At nearly 70 years old, Chin's Kitchen is a gaudy neon monument tucked away on a Hollywood district side street. It's one of the oldest Chinese restaurants in Portland—and since July 4 of this year, it's also one of the best.
Quietly, this spring, Chin's was bought by Chang Feng (Wendy) and Change (Cindy) Li, two sisters from the city of Harbin in China's far northeastern rust belt, known for the breads and soups and sweet-and-sour flavors of Dongbei cuisine.
It's also known for dumplings. And Cindy Li's handmade dumplings ($10.95 for 10) are nothing short of a revelation. Her Dongbei-style take is a thicker and denser country cousin to more delicate Shanghai fare, a spongy exercise in extreme comfort. We tried three of her eight variations—pork paired with lightly pickled kraut, leek or celery. Each sticky, boiled dumpling melted tenderly into the bright dipping sauce and then across the palate, like tired shoulders into a hug.
The fresh, thick noodles are an equal comfort, especially when soaking in umami-drenched beef broth blooming with anise. And, if you'd like, you can watch Li through the restaurant's interior glass window as she hand-pulls those noodles. But you'll be too busy eating the starter that begins each Dongbei meal: a bowl of roasted peanuts and a daikon-and-carrot white kimchi, a palate-cleanser pairing earthy nuts with light, bright acidity.
Among two visits and many dishes, nothing failed—whether a surprisingly flavorful cold plate of wok-kissed tofu silk tossed with charred red chili and cilantro, or a wildly spicy and saucy plate of cumin beef. The latter plate was viscous with ground spice; the fiery mix of cumin, chili, red pepper and garlic was like a fresh take on Lawry's taco seasoning. Meanwhile, a beef-and-potato pot roast was richer and fattier than most French fare, the short rib in the pot lightly crisped.
The hallmark of Dongbei food is the sweet-and-sour fare they invented, and Chin's sweet-and-sour pork is a game-changer on that front. A far cry from most sad and sickly sweet American versions, the potato-starch-dredged pork cutlets of Chin's guo bao rou are a delicate medley of vinegar, sugar and light ginger-garlic spice. A similar complexity and delicacy pervade the sweet-bean sauce of the shredded pork dish. It's like learning a new language of sweet and sour, neither tart nor cloying, but a true balance of opposites.
Service is earnest but a bit overwhelmed: Even in the first month under new ownership, the Hollywood locals have figured out the food here is suddenly terrific. Meanwhile, neon shop Neon Gods is taking up a GoFundMe collection to restore the Chin's Kitchen sign to full glory, so the animated neon figure of Mr. Chin will once again eat brightly from his bowl. You should probably join him.
EAT: Chin's Kitchen, 4132 NE Broadway St., 503-281-1203. 11 am–3 pm, 4:30–9 pm Tuesday-Sunday. (Note: Website and social media belong to the very different restaurant run by the former owners of Chin's.)