Thursday, December 9, 2021

My first (and likely only) experience with a Northeastern Chinese restaurant in Portland

So I discovered after moving to PNW that Portland apparently has a restaurant that purports to serve Northeastern Chinese food. Won't lie, I got really excited upon finding out. I bookmarked it in my mind to try it out, and on the occasion of my wife's birthday, I decided to order for pickup.

Now, I had already found a truly authentic restaurant not too far away that takes care of all of the basics. We don't order Chinese food (or any other food, for that matter) too often, but when we do, it's usually to avoid the mess/cleanup/lingering smell at home, not because we don't know how to cook it ourselves. What can I say, cuisine-wise we're not that open to experimentation anymore.

As soon as I unpacked the bag at home, I realized that I made a horrible mistake. Here is the Google Maps review that I felt compelled to write (after the break):

Very disappointed. Food was not good (and this is the most diplomatic way of rating it — will spare more colorful language). One star for a restaurant out there just trying to survive, and another for giving Northeast Chinese dishes a try. Nothing more. I was left extremely disappointed, but at least I learned something. In Chinese, we say 吃个明白 (roughly, "we ate our lesson").

As a Northeasterner, we're used to very low representation among cuisines. Despite whatever cuisine specialties they claim, Chinese restaurants (just like ethnic Chinese themselves) in the US were historically dominated by Cantonese families, giving way in recent decades to Fukienese (Fujianese) families that have since cornered the Chinese-Japanese AYCE buffet option that you can now find everywhere. In any case, I was very excited after moving to PNW to find that there was an option here in Chin's Kitchen. I had a glimmer of hope that perhaps, in the foodie town that had already embraced jianbing, they maybe started to accept NE as a distinct cuisine? The owner here who took over a couple years ago no doubt wanted to add some specialities from our region, so he added a few (just a few) specialties into the mix.

I was told that the staple/representative dish 锅包肉 was only available on Wednesdays, and only by pre-order. Already a bad sign. The reason given? It's difficult to make. Wrong. The real reason is that it loses its texture almost immediately after it's cooked, and most restaurants therefore try to persuade folks not to order it to go. Can't do during the pandemic, obviously. They also missed out on a few other staples, so I just gave up.

The only Northeastern dish I ended up ordering was a 五彩拉皮 (btw, you don't have to read Chinese to know what I'm referring to... just copy/paste into Google). The actual cost of raw material is nearly negligible for this dish. It's all labor (needs a lot of manual knife work). The knife work wasn't great (big, chunky, uneven slices). They also omitted the meat (forgivable), egg, and woodear. I added these myself at home and re-mixed the sauce for a brighter taste.

The 鱼香肉丝 Pork with Garlic Sauce was atrocious. What was supposed to be a mix of bamboo shoots, woodear, peppers, scallions, on a spicy vinegar/soy/sugar/garlic base (sometimes with cilantro) was essentially pork, lots of carrots, unevenly sliced of course) on a tomato paste base, with an added dash of red food coloring. It was actually so bad that after a few bites, I just held it until morning, when I added whatever missing ingredients at home, RINSED the entire dish (mostly sauce) with water, and re-tossed it myself with the proper sauce.

土豆丝 was also so boring and uninspired. Again, the cost is not in the ingredients (just potatoes) but in the knife work. Venture a guess as to how that turned out? I couldn't help this dish too much as the critical process (soaking and rinsing i.e. de-starching the potatoes) wasn't done properly if at all. Worst of all, he used the starchiest Russets instead of a Yukon Gold or Red, so it just ended up with the texture of mush instead of crisp as is intended.

Why am I spending so long on this review? Why do I even care? Look, my family owned restaurants too. I worked at a restaurant starting at age 11. We know it's hard work every day. So it pains me to write this as much as it angers me. The anger part is because he's now exposing thousands of unsuspecting customers to their first experience of what's claimed to be Northeastern food, which is awful and gives all of us Manchurians a bad name.

The owner himself, who I caught a brief glimpse of, seemed nice. I wish him and the charming non-Chinese dude punching in the order (who spoke OK Mandarin) well. But I hope you understand (and I suspect you already know) that the food was awful.

For anyone who actually cares and has read up to this point, the only authentic place I've found so far is Szechuan Brothers up in Vancouver. You won't find any of the NE dishes there of course, but for the mainstays, they've been rock solid.

The search continues.

Well, since this is my own blog, and not a large medium like GMaps, I'll add some more colorful language here. The food was just a disgusting red slop that I would have initially guessed came from a Chinese restaurant located in a place where the clientele is 100% not Chinese. I've had some bad Chinese food in South Dakota, rural Pennsylvania, and probably worst of all Europe. This place is even worse. He somehow made food into an anti-emotion, sucking out all the joy associated with eating your favorite foods and replacing it with hate and regret. I feel bad and frankly ashamed to be Manchurian as a result of this owner. I don't think he's a bad person, but he either has no idea how bad the food is, or is completely aware and doesn't care.

Btw, if you're ever curious about trying some AJ-approved NE Chinese food, I do have my can't-fail recommendations in the US. Twist: they are only in NYC and LA and I am disappointed to say aren't run by ethnic Chinese at all.

No comments:

Post a Comment