As the face and spirit of Master Kong, Amy Zhu—she insists her Chinese name is
too difficult to spell and pronounce—patrols the floor from midmorning through the dinner hour, single-handedly taking all the orders, answering menu questions, delivering food to tables and cleaning up once diners have gone. She's also quick with a smile, and a wisecrack for regulars, proud that customers who came to know her elsewhere have followed her here. Amy's days are long. Most mornings she arrives by 8:30 and typically doesn't leave until 11 at night. On Mondays, when Master Kong is closed, there is no respite. She is busy running to the grocery store and doing paperwork.
Though Amy is the one greeting visitors at the homespun restaurant that opened last March, Master Kong is palpably a family affair. The small dining room is in an old house on Southeast Division Street just a few blocks from I-205. Amy's "much younger" brother, Kang, is in the kitchen creating some of the best Chinese comfort dishes in town. Before Kang came to Portland nearly 10 years ago, he honed his kitchen skills in the port city of Tianjin, and Beijing, where he climbed the ranks to run one of the capital's hotel restaurants. According to Amy, Kang works even longer hours than she does. Their parents—father Wei, 74, and mother Ye, 67—occasionally lend a hand too, chopping vegetables or making the burritolike jian bing, one of the menu's highlights.
It's that spirit of all-in dedication and industry that caught our attention. But what truly won us over was the distinctive and delicious cuisine from the Zhus' home province, coastal southern Guangdong, and Tianjin. For all of that, the Zhus' delightful 35-seater is WW's 2018 Newcomer of the Year.
East of 82nd Avenue, stretching to Gresham, is where generations of Portland-area immigrants have pinned their hopes of realizing the American dream of business ownership and prosperity. If you were to tack strings to all their countries of origin on a map, it would look like somebody yarn-bombed most every continent. And many, like the Zhu family, have opened restaurants. When Amy immigrated to America from China in 1997, she immersed herself in the local industry. Her family had run a restaurant back home, so naturally that's where she found her bearings once here. Zhu spent several years at the Beaverton iteration of Chen's Dynasty (the original was a groundbreaking downtown tribute to Chinese regional cooking in the 1980s), then moved on to Chinese Delicacy in Southeast Portland, where she remained for more than a decade, amassing a loyal following. Her English is strong, but when Zhu arrived, she spoke only Cantonese and Mandarin. She learned the language waiting tables.
Though Amy says her brother is the boss at Master Kong, creating the menu was a collaborative effort. They took into account what the competition was serving nearby as well as what they could successfully execute in their diminutive, open kitchen. Amy proudly extols Kang's stir-fry skills and acumen with seafood, but they decided that approach wouldn't do much to set their restaurant apart. Same with dim sum. Instead, the pair went with food that wasn't widely offered, with a focus on congee, jian bing and dumplings.
In his late June review, my colleague Mattie John Bamman was especially enthralled with the steamed buns ($7.50): "Iconic to the Tianjin region [near Beijing] 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."
I'm partial to jian bing ($6.50), which is a scrumptious, non-fast-food creation resembling the much advertised (and much less delicious) Crunchwrap Supreme. I asked Amy to take me through the construction of the street food-style crepe at Master Kong. She patiently obliged. The outer pancake shell starts with red beans and green peas ground in-house and combined with barley and wheat flours. That's topped with a fried egg and a sprinkling of black sesame seeds. Next comes the filling: chopped onion, cilantro and pickled cabbage punctuated with sweet soy and spicy bean paste. And in the middle are crunchy bits of fried wonton skin. Each package is assembled, heated through and folded to order. It's a knockout.
Until Amy laid it out for me, I had no idea that the crispy, full-flavored jian bing were vegetarian. She added that they could also be made with brisket or pork belly, though these special versions are noted on the menu only in Chinese, a fact Amy admits with a laugh. But the secret is out.
Master Kong's congee ($7.50) also merits a special mention. The savory rice porridge is a traditional Cantonese breakfast food. Congee is a humble dish, but one in which all the subtle details matter. Master Kong gets them right.
"The secret is the broth," Amy told me, which starts with pork and chicken bones simmered until somehow every flavor molecule has been extracted. The congee itself is the perfect texture, not too thick or thin, with threads of ginger offering the occasional zing. From there, any additions, such as salt-cured pork, preserved egg, clam, chicken or fish, are customer's choice. And don't neglect the condiments, like sesame or plain chili oil. This congee is bland only if that's the way you want it.
The menu wanders beyond these specialties—to pot stickers and dumplings, noodle soup variations, fried rice and spare parts (tripe, pig ears and chicken feet)—though the listings don't attempt the phone-booklike compendium (and frequently resulting mediocrity) of bigger places. Indeed, one virtue of Master Kong is its limited scale, which permits the Zhus to make everything fresh and as good as it can be.
For delivering peerless Chinese specialties and doing so as an immigrant family epitomizing the values that have always made America great, it is a privilege to welcome Master Kong as our Newcomer of the Year.
GO: Master Kong, 8435 SE Division St., 971-373-8248, 9:30 am-9 pm Tuesday-Sunday