You’ll never go to a haunted house so open and bright as the one that holds the new Dough Zone on the South Waterfront.
The eye-popping 7,657-square-foot space, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the Willamette River, was once home to the most high-profile flop in Portland dining history: Lucier. Investors sank $4 million into the operation, which was universally panned and then closed just seven months after it opened in 2008. Successive ventures there in the decade since have also collapsed.
Dough Zone, a Seattle dim sum darling with its first Portland outpost, must have come in with some industrial-sized sage sticks: Early on, it seems to have what it takes to lift the yearslong funk at 1910 S River Drive.
It starts with that huge main room, designed with sleek lines, wood-paneled walls and dramatic, spiraling light fixtures. It’s an environment suited for a $200 prix fixe meal, but instead menu items run about $6 to $12, making it an uncanny cafeteria.
It’s best if you keep in mind that this is still a casual business—a place to go with friends and order a smorgasbord. Fill a table with spicy beef pancake rolls, flaky grilled dough wrapped around shredded beef and lettuce that’s somehow hearty and light, and throw in some Berkshire-Duroc pork-and-shrimp steamed dumplings, which arrive six to a steamer with the shrimp tails emerging from the chewy dumpling wrapper like a sail.
You’ll need to learn how to properly time your first bite into Dough Zone’s signature Q Bun ($8.95 for four). Steamed and then pan fried till crispy on the bottom, the bao contains pork and juices similar to a xiao long bao: If you sink your teeth in too soon, you’ll burn your mouth; wait too long and that juicy goodness is absorbed by the dough. Get it right and you’ll have one of your best bites of the day.
Dumplings, overall, are the star, from a succulent chicken pot sticker with a crispy laced bottom (don’t go for its veggie counterpart, which was sadly bland), to classic wontons in chile oil that hit the right textural mark, if not quite reaching a level of true spiciness. The xiao long bao are the best deal in the city: Score an order of six for $7.95. They are well seasoned, filling, and not too chewy. Do others do it a smidge better? Sure, but Dough Zone is a worthy entry to Portland’s growing XLB market.
Make sure to adequately tour the menu’s other offerings. A spiralized sweet-and-sour cucumber appetizer ($5.75) is a refreshing counterpoint to the heavier stuff, and lightly blanched broccoli with a seafood sauce for dipping ($5.95) was strangely simple yet compelling. Dan dan noodles with pork ($6.25) and the cold Szechuan noodles ($6.25) are both solid; again, neither is spicy enough, yet they are flavored well otherwise and perfectly chewy. Skip the underseasoned kale salad ($5.95) with thick stems left in the mix, as well as the zha jiang mian ($6.50), an underwhelming bowl of boiled noodles and veggies.
Still, even the misses so far at Dough Zone feel low stakes thanks to the low prices; go a few times and find your own personal favorites. Take a walk on the waterfront while you inevitably wait (this place is popular) for a table. Food will arrive fast and piping hot; finding someone to flag down to pay your check will take several minutes. Get a milk tea to go.
In cities that revere both Dough Zone and Taiwanese behemoth Din Tai Fung, there’s a spirited debate about which is better. With plans for DTF (now with a location in Tigard’s Washington Square) to open a massive 11,000-square-foot restaurant in Pioneer Place, we’ll soon be spoiled by the riches of downtown dumplings from both businesses. I’m personally looking forward to hanging with the ghosts of dim sum future.
EAT: Dough Zone, 1910 S River Drive, 503-446-3500, doughzonedumplinghouse.com. 11 am-10 pm daily.