Ever since Chinatown moved east to 82nd Avenue and beyond, decent Chinese food in the center of Portland has been as elusive as protests in Tiananmen Square.
Not only does Southeast Stark Street's new Chinese spot, Danwei Canting, turn this sad situation around, it does so with a menu focusing on Beijing street food—a category rarely explored in Portland or, frankly, anywhere else I've been in the United States.
Beijing cuisine borrows ideas and traditions from all over China: the riotously fermented meat-sauce noodles along the Korean border, or the pepper-bath chicken of Chongqing in the South. Danwei brings together the tumult of the Beijing street-food experience as a joint effort between Kyo Koo, a Korean-American chef with a background in Western fine dining, and James Kyle, a Mandarin-fluent Westerner who lived in Beijing for 15 years.
Though consistency remains an occasional problem, much of the menu really stands out.
For starters, order the $3 dish of roasted peanuts partially submerged in sweetened black vinegar, the flavor of Cracker Jack imbued with an earthy tang. Once they hit the table, I can't keep my hands off them.
A second favorite is la zi ji chicken (aka hot pepper chicken bath; $10), easily the best version of this Sichuanese dish to hit town since Lucky Strike's tear-jerkingly hot rendition. At Danwei, the moderately sized order arrives in a stainless-steel bowl filled with chunks of chicken lightly floured and wok-fried to piping-hot, dark-golden greaselessness, together with a fistful of flamboyantly red dried chilies. Sichuan peppercorns and bits of garlic and scallion also mingle in the bowl.
Devout pepperheads will consume everything, including the dried chilies, tripping on the full inferno effect. For the sane, it's best to dig out a piece of chicken with some of the other spices (hint: they tend to migrate to the bottom of the bowl) to glory in a brief, heady blast of heat, accompanied by savory chicken and numbing peppercorn. If you tried this dish shortly after Danwei opened and were disappointed with its tepid mildness, take heart that it has improved markedly since January.
Another simple but compelling dish is paigu ($6), dry-fried pork ribs. The plate arrives simply—two meaty but unseasoned ribs with a dull, matte-brown color that suggests excessive wok time. Don't be deceived. The meat is succulent and piggy, and each order comes with a small pile of coarse salt so you can customize your sodium intake.
The familiar dumplings ("jiaozi" on the menu; $7-$8) may be stuffed with lamb, pork or mushroom and are served with a ramekin of chopped garlic to which black vinegar can be added for dunking. They're well-made, if prosaic—well-suited for wee ones, elders and Republicans.
One of the most unexpected gems on the menu is a $10 meal of burger and fries. But this is a far cry from the conciliatory burger plate that graced Chinese-American spots in the '80s—the pork or lamb Beijing street burgers ($6-$7) come in ginger-anise or chili-cumin-garlic flavors that would make Ray Kroc cringe. While you're at it, order a bowl of shoestring fries ($4), whether merely salted the way they normally come or enhanced with black vinegar and ground Sichuan peppercorn that the kitchen will add if you ask nicely.
Danwei forces you to endure the counter-service rigmarole, which becomes a problem when the food is so unfamiliar to most first-time customers. The party ahead of you may have lots of questions, or special needs. But it's so damn nice that there's finally decent Chinese food in the middle of the city, who cares about a little inconvenience?
Danwei Canting, 803 SE Stark St., 503-236-6050, danweicanting.com. 11 am-9 pm Sunday-Thursday, 11 am-10 pm Friday-Saturday.