Like a new love born at Coachella, Lil' Wares was never meant to last. Consider it a summer fling, equal parts exciting and doomed.
When the quaint Red Fig restaurant closed down this spring on Northeast Fremont Avenue, next door to Johanna Ware's "inauthentic Asian" restaurant Smallwares, Ware looked longingly at the Fig's greenery-lined patio and rickety old house and gave it a resounding "Why not?" Sure, the property is getting developed, in the way of all Portland things with more land than income. But like last year's World Cup Beer Garden, Lil' Wares is a pop-up patio party beautiful in part for its evanescence, a sunny-day lunch and cocktail spot with flavors as bright as the weather. I've still not seen the house's cozy interior for longer than it would take to find the restroom, and I probably never will. This is a treat for summer days, a months-long Flannery O'Connor porch-sit with fewer peacocks and more garlic.
Lil' Wares' signature item is a possibly perfect thing, a General Tso chicken sandwich ($10) that's essentially a Chinese po'boy. On a toasted hoagie roll, Ware mixes fried chicken bites with thin-cut mirin-soy broccoli slaw, Thai chilies, fried shallots and gooey sauce to create a crispy, savory, sweet, spicy explosion. Ware is not the first to have this idea—to my knowledge, that honor belongs to some dude on Long Island—but like all great culinary inventions, it is at once a complete surprise and instantly familiar. It's as if the sandwich already existed in platonic form before you even took your first bite.
The chop chae sweet-potato noodles ($11, add $3 for crab), meanwhile, are a riotous ferment of black bean, bolstered with yet another idea that seems obvious but somehow isn't: a pesto of shiso instead of basil, accentuated by a wealth of whole pine nuts and the dish's coup de grâce: a generous helping of pickled shiitake mushrooms that pop like flavor-filled balloons under one's teeth.
The banchan are not free, as at Korean spots, but they are essential to the experience, tiny bursts of flavor and texture. You should order the farro dish ($4), especially. Already an underrated grain—deeply satisfying in texture and far more complex than rice or quinoa—Lil' Wares' miso-soaked farro maintains just the right degree of starchiness, complicated further by the light crunch of pecan, the snap of pea tendril and the brightness of fresh strawberry or cherry. But to fill out the palate with acidic brightness, also get the pickled salmon and arugula banchan ($5) or the oysters ($2 each) with an eye-opening, lime-pickle chutney that easily betters the fish-sauce half-shells generally on offer at Smallwares.
Other sandwiches fill out the menu—a serrano-spiced turkey club, a kimchi burger—but consider the Tso your baseline entree. In particular, the burger ($10) is a hoisin-kimchi burger in the school of all hoisin-kimchi burgers, with the added goo of melted American cheese as a sop to the old-school In-N-Outers. But while it's pleasant enough, it's subject to the failings of all kimchi burgers, which is that the kimchi is too easily tamed by the meatiness of the burger but doesn't add to its savor—it's a competitor, not an ally.
And when the summer is over, of course, the patio will likely close for good and our summer tryst will turn bittersweet. âWeâll always have Lilâ Wares,â weâll say, with tears in our eyes, as the reign of General Tso comes to an end.
Order this: General Tso sandwich ($10) with mixed banchan and oysters.
I'll pass: Grilled stuffed avocado, burger.
EAT: Lil' Wares, 4537 NE Fremont St., 971-229-0995, smallwarespdx.com/lil. Lunch 11 am-3 pm Monday-Friday, brunch 11 am-3 pm Saturday-Sunday.