People told Wendy and Cindy Li they were crazy.
Three different owners had already failed at Chin's Kitchen, a 70-year-old Hollywood District restaurant better known for its mammoth glowing neon than its chop suey. Any spot in the center of Portland is a bad spot for Chinese restaurants, the Li sisters were warned by their Chinese friends.
"So many people said, 'You can't cook Chinese food in that neighborhood,'" says Wendy Li. "Too many Americans live there. They want American Chinese. You have to cook American food."
Wendy, a veteran of international business and a published poet in her native Mandarin, thought different. She had watched old-guard American Chinese restaurants fail, and she’d also seen the success of Northeast Broadway spot Shandong, devoted in part to the regional cuisine of owner Henry Liu’s parents.
"Chinese food is better than American Chinese," she says.
At a now-packed Chin's Kitchen, she and her sister opened the first Dongbei restaurant in Oregon, devoted to the dumplings, pork stews and noodles of China's northeastern rust belt.
Li and her sister Cindy are not alone. They're part of the most exciting trend in Portland food this year. Once sequestered in the immigrant enclaves of 82nd Avenue and Beaverton, fantastic regional Asian food has finally come to the middle of Portland.
In Portland, 2017 has been the Year of the Rooster.
Rather than honor a single Restaurant of the Year, we're paying homage to a newfound wealth of restaurants serving excellent East Asian food in the center of the city—a transformation in Portland dining that would have seemed impossible even a few years ago.
Alongside Chin's, this year saw the opening of two other Asian restaurants unlike any Portland has ever seen. At XLB on North Williams, second-generation Chinese chef Jasper Shen serves meat-stuffed baozi and now-magical xiao long bao dumplings filled with warming, herbal broth. And at Southeast Stark Street's Danwei Canting, Kyo Koo cooks a la za ji "pepper bath" chicken that's evolved into our favorite in Portland, an exploding grenade of numbing sichuan peppercorn and chili-pepper spice.
Meanwhile, Peter Cho's two-year-old Korean spot Han Oak found its voice this year, ditching staid reservations-only prix-fixe and embracing the democratic pleasures of hand-torn noodles, ramen-and-spam budae jjigae stew, and broth-soaked mandoo dumplings filled with oxtail. Han Oak has become one of the most inspired restaurant experiences in Portland.
Even Portland's already impressive Thai scene was further deepened with the addition of Pok Pok NW and Hawthorne's Farmhouse Kitchen, started by Michelin-recognized chefs.
This is a sea change in Portland dining, one made possible by a new generation of diners more traveled than any before them, and more likely to have lived in big cities like Seattle, San Francisco or Los Angeles—places with rich, vibrant and varied Asian food scenes.
"I am always surprised," Li says. "So many customers have had experiences in China. A couple came in and ordered in Mandarin."
Li was surprised to see customers ordering dishes that are her own favorites on the menu, like a terrific kidney-and-pepper plate whose meat is knife-scored into little cones to soak up even more garlic-soy flavor from the wok.
Many of the dishes at Chin's will be new to most diners. It's a rarity not just in Portland but in the country, one of few Dongbei-style restaurants anywhere in America, serving pork hocks brined and slow-roasted into tender and salty sweetness, brightly acidic tofu-skin salad blazing with chilies, beefy soup with thick hand-cut noodles, and Russian-tinged pork and sauerkraut soup loaded up with translucent sweet-potato noodles.
Even before the Lis opened Chin's, Cindy's dumplings were famous in the local Chinese community. She'd been serving them out of a little eatery inside the Food Depot on outer Powell Boulevard, where Chinese chefs stocked up on ingredients. When that eatery closed, dumpling fans flooded Chinese social media app WeChat, asking where they could get her wonderful pork-and-shrimp-stuffed pasta.
Chin's is now packed to bursting with diners gathered around the food Cindy grew up cooking in their tiny village near the far Northeastern city of Harbin, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian railroad. She dreams of someday opening a restaurant on a farmhouse, using vegetables from the farm the same way she used to pick ingredients from the local fields. In the meantime, Wendy says, they'd love to add labor-intensive baozi and green-onion pancakes to the menu.
But for now, Wendy says they'll have to hold off on adding to the menu because it's so hard to find kitchen help. "The younger Chinese people," she says, "They don't want to work in kitchens."
Staffing their kitchens is a problem for all of these restaurants, with experienced East Asian chefs in short supply. It's the thing that held back other kitchens we're recognizing as part of the Year of the Rooster, which have since rounded into shape.
"We had a well-documented rough opening," Shen says about XLB, his casual counter-service spot on North Williams.
Dumpling-crazed diners mobbed the former Aviary chef in droves, taxing his kitchen to the breaking point. But eight months in, XLB's soup dumplings are marvels of consistency: lovely, delicate kisses bursting with deep-flavored broth whose aroma blossoms out of the hole made by a curious fork.
The rest of the menu, culled from Shen's childhood memories eating around town and in his own family's restaurants, has also been dialed—whether juicy meat-filled baozi, or shrimp and pork Shanghai noodles that might as well be shiu mai dumplings exploded into pasta.
This is especially true of the wok-kissed flat noodles of Shen's beef ho fun, fired in the wok until they're steeped in the the flavor of the sauce and meat.
"Every big Asian family that comes in, everybody orders the beef ho fun," says Shen. "That's the one thing everybody knows, that everybody grows up with."
Kyo Koo's Danwei Canting, across from packed bar the Slammer on Stark Street, has also evolved after a tough opening into a fast-casual corker with two beautiful signature dishes. One is the pungent, saucy Beijing-style jja jiang mian black bean dish made with house-made noodles—shaken from the Korean-border version Koo grew up with by the addition of the soy beans and mushrooms that are a Beijing trademark.
The other is that la za ji pepper-bath chicken. Though it started out mild, Koo turned up the dish's heat by chopping up the fiery red chilies amid scallion-and spice-crusted chicken, releasing the capsaicin that makes for pepper heat and toasting the seeds into warm smokiness. Meanwhile, Lin Chen, a veteran of Chinese kitchens who everyone at Danwei knows as "Auntie Lin" is making her own trademark dumplings.
Koo gets comment cards from native-Chinese students at PSU who come in every week to eat his chicken and dumplings.
"The hongshao rou, the braised pork belly—they came in and said, 'This is amazing, it reminds me of my mom," Koo says. "That's one of the best compliments we can get, if it takes you back to 15 years ago to when your mom was cooking for you."
But just as much, these restaurants act as ambassadors to American diners unfamiliar with the beautiful variety of Chinese and Korean food—diners who may have been less likely to venture out to 82nd Avenue or Beaverton in the past, but now may do so.
After the elated response of Portland to Chin's Kitchen, Wendy Li says she gets a lot of visits from owners of other Chinese restaurants—and thinks maybe more Chinese people may be inspired to cook the food they know best, from their home regions and their home kitchens.
"You know, we are the first Dongbei restaurant in Oregon," she says. "Next year, maybe there will be two. And next year? Maybe more than that."