Master Kong is Portland's new Chinese food destination for a singular reason—sister-and-brother team Amy and Kang Zhu offer a concise menu of regional Chinese breakfast and lunch hits, centering on the Tianjin and Guangdong regions of China.
At Master Kong, you step out of the suburbs and into a small and modern restaurant with hardwood floors and Douglas fir counters. Every table holds paper napkins and cups, wooden chopsticks and Sriracha. Kang Zhu also owns the great Sichuan spot Pot N Spicy, and at Master Kong, he leads the team from the open kitchen.
One morning, I took a seat at the front counter. Complimentary tea arrived as classical music played over the speakers. By 10:30 am, the dining room was mostly full, with several languages being spoken.
None of the dishes I tried at Master Kong was an outright fail, but I have one bone to pick with the restaurant: The menus feature only pictures and dish titles, no descriptions. To rectify the matter, here are the greatest Chinese comfort food hits at Master Kong.
Steamed buns ($7.50)
Iconic to the Tianjin region since the 1800s, the goubuli buns were my favorite dish on the menu. An order comes with five buns, each around 2.5 inches in diameter and filled with hot, juicy, gingery pork. The buns, like all the dumplings at Master Kong, are made by hand daily, and their perfection lies greatly in their cloudlike weight.
"We taste the buns every morning to make sure they're right," Amy Zhu told my table. The buns had bubbly exteriors, and Zhu explained a small amount of chicken stock is added to the pork filling so it absorbs into the buns while cooking, creating a thin coating.
If you're like me, you may find the pork sometimes disappears a bit early, leaving a hollow nub of pillowy dough that looks suspiciously like a white-bread taco. Do not miss this opportunity to go overboard with the accompanying caramelized garlic-peanut dipping sauce. Wok-fried and then blended, the garlic, peanut and sesame seed paste is a garlic lover's sticky-sweet dream.
Like a Chinese breakfast crepe or burrito, jianbing have been on the rise in Portland ever since the breakout of the Bing Mi food cart. Master Kong's were comparatively lighter overall, the wrapper contrastingly supple and chewy, prepared using a mix of flours and an egg wash. Made to order, each jianbing is filled with sweet soy bean sauce, spicy fermented bean paste, crunchy crackers, cilantro, scallion and ginger. Start with the basic, vegetarian jianbing, or add pork belly or brisket ($2). Go mild, all ye afraid of spice.
Master Kong offers several congees, from chicken to fish. As comforting and humble as cream of wheat, I could eat the salted pork bone congee every day. The warm bowl of breakfast cereal arrived laced with threads of ginger, soothing the belly. Tender meat pulled gently from squares of stewed salted-pork bone. For a traditional pairing, add the Fried Dough Bar ($2), a savory, deep-fried breadstick.
Wonton soup ($7.50)
It's up to you whether wonton soup is better for breakfast, lunch or dinner, but Master Kong's is highly worth ordering. Made with dried shrimp, pork and chicken, the purist broth was light and balanced and ended with a shrimpy finish. Every wonton seemed to contain a whole shrimp, as well as pork and wood ear mushrooms. Though not made in-house, the noodles—thin like angel hair pasta—had a teasing al dente tug.
Chinese burgers ($7.50)
Master Kong makes its own buns for roujiamo, aka Chinese burgers. They come out surprisingly light while remaining crisp and sturdy, containing a jalapeño-studded pork filling with a meatiness deserving of the burger title. It stays moist thanks to a soy-based house burger sauce.
Dumplings ($6.50) and pot stickers ($7.50)
The dumplings and pot stickers were both serviceable, but because I consider them requisite items for most Chinese feasts, I appreciated seeing them on the menu. Stuffed by hand, they offer slight variations on pork fillings. Just slightly over-boiled, the dumpling wrappers gave way in places but didn't spill their contents. The pot stickers had crisp bottoms but remained chewy, the pork a little tough, whether due to a lack of fat or overworking. It was a tossup which was better.
EAT: Master Kong, 8435 SE Division St., 971-373-8248. 9:30 am-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday.