to write a business plan, menu, and concept. 

What restaurants have you worked at in the past?

Rico: All the places I’ve worked at were in the Bay Area or Tahoe. I worked at Kuleto’s, The Waterfront, Hotel W, Swiss Lakewood, and many others that are no longer around. My final job was as a chef instructor at the California Culinary Academy in SF where I had been a student early on in my food career.

How do you want your customers to feel? What do you want them to experience?

Rico: We want people to be happy. Belmont Station is a great place to partner with. We wanted to bring good, simple food that worked well with beer but at the same time would work for families. A small, simple menu done right is what I’ve strived for. I personally hate waiting for food when I’m really hungry, so part of my goal was to cook fast food but with quality
ingredients. Smash burgers luckily fit that criteria perfectly.

What is the best food?

Rico: Oh that’s a hard one and no way I could pick one, especially in Portland where there are so many amazing places to eat. Italian food is always very close to my heart. The first place I ever worked was German so good German food really makes me smile. I love it all, to be honest. As long as it’s cooked with care and passion, I’m down.

What’s your favorite part of running Monster Smash?

Rico: To be honest, my biggest fear was dealing with the public and that has ultimately been one of the best parts. I have met so many amazing people through the cart and have made some really great friends. It also never gets old hearing people say how much they enjoyed their meal. It’s been really cool getting to know people in our neighborhood as we have lived here for a while and most people only knew our dog’s name (Maggie).

What’s your favorite part of living in Sunnyside?

Rico: It’s a great community. It’s the first place we have lived where we feel like part of the neighborhood. It’s quiet, peaceful, and beautiful. Also, we are perfectly located, in my opinion, next to a ton of great food and bars. 

What’s your favorite part of running a business in Sunnyside?

Rico: Living next door to my business is pretty nice, to be honest. The support of the neighborhood has been great and I really appreciate how kind everyone has been. I love being able to be a part of the Sunnyside neighborhood.

What was the most challenging part of running a small business?

Rico: While Covid allowed me to do this business, it was also very challenging. The other incredibly hard part has been the weather. The really cold days in the winter and these crazy heat waves we have been having really hurt our business. This summer alone we have had to close over 3 weeks due to the heat. Our cart is usually about 20 – 30 degrees hotter inside than outside so when it’s over 95 we have to shut down for the safety of my employees.

What’s your favorite type of customer? 

Rico: Friendly customers that enjoy their meal! It’s really hard work in the cart so when people are friendly it makes all the difference in the world. My crew works their butts off and tips help them a ton. Patience when they are really busy goes a long way. We are humans and we do make mistakes. Sometimes people can be pretty mean and use Yelp as a way of bashing us. Those are the customers I don’t like…lol.

Monster Smash Burgers is open Tuesday-Saturday 12-8, Sunday 12-6. Closed Mondays.  Also on the menu is a vegan smash burger with Beyond beef; french fries; and a grilled cheese BLT. In winter months, look for the return of a soup and sando combo: tomato bisque and a pesto, genoa salami and melted provolone sandwich which Oregonian critic Michael Russell called “a contender for the best grilled cheese in the city right now.”  

Follow Rico on Instagram at @MonsterSmashPDX

Nathan Howard

SNA member at large

Author: Nathan Howard

SNA member at large