Shanghai street fare is legendary: dumplings, fried chicken, duck neck, smoked fish, you name it. But in Portland, Chinese food carts are a bewildering rarity, aside from a couple noodle shops on the west side. So we're elated to suddenly see dumpling soup downtown and gizzards on Alberta, served up by carts with oddly parallel names: Mama Chow's and Uncle Tsang's kitchens.
Southwest 2nd Avenue and Stark Street, facebook.com/mamachowskitchen.
Mama Chow's is a gorgeous cart with a cheery sky-blue sign and aesthetics tailor-made for foodie Tumblrs. The cook isn't Mama but rather Jeff Chow, who moved up from San Francisco and brings a bit of that city's take on Chinese food—including the gorgeously crisp and fresh bok choy served with most dishes, often egregiously overcooked elsewhere. The cart keeps to a minimalist four items, but there's not much going for the two oily, limp garlic noodle dishes (served with or without by-the-numbers kalua pork), so really we're talking about a fried chicken and dumpling cart here. The shrimp-pork dumplings (chicken is also available) were hearty and packed glutenous spheres, floating in a mild savory broth that cries out for the cart's stacked spice rack. With a bit of black-bean chili added, it's the best thing on the menu, and generous enough to be a full meal. The fried chicken has been copiously praised elsewhere—and we do appreciate those bare-bone lollipop handles—but ours lacked both spice and crispness of crust. It was sweet, moist chicken with subtle ginger and garlic. Pleasant, but no contender for the crown in a city suddenly obsessed with fried chicken. Go dumpling.
If Mama gives you what she's supposed to, Uncle Tsang slips you the junk food and weird bits. The cart trumpets vegan and gluten-free items—they know their neighborhood—but the most fun I had was with a mostly dry dish of fried gizzards with hot peppers. It is, essentially, organ-meat popcorn on dry rice noodles, trashy snacks for your next horror-movie marathon. Much of the rest of the menu is standard Chinese-American fare, from orange beef to Mongolian, but of particular note is an excellent string bean dish with Szechuan pickles—pungent zha cai mustard stems—as well as an almost soupy shrimp scrambled eggs and a shrimp-in-lobster-sauce dish that's an attack of umami. Pair those hot gizzards and shrimpy eggs with a 21st Amendment 4:19 IPA from the Hoppy Camper next door. Don't Instagram it. Don't put it on your Facebook. This is between you and Uncle Tsang.