Step away from the hamburger and ribs—this summer, it’s all about the Cantonese barbecue.
Pork and duck, marinated and roasted in ways that create crispy skin, and tender meat laced with the flavors of hoisin, soy and star anise. And of those Cantonese specialties, I present a holy trinity of sorts: roasted duck, chopped whole and bone-in, flush with flavor; roasted pork belly, rendered well and with a perfectly crisp layer of skin on the top; and char siu pork, sliced and infused with hoisin and soy. Sometimes there’s also steamed soya chicken, and that’s fine too, but those three are the supreme meats.
Newcomer YāYā PDX brings takeout Cantonese barbecue to a close-in neighborhood, with delicious results, which inspired me to take a li’l tour of all my favorite spots, just in case you too would like to subsist on leftover duck for the better part of a month. (Pro tip: It makes fantastic fried rice.)
Chef Steven Chin calls Cantonese barbecue his soul food, and you really feel that. The streamlined menu focuses on serving meat over rice with hot mustard, dipping sauce and pickled cucumber and carrot. It’s simple and it’s great.
Of the three in our meat triumvirate, YāYā particularly nails the duck and char siu pork. Of all the duck I’ve sampled (and it’s been many; sorry to my avian friends), Chin’s is the most five-spice forward. The ducks he selects also have more meat on the bones than many of the others, leading to luscious full bites of bird. As Cantonese duck is served chopped and bone-in, this means a bigger and better pay off as you nibble.
The char siu is even better—tender and softly sweet, it’s a far cry from the red food coloring-spiked barbecue pork served at some establishments. In both cases, the juices from the meat make their way into the bed of rice, which is itself perfectly cooked and seasoned beyond standard steamed rice. The one downside to YāYā's dishes is that all of the rich meats are accompanied by sweet sauces, and while the pickles have a bit of acid, they also are a bit sugary, meaning the whole meal tends a bit toward the saccharine. Bites of rice and throwing an order of the cool, crisp cabbage salad onto your order maintains balance.
Chin’s Cantonese approach, done in partnership with Portland restaurateur Micah Camden, is certainly geared more toward a crowd on Alberta than in the Jade District, but the cheffy turns he takes make for a great takeout meal.
EAT: YāYā PDX, 1451 NE Alberta St., 503-477-5555,yayapdx.com.
Chen’s Good Taste
Unless you’re a vegetarian, I can’t think of a tastier sight than the roasted meats hanging near the entrance to Chen’s Good Taste, a holdout in downtown’s Chinatown. To be perfectly honest, the finest way to have the meats at Good Taste are by ordering Super Bowl A, an absolute unit of soup that’s filled with noodles, wontons and bok choy and topped with roast duck and roast and barbecue pork. It is nigh on physically impossible to finish in one go.
But if you’re not in a soup mood, each of the trinity is sold by the pound or is available in all sorts of dishes. The roasted pork here is a true delicacy, perfectly salty and not too fatty. The contrasting crunchy skin hits just the right textural note in a blend of fat and umami that I crave regularly. Chen’s know this is its signature meat: You can order an entire pig, and it’s a bucket-list birthday plan of mine.
EAT: Chen’s Good Taste, 18 NW 4th Ave.,503-223-3838, chensgoodtaste.com.
This Independence, Ore., restaurant is a central valley favorite for duck, and when the owners moved to Northeast 82nd, they immediately upped Portland’s duck game as well.
Happy Dragon is most famous for its super-crunchy and deeply seasoned Peking duck, but the roast duck is something a little more accessible for everyday eating. A little less crispy than Peking, the roast duck maintains its juiciness, with the meat absorbing the rendered fat, while the skin is a vehicle for the 18 ingredients used in the marinade. Here the barbecue Pork is a bit of an afterthought, and the roast pork belly is totally serviceable. You won’t go wrong ordering either of them, as long as you don’t skip that duck.
EAT: Happy Dragon, 707 NE 82nd Ave., 503-256-3828, happydragonchineserestaurant.com.
Known more for its fresh-from-the-kitchen dim sum, Pure Spice low key holds it down in the Cantonese barbecue category as well. Pure Spice doesn’t mess with a roast pork belly but makes up for it with its barbecue pork. It’s just a shade more tender and meatier than most, and lacks the overt sweetness that is often typical in a char siu situation.
Pick the menu option that lets you order the roast duck, steamed chicken (another Cantonese classic), and barbecue pork together for $22.50, and then spend some time with the rest of the menu: Grab some har gow shrimp dumplings, a scallion pancake and a rice noodle roll with XO sauce for maximum sampling satisfaction.
EAT: Pure Spice, 2446 SE 87th Ave.,503-772-1808,purespicerestaurant.com.