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July 28th, 2010 Ethan Smith | Food Reviews & Stories
 

Of Chintz And Chiles

Lucky Strike upgrades its address and downgrades its decor.

     
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BOWL OF FIRE: Hank Boehmer heats things up in Lucky Strike’s new Hawthorne kitchen.
IMAGE: chrisryanphoto.com

Like many of this city’s best Asian restaurants, a meal at Lucky Strike entailed a trek to the gritty fringes of Portland. Central-city foodies deemed its chile-laden Szechuan delicacies worth a drive through the crucible of strip malls and payday lenders to Southeast 123rd Avenue and Powell Boulevard. But that changed in June, when Lucky Strike abandoned its modest dining room for far more central digs at Southeast 39th Avenue and Hawthorne Boulevard. Lost in the move was the welcoming landmark of the Hamm’s Beer bear painted on the wall of the adjacent Powellhurst Tavern, and the conspiratorial satisfaction of seeking out a culinary diamond in the rough.

However, by moving to a central nerve of this food-obsessed city, Lucky Strike became convenient to Portland’s foodie masses. The obvious question: Would the food be the same?

Luckily, the answer is yes. The food remains phenomenal.

Jiaozi dumplings ($4), plump with savory pork and cabbage, nestle in a pool of ruddy chile sauce. A mound of verdant Chinese chives hides chunks of pork belly studded with ginger and mouth-tingling Szechuan peppercorns (twice-cooked pork, $10). And Lucky Strike’s signature “hot pepper chicken bath” ($10) lives up to its intimidating hype, with angry-looking red chiles spilling from the plate with each stab of the chopsticks.

A survey of Lucky Strike’s new space does not bode as well as the grub. The decor is a tawdry caricature of Far East aesthetics: deep red walls, gaudy gold chandeliers and, writhing across the back wall, a Chinese dragon that would be at home on an Ed Hardy belt buckle. This grasping stab at hipness, it appears, is the ownership’s attempt to market Lucky Strike to some twisted ideal of the “cool Portlander.” They underestimate the stealthy charms of the hole-in-the-wall—of finding astounding food in an unlikely location.

However, despite the tacky decor, despite the syrupy cocktail list (Lucky Strike gained a full bar in the move), co-chefs/owners Rita Jia You and Stefan Leopold’s Lucky Strike remains one of Portland’s most unique and satisfying culinary experiences. Nothing has changed about the crusty-edged Guinness pork ribs ($10), caramelized to a rich brown in soy and Irish stout. And the “spicy noodle with pork ribs” ($8)—a knot of noodles twisting through tender pork and aromatic broth laden with star anise and the ubiquitous Szechuan peppercorns—is still among the best things I’ve ever eaten.

Indeed, after an appetizer and a second look, even the new space has its charms. Once good taste recovers from the initial shock and anxieties about the food are quelled, the new Lucky Strike is as endearingly chintzy as the old Lucky Strike was endearingly unaffected. And the new locale is an even more unlikely gem than the old. After all, every foodie has a favorite hole-in-the-wall, but you’d never expect exquisite, authentic Chinese food from what looks like a bad knockoff of P.F. Chang’s.

  • Order this: Spicy noodle with pork ribs; complex flavors with well-balanced heat make for a near-perfect dish.

  • Best deal: Nearly everything on the menu is under $10 with an average around $7, meaning a party of four can feast for $80—tip and Tsingtao included.

  • I’ll pass: My Sister’s Rabbit; in print, a tantalizing mix of rabbit, scallions, peanuts and bean paste, but on the plate nothing special. And it’s served cold, which can be off-putting if you’re not expecting it.

EAT: Lucky Strike, 3862 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 206-8292. Dinner 4 pm-midnight Wednesday-Friday and Monday. Lunch and dinner noon-1 am Saturday, noon-midnight Sunday. $ Inexpensive.
 
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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