The first Portland restaurant opening of the new year ushers in new flavors and a new definition of the casual “let’s grab Chinese” invite.
Portlanders hungry for authentic Chinese cuisine, inflected with chili peppers, cinnamon and anise, have been knocking on Sichuan Kitchen’s door for months. The 45-seater finally opens on Congress Street on Monday, Jan. 2.
Between snow storms, Urban Eye slipped into the snug space across from The State Theatre for a tasting and was impressed with the clean, uncomplicated, bold flavors represented in a series of fried pork and stir fried beef and vegetarian dishes the hospitable family laid out.
Owner Qi Shen said her menu represents three styles of cuisine popular in Chengdu, the central Chinese capital where she was born. Upstairs in the kitchen her father Shang Wei Shen executes recipes that reflect Asian home kitchens, street carts or banquet halls. All are meant to be shared family style.
Start with the Zhong dumplings. These delicate pork pillows served with an invigorating sauce are the tenderest on the block — and a far cry from the tough, oily peking raviolis of my youth.
Steamed baby bok cho infused with garlic is crunchy and satisfying, not limp. Bowls of tofu, beef and twice-cooked pork (flecked with leeks and mushrooms) are ideal winter repasts that pack a zingy punch. “This is the food we would eat back in China,” sad Qi.
There are chop sticks, pots of jasmine tea and steamed rice, but what is absent here speaks volumes: No crab rangoon, no chicken fingers, no bright pink pork strips. The similarities to Americanized Chinese food end at Sichuan Kitchen’s door. Egg rolls? Move along.
Two blocks from Empire Chinese Kitchen, around the corner from Bao Bao Dumpling House and on the same block as Mi Sen Noodle Bar, Sichuan Kitchen needs to pull out the stops to compete in Portland’s Arts District turned Asian alley.
Rest assured the Shengs brought their A-game. There is something for a wide spectrum of diners, including a friendly and approachable wine list, local beers and cocktails.
Sichuan Kitchen, 612 Congress St., Portland. Hours are Sunday through Wednesday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday to Sat. 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Opens Jan. 2.