Back in 2012, Portland's farm-to-table movement felt like a prison made of fennel and salmon. So when Northeast Alberta Street's Aviary and Fremont Street's Smallwares both leapt onto the restaurant scene with their refined, fun takes on Asianish food, the only debate was which one to name Restaurant of the Year. In the end, the more haute Aviary and its flagship chicken-skin salad prevailed, while Johanna Ware's more casual, boozy, Momofuku-influenced Smallwares was runner-up.
Fast forward five years, and chefs from both restaurants are again surfing the wave of Portland food trends—this time with upscale fast casual. Their routes are different—Ware closed her full-service restaurant after five years of scraping by in the moribund Beaumont neighborhood, while former Aviary co-chef Jasper Shen took a buyout with an eye toward starting his own place.
Now Ware is at Wares, serving highlights from her old menu at Northeast Sandy Boulevard's bustling food mall the Zipper, and Shen is making Shanghai soup dumplings at XLB on North Williams Avenue.
Three years ago, Aviary alum Shen promised to finally bring the city credible xiao long bao soup dumplings—those little dough pockets filled with broth and meat that have a cult following among foodies. He spent years practicing the deft twist of the wrist required to make the dumplings before opening XLB in the old Lardo space on Williams in January.
XLB's open-kitchen, fast-casual space is a clean-lined hall of ironized Asiatic kitsch, complete with stylized kung fu paintings, Qing dynasty lights hung at varied heights, and a gold-painted wallpaper pattern of Chinese zodiac silhouettes—perfect dog, perfect snake, perfect rooster.
The namesake dumplings are, by all accounts, inconsistent. An early visit found them too dry, a common complaint among people we've talked to. On a recent visit, they were terrific—bursting with lovely, savory, herbal, warming broth, accented with an on-point vinegar-shallot dipping sauce.
Those heavenly dumplings prove the kitchen capable of great XLB, but there's no guarantee you'll get such a good batch.
Other entrees were mostly successful, in particular a light-battered five-spice popcorn chicken ($8) that was sweetly clove- and cinnamon-heavy with a slight afterglow of numbing Sichuan pepper. A ho fun noodle stir fry ($10) was upgraded with beautifully steaky beef strips—a welcome addition, though it's hard to prefer it to the delicate noodle texture of the chow fun at Pure Spice off Southeast Division Street. Cabbage-and-mushroom baozi ($9), meanwhile, were almost Polish in their bitter-leafed savoriness, avoiding the dense-doughed pastiness afflicting far too many steamed dumplings.
XLB, 4090 N Williams Ave., 503-841-5373, xlbpdx.com. 11 am-3 pm and 5-10 pm daily.
Ware, a Chicago native with experience at a couple of New York's busiest kitchens, has always been a big-city chef in a town that runs at a lower frequency. Well, at the Zipper, she's found a place with a pace—a recent visit found the food mall overrun with customers aggressively bogarting chairs, jungle-style, as Ware and her staff sprinted around the kitchen.
Wares is a great spot, and probably a better fit for its namesake's distinctive style. You won't get the same tweezery attention to detail found at the sit-down spot, but it's much more accessible.
Take Wares' signature dish—batter-fried kale with fish sauce and bacon bits. The version at Smallwares was akin to the super-airy tempura you find at good Japanese restaurants, with a fine mist of fish sauce spread evenly. At Wares, where you watch as each batch is dropped into a basket fryer behind the counter, the batter tends to be a little clumpy, with the fish sauce and bacon collecting at the bottom of the bowl. The loud flavor is still there, though—and many more people will get to experience it.
The rice bowl ($11, add chicken thighs or pork belly for $3) is fantastic, with a bright but earthy sauce of yuzu and miso, topped with a runny fried egg, furikake seasoning and avocado. The noodles in the ramen ($13) are a bit under-alkaline, but the chicken broth is a lively black-pepper and chili-oil number, softened up with a tender-poached egg.
Weekend brunch also gives you the run of the regular menu, but the best reason to wake up in the morning is Wares' savory, textured congee, a savory rice porridge crunched up and sweetened with granola, deepened with house-fermented Chinese sausage and egg yolk and prickled up with chili oil. It all comes together as an idealized balance of hot, salty, sour, sweet and savory. Or, scratch that: It's just plain perfect.
Wares, inside the Zipper, 2713 NE Sandy Blvd., 503-954-1172, warespdx.com. 11 am-midnight daily. Brunch weekends 11 am-3 pm.