You never forget eating your first ear. The initial bite takes gumption, but at least the thin slices at Wing Wa BBQ King (2788 SE 82nd Ave., 771-1848) don't look like ears—they could be exotic mushrooms or even tropical vegetables. The sauce-lacquered pigskin is salty-sweet, with a ribbon of cartilage that crunches more like a carrot than a pork rind. "The Western palate isn't accustomed to gelatinous textures—especially those naturally occurring," my friend Chino says as I chomp into a thicker piece. It goes down easier. He says Wing Wa is as authentic Cantonese as it gets. That was obvious. The room was packed with diners and I was the only white guy, eating my mountain of ears ($3) in a fluorescent-lit dining room that looked to have been decorated with $50 worth of goods from the dollar store. The elderly waitress who seemed to know about 20 English words asked Chino in Cantonese if I knew what I was eating...they both stared at me and started laughing. Chino said mischievously that it was part of my "round-eye" education.
Chino Lee grew up eating ears. His real name is Wayne, but no one calls him that. Half Vietnamese and half Chinese, the Hispanic dishwashers dubbed him "Chino" several years ago when he worked at Red Robin. Being the type of self-deprecating guy the fraternal and politically incorrect restaurant world attracts, he adopted it.
Portland may be one of the whitest big cities in America (75.5 percent, to be exact), but its smaller Asian communities provide what I consider to be some of the most interesting fare in town. I asked Chino for a restaurant tour of Portland's "new" Chinatown, specifically the rough triangle between Northeast Sandy Boulevard, 82nd Avenue and Powell Boulevard, because I wanted to try the kind of Asian food that I wouldn't have a clue how to order myself. According to Chino, whose father escaped a North Vietnamese POW camp for a boat ride to America in the 1970s, this area is ground zero for eateries that serve the many Chinese and Vietnamese families that live in outer Southeast and Northeast Portland. But for newbie diners, it can be tough enough to find the better off-the-radar Asian restaurants and markets. And, once there, it's even tougher to know what to order.
After filling up on ears, we sample what Chino says are perfect banh mi sandwiches at Vina (8220 SE Harrison St., 774-1284), a Vietnamese deli buried in a strip mall. Like any great sandwich, Vina's version shines because of subtleties: pickled carrots neither too thick nor too thin; taut cilantro; soft, delicious meatballs; and tangy housemade mayonnaise and a soft, toasted baguette—two of the things the Vietnamese kept from the French. Not bad for $2.50.
An outdoor thermometer read 105 degrees later that afternoon as we sat under an awning at Thanh Thao Market (6517 NE Sandy Blvd., 284-4129). Thanh Thao is not a restaurant, but it serves a deli case full of Vietnamese comfort food like cha (a hamlike meat staple), stewed entrails and boiled eggs bobbing in a fat-specked pork broth: the equivalent to our American meatloaf and chicken and dumplings. We ate sporkfuls of rice with hunks of stewed pork belly and daikon ($2 for six ounces), sopping up the briny, fish-sauce-spiked pools of runoff with missiles of fried bread (75 cents) that the Vietnamese call "oil-fried bastard." According to Chino, the rolls were named after a scandalous politician who was rumored to have been fried to death.
We had more fried bread (50 cents), as well as tangy jackfruit smoothies ($2.50), at Pho Hung (4717 SE Powell Blvd., 775-3170). I've visited this noodle house many times, but never before sampled the rice porridge with spicy sausage, tripe, innards and coagulated blood ($6.25). Good, but a little tinny. I ate around the blood chunks, which looked like red tofu. There are a few things I won't eat.
While I consider myself an adventurous eater, my trip with Chino reminded me how much there still is to discover in this town. I'm not part of that word-of-mouth chain among Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants that makes these hidden gems popular. Chino straddles both of these worlds, as well as mine. But not everyone knows where to find a guide like him (hint: He bartends at the Pearl District Italian eatery Fratelli). No Chino? No worries. He says the Asian markets are a good place to begin a journey. "If you want to find it, just ask."
A "round-eye" has gotta start somewhere, right?