Ichiza’s restaurant, Ichiza Kitchen, was a destination for vegan dim sum. Now, he’s letting people around the country make their own meat-free siu mai at home.
In 2017, Cyrus Ichiza convinced countless Portlanders to re-evaluate their relationships with faux meats with the debut of his groundbreaking vegan Asian restaurant Ichiza Kitchen. Made of non-GMO fermented soy protein, Ichiza’s mock meats were essential to dishes like Filipino adobo stew; bouncy tapioca-based shrimp and tapioca roe in shu mai mimicked the appearance, flavors, and textures of the traditional version. While some chefs regard meat substitutes as something “bad” that should be avoided, Ichiza fully embraces mock meats as they have been rooted in Asian culture for centuries.
“I don’t think [those who avoid meat substitutes] are blindly racist, but they don’t realize those comments are hurtful to us. It’s elitist in a way,” he says. “Really, it’s about the texture going into the food.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Ichiza has been transforming his celebrated vegan restaurant — formerly known as Ichiza Kitchen — again and again. Within the last two years, the chef launched a Charleston-style brunch pop-up as a pandemic pivot, relocated the restaurant to Killingsworth, then rebranded as Jade Rabbit along with a move to a commissary kitchen. But this spring, Jade Rabbit — Portland’s only entirely vegan dim sum house — has closed its doors.
In an Instagram post on April 21, Ichiza announced that Jade Rabbit would close due to the increase in food and supply costs, constant risk of COVID-19 exposure, and challenges of serving food through takeout and delivery. Instead of exiting the food world, Ichiza changed his company into something more adaptable to the current culinary climate: Jade Rabbit has become a meal kit business, with handmade bawan (Taiwanese street food dumpling) bunnies, shu mai, and chile oil wontons for customers to reheat at home. For Ichiza, making his food accessible to a wider population allows him to continue pursuing his goal: to champion his own multicultural identity and birthright to the cuisine through delicious vegan food.
Born in Guam, Ichiza spent his childhood island-hopping between convents in Taiwan and the Philippines before landing in Northern California, where his step-grandfather was stationed. Ichiza, whose mother is Filipino and whose father is Chinese Chamorro, was faced with the complexities of a multicultural identity at an early age. “I wasn’t Filipino enough to hang out with the cool Filipino kids. I never learned Tagalog,” he says. Meanwhile, his German step-grandfather had a different perspective: “He didn’t have a Filipino grandson. He had an American grandson,” says Ichiza. The chef’s connection to Filipino culture was through his grandmother Lola Fely’s cooking — the same grandmother who helped open Ichiza Kitchen.
When Ichiza lived in Charleston, South Carolina, he unofficially audited his boyfriend’s culinary school program. There, he put down roots as a queer activist in the Charleston food community. “I was the drag queen that cooked for everyone at 2 a.m.,” he says. Ichiza was best known for biscuits, which later became a hot item at Brunch PDX. While he found allyship in Charleston, Ichiza says it took years to unpack the ingrained racism he experienced. “I was often mistaken for Mexican,” he says. The chef yearned to be seen for his Filipino-Chinese-Chamorro heritage.
After Charleston, Ichiza landed in San Francisco. He says the move was incredibly reaffirming: Not only did he connect with kindred spirits in the Bay Area’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community, he also met his mentor, the woman who founded vegan grocery Layonna Vegetarian Health Food, in Oakland. Learning the art of hand making dim sum connected Ichiza to his Chinese roots; though dim sum is commonly associated with Cantonese cuisine, many dim sum dishes originated in China before making their way to Hong Kong.
Between watching “Auntie Layonna” veganize dishes with Taiwanese mock meats, and impressing non-vegans with the food he cooked whenever he traveled, the inspiration to open a vegan restaurant was born. The chef saw it as his calling.
“If you can get a meat eater to be like, ‘I would be vegan if all vegan food was like this,’ that’s a win,” Ichiza says. “I’m meant to do this! Yes, this is my destiny!”
Ichiza moved to Portland in 2015, then opened Ichiza Kitchen in Goose Hollow in 2017 with his partner at the time, Ryan Wythe. In the early days, diners could enjoy kimchi-tofu gyoza, vegan pork and shrimp pancit, Lanzhou “beef” noodle soup, and Mao Xie “Hairy Crab” traditional oolong tea service beneath hanging lanterns in the intimate bistro with lo-fi beats playing in the background. The chef celebrated his multicultural heritage with specials for Filipino History Month and Lunar New Year.
A vegetarian since the age of 15, Ichiza went vegan when he opened the restaurant, in solidarity with his mission of raising awareness of veganism through food. Ichiza says that while he doesn’t want to devalue animal rights activists circulating slaughterhouse footage, taking a direct approach to decrying violence against animals, he feels delicious vegan food is what encourages people to pause and reevaluate their choices — especially as it relates to the environmental impact of a meat-based diet. “My passion is to help repair the environment through veganism,” he says.
When the pandemic hit, Ichiza kept the business going with takeout and delivery — even personally doing deliveries himself. It was a necessary pivot, but he felt that it didn’t do the cuisine justice, as dim sum is meant to be served freshly steamed. In 2021, Ichiza rebranded the restaurant to Jade Rabbit — named after a character in Mid-Autumn Festival mythology who lives on the moon and serves herbal dumplings. Instead of the traditional oversized meatball-like shape, Ichiza fashioned his bawan into rabbits as a tribute to the noble Chinese folklore character. The chef later added other flavors, like Filipino halo-halo bunnies, and began exploring how he could adapt for something beyond the restaurant.
This spring, Ichiza set that plan into motion, closing the restaurant and shifting Jade Rabbit entirely to a packaged goods business with nationwide shipping. He views the change as an opportunity to reach a larger audience and fulfill a customer request of many years, while continuing his mission of serving vegan Asian cuisine. Jade Rabbit 2.o carries dim sum, such as cheung fun and shu mai, as well as a handful of Ichiza Kitchen’s standout entrees, like mapo tofu and slow-simmered 13-herb noodle soup. Dishes come with traditional steamer, microwave, or stovetop reheating instructions.
Meanwhile, the Ichiza Kitchen name will live on in the form of pop-ups. Pop-ups at Aimsir Distilling’s Emerald Room feature dim sum and bowls paired with spirit flights and cocktails like lychee martini. After two years of takeout and delivery, the chef says it feels good to be serving food on real plates again. Those who miss the Ichiza dining experience of nibbling through a spread of dim sum served on ceramic plates can watch Instagram for pop-up announcements.
Even though the restaurant has closed, its legacy of expressing Ichiza’s multicultural identity and keeping the traditions of Asian cooking alive will continue. Jade Rabbit made its mark as Portland’s only all-vegan dim sum house; now, with vegan dim sum and mock meats available for nationwide shipping, Ichiza can make his mark far beyond Portland.
“Not everyone will change the same way,” he says, “but delicious food is what gets people to consider — not convert to — veganism.”
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