Tamales stuffed with lamb stroganoff, chorizo-filled pierogi, and borscht tacos stream out of the tiny Rusa PDX food cart on the northern edge of Portland, Oregon. The idea for the tacos came naturally to chef Sasanna Babashoff. “I remember making borscht as a child, standing on a stool, mixing a huge vat for my huge family,” she tells me. “When I tried birria in Mexico, I thought: Could I combine this with borscht?”
For the tacos, Babashoff makes two fillings — Guisado-style braised beef, and roasted beets and cabbage for a vegetarian version — then layers them in Three Sisters Nixtamal corn tortillas. She tops them with sour cream, cilantro, dill, and raw shredded beets in the summer. In colder months, she occasionally runs a special of borscht birria tacos, encrusting them with melted cheese and serving alongside a cup of borscht (in lieu of the traditional beef consommé).
“Food is love, so I choose to share love [by] being a part of my community and finding ways to give back.” — Sasanna Babashoff, chef and owner of Rusa PDX
Portland has a legacy of exceptional food carts — Nong’s Khao Man Gai, Desi PDX, and Matt’s BBQ to name a few. After only a year in business, Rusa is among their ranks, garnering a loyal following and glowing reviews. “The responses are pretty amazing,” Babashoff reflects. “I have people from Mexico who come and enjoy the food and found excitement in what they’re eating, and I have Eastern Europeans who say when they walk up that ‘it smells like my grandmother’s kitchen.’”
The inspiration for the food at Rusa PDX goes back to Babashoff’s family. Her paternal side is Russian and spent decades living in Mexico’s Guadalupe Valley before immigrating to California in the 1970s. Her maternal side came straight from the former Soviet Union to Southern California around the same time. Born and raised in Los Angeles, Babashoff has vivid memories of making tamales with one grandmother and borscht with the other. “I didn’t even realize the uniqueness of my upbringing until I got older,” she reflects.
She stumbled into her career as a chef by accident. After walking away from pursuing modeling and acting in Los Angeles, she moved to Maui and landed a job as a mixologist. There, she began throwing elaborate dinner parties, which evolved into becoming a personal chef. Later on, she moved to New Orleans, where she honed her culinary technique as a line cook. As she broadened her experience and prioritized healthy eating, she began exploring vegan food. “Plant-based cooking started off as a challenge to myself as a chef”, Babashoff says. “Can I make good plant-based food for my clients? Then I truly fell in love with it.”
On the side, she began testing recipes from both sides of her family, making various kinds of pelmeni, pierogi, piroshki, tamales, and soups. She wasn’t sure how her culturally commingled dishes would be received: “I was honestly very concerned that people wouldn’t ‘get’ or like the concept. Nobody asked for this combo,” Babashoff says. “But the first time I taste-tested the menu with some friends, they really responded well, and when they later said they were craving the dishes, I knew I had something.” In New Orleans, she finally shared her dishes with the public at an international food festival, and the idea for Rusa PDX came into focus.
The inspiration for the food at Rusa PDX goes back to Babashoff’s family.
As Babashoff began solidifying her concept, she started looking for a new home base. After considering different cities, Portland stood out. “Diners here are open to try new things,” she noticed after her first visit. “Also the plant-based vegan scene here is wonderful.” In 2022, she packed up her bags and moved to Portland, first working under her friend Teng Xiong at his Hmong food cart Nam Pa, as she got her concept off the ground.
In the summer of 2022, Babashoff debuted Rusa PDX, her ode to what she calls “Latin America meets Eastern Europe” cuisine. From the onset, every meat item on Rusa’s menu has had a vegan counterpart. “When you go out to eat and you’re plant-based and the person you’re eating with is not, you have to eat entirely different dishes,” she says. “With my menu I want you to have a similar experience, whether you eat meat or not.” As Babashoff deepened her love of all things plant-based, she grew discouraged with how many vegan foods are made with heavily processed and soy-based ingredients. She was determined to offer vegan options made from scratch and with whole foods: She primarily uses cashew-based cheese and swaps pork, chicken, and beef for hearty vegetables or a combination of mushrooms and walnuts.
The long hours and constant tweaking are worth it, and Babashoff continues to be motivated by family.
Her pierogi are the top seller, both the meat and vegan varieties which are made with the same dough. Babashoff considers this a personal victory: “[It was] the hardest dish for me to try to create because the traditional dough has sour cream, eggs, and milk,” Babashoff says. The minute she got her plant-based dough to be the right supple texture without the dairy, she knew she was in business. Each pierogi is hand-formed and filled with a vegan or meat filling. To serve, they’re simmered until tender, then finished off with a pan-fry that gives them a gratifying caramelized, crispy edge. She tops the vegan pierogi with a healthy drizzle of cashew sauce and the chorizo ones with rich sour cream, then both are showered with fresh cilantro and dill.
Now after just over a year in, she continues to grow Rusa PDX with seasonal specials and pop-up dinners at restaurants. But keeping her operation on the cart gives her flexibility and mobility, and soon it will relocate to a more central spot in the Alberta Arts district. The long hours and constant tweaking are worth it, and Babashoff continues to be motivated by family: “[It’s about] honoring my baboonya (grandmothers) Mary and Hazel,” she says. “Food is love, so I choose to share love [by] being a part of my community and finding ways to give back.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Courtesy of Rusa