There's something strange and interesting going on in Sellwood—maybe for the first time since Sellwood.
In September, the first Malaysian Chinese cart opened on Tacoma Street, followed by a Taiwanese noodle house and Hong Kong dumpling house. Southeast's sleepiest 'hood is suddenly home to three of the most singular Asian spots in the city.
The most recent comer is Tam, a Hong Kong wonton spot from a brother-sister team, Either/Or cafe owner Ro Tam and bassist Simon Tam of the Slants, best known for recently winning a landmark federal court case allowing the all-Asian-American band to trademark its own name, which was previously deemed too self-derogatory by the U.S. Trademark Office. (Ro has been a freelance photographer for WW.)
Tam is near-hidden, tucked down a cozy shop-lined alley that will house patio seats in nice weather. Modeled in part after the ambiance of filmmaker Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, Tam's sweetly wallpapered space is certainly intimate. You are likely to end up on some sort of terms with fellow customers in the close-quartered space—maybe flirtatious, maybe apologetic.
But most of the actual intimacy comes from the photographs on the wall: The Tams learned the art of the dumpling from their father, who made wontons on the streets of Hong Kong while waiting for his visa to America.
Tam's menu is as tiny as the place: three dumpling-and-noodle soups, and a side of greens ($5) topped with beautifully rich vegetarian oyster sauce. You'll want those greens every time, both for their flavor and to make sure you're full, which probably won't happen with a single bowl of wonton soup. The Tams seem aware of this: If you want to order a second bowl of soup after your first, you get to cut to the front of the line. The bowls stay small so your dumplings don't have time to overcook in the soup.
The house broth is an almost clinically subtle chicken and flounder, while the dumplings themselves are wondrously starchy under lime-touched egg noodles, with fatty pork belly alongside shrimp in one version ($7) and an umami-packed pork-shiitake in another ($6), both soft love affairs with richness.
The bowls come with noodles and four wontons—a "four bowl," in the parlance. But you can also skip them and order an off-menu "eight bowl" instead. It's no-fuss, all dumpling, for a price hike to $10 on the shrimp and $8 on the pork-mushroom.
As in multiple Portland ramen houses as well (Boke, Noraneko), Tam's vegetarian broth is a home-grown innovation, a black bean and garlic broth that resembles a finely blended black bean empanada in its deep ferment, a richer and spicier and altogether deeper broth to prop up the meat-free fillings. It's an odd but addictive novelty, though not enough to give up on those pork belly-shrimp dumplings.
But nothing at Tam offered the wallop of the rich beef noodle broth at Taiwanese spot Wei Wei up the street, housed in an inauspicious-looking strip mall next to a convenience store. Within, Wei Wei is a stylishly minimalist noodle house and bao shop with low-hanging lamps, mismatched wood walls and a huge chalkboard-wall menu including off-track items like a subtle whole mackerel dish and skewers of mackerel-like saury.
But in that beef noodle soup ($13), thick cuts of meat join hand-pulled noodles almost as thick, in deep-brown broth that is meatier, richer, and more downright excessive than that in any pho or British meat pie. The soup is beef qua beef, beef sine qua non—an education in the language of beef. This, finally, is the promise of bone broth delivered: stock so dense the very marrow swirls within. It is a revelation—my soup of the year so far.
Those same wonderful hand-pulled noodles appear in multiple dishes throughout the menu, but to lesser effect. The solidly executed pork noodle soup ($11) doesn't attain the same depth, although it comes with a big ol' hunk of breaded pork chop served on a separate plate on the side, in a bizarrely avant-garde gesture. And a bowl of "spicy noodles (dry)" comes quite wet, topped with brothy and flavorful ground pork that nonetheless isn't served spicy. A squirter of tame chili oil is instead appended to a dish of mild noodles. Taiwan is not a place of searing heat, and neither is Wei Wei.
The mustard greens are rich and delicious, but avoid a sweet potato and water chestnut dish so subtle it exists only as white hemispheres of varying crunchiness. The mackerel ($8, $14) is a gently spiced showcase for the fish, but similar plates are best had at any number of Japanese spots in town. The bao ($2.50-$3) are glutinous, sticky and excellent, whether beef, chicken or pork belly.
But really, come to Wei Wei for the beef noodle, and stay for the beef noodle. Although if you're in a hurry, always go to Tam instead; meals at Wei Wei somehow take well over an hour. And when Portland comes to invade the tiny Hong Kong and Taiwan outposts—and it will—you may have to emigrate to Malaysia, just 10 more blocks down the road.
EAT: Tam, 8235 SE 13th Ave., 740-1325, tampdx.com. 11 am-8 pm Wednesday-Sunday. Wei Wei, 7835 SE 13th Ave., 946-1732. 11 am-10 pm Tuesday-Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.