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 Northeast 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.
Former Aviary co-chef Jasper Shen took a buyout with an eye toward starting this place, the city's first serious soup dumpling house. Ask anyone who's lived in a city with more Chinese restaurants, and they'll complain that Portland lacked a credible version of xiao long bao, those little dough pockets filled with broth and meat. So Shen spent years practicing the deft twist of the wrist required to make the dumplings before opening XLB in the old Lardo space on North Williams Avenue 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.
Early on, the namesake dumplings were inconsistent. An early visit found them too dry, a common complaint. We didn't give up, and have been rewarded. Recent visits have shown them to be dialed in—bursting with lovely, savory, herbal, warming broth, accented with an on-point vinegar-shallot dipping sauce.
Other entrées have been successful from the start, in particular a light-battered five-spice popcorn chicken that was sweetly clove and cinnamon heavy with a slight afterglow of numbing Sichuan pepper. A ho fun noodle stir-fry was upgraded with beautifully steaky beef strips. From slightly dim beginnings, XLB has turned the lights on: It's now a powerhouse.
Pro tip: XLB has added a half-plate option allowing you to get $5 app-sized portions of the otherwise $9 five-spice popcorn chicken, excellent sautéed chinese greens and a fried-tofu garlic eggplant plate. For two people, score at least two of these alongside a wicker basket of newly lovely, broth-filled soup dumplings ($11) and wonderful Shanghai-style pork-and-shrimp udon ($11).