“My slogan is ‘Let me put somethin’ goud in your mouth,'” cook Riegna Breaux said and belly laughed. “Goud” is how she spells it and indicative of her slight country accent.
“They’re skeptical of me because I’m Black, a woman, I’m doing this and that – everyone has their skepticism. But that doesn’t bother me because the more people talk about something, the more they wanna try it, and once they put it in their mouth, (the skepticism) leaves.”
From her bevy of fruit barbecue saucesto her personal and unusual spins on traditional soul food, Breaux would rather you save judgments on her food and just “taste and see.” Her pop-up name is a play on on the phrase, but really is applicable to much of her culinary journey.
Moist spiced chicken, almost-crispy cooked boudin and tender ribs, all with a side of fruit barbecue sauces are just a few things from the pop-up. These mouthwatering foods are a product of home recipes, creative prowess and years of being served in others’ kitchens first by Breaux.
Now, you can find Breaux’s unique style of barbecue in an unexpected venue: Mexican restaurant Paco’s Crepes and Shakes, on Lancaster.
If you visit Paco’s between Thursday and Sunday, you’ll find Breaux in the parking lot manning three to four charcoal grills with gospel or rap music playing. On the door are a couple of black signs with a large white logo and in script, “Tasten Cee BBQ Soul Food.”
While not completely a place of her own, Breaux said she can’t afford to get a truck or brick and mortar for herself, but she’s happy to start somewhere with her name and branding on it. Her twists on barbecue and soul food are untraditional because Breaux is personally “tired of eating the same things.”
“I’ve been in Salem for nine years,” Breaux said. “There’s no creativity (in the food scene) because everyone wants to do the same thing.”
Originally from San Francisco, Breaux was raised in a food-loving household that consisted of three generations of home cooks, including her mother and both her maternal and paternal grandmothers.
Breaux’s love of food grew as she got older and she chose to take culinary arts cooking classes in high school. She said for her senior class’ final assignment, they had to invite someone in and taste the food they made. The grade would be determined solely by that judge’s opinion. Ambitiously, she invited an administrator from the San Francisco Culinary Artsto her class.
She was given a full scholarship into the prestigious program, with one stipulation: She had to graduate high school first.
“I ran away three weeks before graduation because I got pregnant,” Breaux said. “But I believe everything happens in life for a reason and we weather the storm one way or another.”
“Taste and see!”
Before she moved to Oregon, Breaux floated to different jobs, but at each one still found herself feeding people.
Breaux described running a recycling plant in California, and how she would cook in the kitchen and set out tables in the yard where regulars and other employees would later eat.
“I feed my community,” Breaux said and laughed. “I didn’t know this until earlier this year what my purpose is, but it’s to feed people and put things in your mouth that taste good —that’s what I’ve always done and didn’t realize.”
Fast forward a few decades, Breaux ended up in Salem to be closer to her daughter’s father and his family. Before April 2014, she had never lived outside of California.
She began attending To God Be the Glory church. Breaux found encouragement from the “mother” of the church, Cordia Geary — also known as Mother C — who would always say “taste and see how good the Lord is!” The phrase comes from Psalm 34:8.
Breaux contributed to many church meals, including Thanksgiving, memorials and other religious functions. Folks got to know her through her cooking, and she even earned the nickname “the cake lady.”
At church, Breaux got word about the opening of Ricky “JoJo” Tukufu’s food cart JoJo’s Soul Food & BBQ. At this time, Breaux was working as a cook at the Salvation Army, running Tasten Cee as a gift baskets business. She brought Tukufu a basket and said she liked his food.
Foot in the door
In August 2021, Breaux joined Tukufu’s staff as a cook for supplementary income. At the time, she couldn’t really believe it, and soon she was cooking her own recipes during slow hours and offering up suggestions to add.
“A couple times I had cherry burgers for just us to eat. The first thing he said was, ‘We have to put this on the menu,'” Breaux said and laughed. “I thought to myself, ‘You’re not getting this recipe!'” It’s not a burger filled with cherries, but a burger with her signature cherry barbecue sauce.
Breaux can also be accredited for the change from store tartar sauce to her homemade recipe. She made it for one of the food cart’s Fish Fridays, and it stuck.
As she spent more time on the cart, Breaux asked if she could serve her own food on the few days Jojo’s wasn’t open. For her first pop-up, she made a style of deep-fried corn she calls negro elote.
“People were skeptical of it as they hadn’t heard of it before, and I said, ‘Put it in your mouth,'” Breaux said. “I’m a very country Southern grandma type of person — if you don’t never put it in your mouth, you’ll never know what it tastes!”
One of the patrons of the day happened to be the owner of Paco’s Mexican food and Paco’s on Lancaster Drive, Israel Garcia.
“He said he likes my food and wants to put it on the menu and if we could work together,” Breaux said. “I asked if I could carry my brand so it’s my brand, my everything here,” she added and gestured to the posters on the door.
At her pop-up, she bustles around the commercial kitchen as a one-woman operation. Going back and forth between the freezer, the outside barbecue grills and the fryer, all while putting ingredients together in her focused, even-keeled manner.
Her menu includes tender barbecue ribs, grilled to crisp-edged boudin sausage, and blackened-in-spice chicken. All her barbecue is served dry, because she said folks misconstrue good barbecue as just sauce. If you’re not looking for barbecue, she serves a hearty and rich gumbo, soft and flavorful collard greens and a just-crumbly enough honeyed cornbread, among other items.
On her prior menus, she had sandwiches and barbecue spaghetti, the recipe which came from one of her grandmothers. Though she’s taken it off the menu for now, she said she’ll eventually bring it back, but it was too labor intensive to offer as the sole cook.
“We’ll eventually have specials for lunch, but right now I’m going to start doing what I call ‘Family Sundays,'” Breaux said. She hopes she can bring folks together to enjoy a meal and just talk without worrying about cooking or cleanup.
She said through the trials and tribulations of her life, she never forgets to remain grateful for everything she’s worked for and that it “can be all be taken away tomorrow.”
“I never thought in a million years I would have this,” Breaux said, and wiped a tear from her eye. “I never thought I’d see this day … never ever could’ve imagined that someone would walk up to me and like my food so much and put it on their menu. I just thought people were selfish, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Tasten Cee is open at Paco’s from Thursday to Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. For more updates, you can look out for posts from Breaux in the various “Salem Eats” Facebook groups.
Address: 1122 Lancaster Dr. SE