Don't just randomly show up at HK Cafe. If you're a regular at Wong's King or Ocean City, you might be surprised to find this neon-lit dining hall in Eastport Plaza is now the busiest of all 82nd Avenue dim summaries, packed with big families, hung-over couples and one Caucasian guy who patrols the floor making balloon animals. The best times we've found to go to HK Cafe are around 11 am or between 2 and 3 pm. Keep in mind, crowds are a good sign—Chinese dim sum comes from industrial kitchens that employ an army of chefs to face crushing waves of hungry diners. Lacking scale for such an operation to pencil out, much of the fare you get in this country comes from warehouse kitchens in low-rent California suburbs.
Don't get there too early. The trick with any dim sum, at least according to our table of eight first- and second-generation Taiwanese and Vietnamese immigrants, plus photographer Natalie Behring—who's traveled extensively in Asia and speaks Mandarin—is to go when it's busy enough that everything is super-fresh, but before the line forms. If you arrive at 9 am, when the doors open, some items won't yet be rolling out on the carts. If you arrive at noon, you could end up with 40 minutes to kill wandering the aisles at the neighboring Dollar Tree.
Don't skimp on the shumai. Our table worked from a simple philosophy: Get things that are a hassle to make at home. Shumai are open-faced steamed dumplings with meat popping out of dough tubes. They vary in size, filling and consistency—HK's shumai match those at Ocean City. These bite-sized morsels of juicy pork ($3.50) are full of flavor and just a little sticky on your chopsticks. Behring—noting that part of the dim sum experience in China is criticizing the food to the point of annoyance—agrees they're the best she's had in town, but "were they a little too big?"
Ask for vinegar. Don't just dip your dumplings in soy sauce, Behring says. That's like coating a salad in just olive oil. Rather, you want to mix a little vinegar into your dipping cup. The best restaurants already have it on the table, but if not, ask, and hope to get more than the few drops we received here. "Vinegar is love," she says.
Avoid the congee. I've loved the Pan-Asian rice porridge since getting hooked on it at Smallwares, and slipped into a warming bowl on my first visit to HK. That goes against the advice of Celeste Chou, my wife's co-worker and our de facto table captain at HK. "It's so easy to make," Chou says. "It's something we eat at home, especially when we're sick. It's not something you go out for." Behring says there are restaurants totally dedicated to congee, but that toppings offered here are appallingly stingy.
Get the taro balls. Those little spiky things that look like onion straws are made from taro that's been peeled (in gloves, since the raw root has small needles that dissolve when cooked), shredded (again, with gloves, or your hands will burn and itch for hours), shaped, seasoned and finally fried. It's a labor-intensive process—better to pay $3.50 here.
Don't expect to know what's in the taro balls. I'd always thought my inability to know whether a particular dim sum item has shrimp, pork or beef was a result of my own ignorance. Nope. "Different places put different things in them. Even if you ask, what they tell you might be 75 percent accurate," says Vina Nguyen, one of Chou's friends.
Slurp your chicken feet. The proper technique for eating the fried footsies ($2.75) in sticky black bean sauce is to suck the meat and skin from the side. Don't try to pick the feet apart, since there are too many tiny bones.
Try the chilled tripe. HK's tripe ($3.50) is squeaky clean and well-seasoned, with freshening ginger and earthy green onion. I'm not usually quick to order tripe, but this little bowl was toothsome, like salty farfalle pasta.
Be picky about the buns. In judging any dim sum, Behring looks to the shrimp dumplings ($3.50) and applies a three-part test, learned from a Macanese friend: The wheat-paper wrapping should be so thin you can see the shrimp's veins, the wrapping shouldn't break, and the wrapping shouldn't stick to your teeth. HK failed the first two parts.
But, seriously, be picky. Turns out, you're not supposed to handle the buns ($2.75-$3.50) with chopsticks. Embarrassingly, I've been doing this wrong forever. If there's a piece of paper under an item—as with the extra-fluffy pork buns here filled with sweet and tangy ground meat—it's designed to be eaten with your hands.
Get the radish cake. The Chou clan doesn't like the Chinese answer to hash browns, but Behring does. HK's housemade version ($2.75) passed her test. "They were a little more generous with the shrimp than I would be, but they were generous with the pork chunks, too, so it balanced out," Behring says. "It would have been nice if they were fried a bit longer and had more crispy bits…maybe they rushed them out of the kitchen."
Try the pineapple egg yolk buns. They're dark yellow puffs ($3.50) filled with sweet pineapple juice and an egg yolk that's just a little runny when it comes off the tray before hardening into a steamed custard. It was our favorite dessert.
Skip the baked durian pastry and wolfberry cake. The notoriously stanky durian is a favorite of our table when fresh, but HK's out-of-season version ($3.50) didn't win any fans. "This isn't real durian, it's like a Jolly Rancher version of durian made of chemicals," says William Chou, Celeste's brother. The wolfberry cake ($2.75) looks intriguing—thick slabs of yellowish gelatin stuffed with bright-red goji berries—but it's very mild in sweetness; more texture than taste.
Try the crispy seaweed roll, which confused everyone at our table. This nontraditional creation ($6)—"like a deep-fried dim sum version of a California roll," Behring says—has green skin and fillings no one was comfortable trying to guess. Our table hadn't seen anything like it, not even at the famous Asian night market in Richmond, B.C. Someone at HK may have invented it—a good reminder that dim sum is an ever-evolving cuisine, not bound to anyone's idea of authenticity.
Don't get the spongecake. HK has more odd desserts, including a huge hunk of crumbly yellow cake ($2.75) that mystified everyone. "That's weird and new," Celeste Chou says. "They're always trying something new, because it's very competitive between the places. Even when it comes to employees—you'll see the same people at different restaurants, and it's like, 'Hey, I know you!' HK is doing a lot of desserts, that's their thing." They've ridden those desserts into the lead, but Portland's dim sum scene is dynamic—you never know when we'll see Wong's return or a rising tide at Ocean City.
EAT: HK Cafe, 4410 SE 82nd Ave., 771-8866. 9:30 am-11 pm daily.