In preparation for my trip to San Francisco, I wanted to update my taste buds on Chinese. Since I discovered Thai many years ago, it's been difficult to bring myself to eat Chinese whenever I get that hankering for Asian flavors. Plus, my wife likes Thai and Vietnamese but dislikes Chinese. So, I set off, partially with Chowhound recommendations, to re-familiarize myself with Chinese. Here's what I had in 5 days in Portland Metro:
Thien Hong: Quick service and decent prices with an interesting mix of Chinese and Southeast Asian. However, on the dishes we got, the execution was lacking. We got spring rolls, Mongolian beef, stewed beef shank with black mushroom, and a chef's special, the crab with broccoli. The meat in both beef dishes was relatively tough. The shank, in particular, needed a couple hours more of low and slow cooking to let the connective tissues melt. With pieces where it was cooked properly it was quite good. Both dishes had decent sauces, but the meats just weren't right. The spring rolls were adequate. The crab dish was adequate as well. A little too much, maybe, of that off-putting crab aroma, but maybe that's just me. But certainly it was nothing special. Overall, it was okay, but I don't know that I would ever return.
Sam Ho: Again, quick service and good prices (by that I mean lunches under $5 and dinners under $8). They give you a dim sum checklist, but you can also order off the menu. We did both. You also got free hot and sour soup, which was adequate. From the dim sum menu we got spring rolls, pot stickers, scallop dumplings, stuffed tofu, and shrimp dumplings. Each was $2 and had three items. A lot of food. All these items were decent. My least favorite was the pot stickers stuffed with some cold, creamy mass. My favorite was probably the tofu stuffed with a shrimp mousse of some sort and covered in a black beans sauce. Crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside with a lot of depth from the sauce. The scallops in the dumpling were pretty good. For entrees we ordered the Mongolian beef and the crispy shrimp with glazed walnuts. The sauce on the Mongolian beef was about equal with Thien Hong, but the meat was better. More flavorful and more tender. The shrimp dish was....interesting. My wife liked it, at least. The shrimp were covered in some sort of mayonnaise sauce. The walnuts were were earthier than you might expect, glazed and covered in sesames. Overall this place is a step up from Thien Hong, I think, at about the same price. Also, the most interesting thing about this place, which I didn't get to try, are the specials. They have a large selection of geoduck, lobster, crab, abalone, and sea cucumber dishes. They had tanks with live tilapia, crab, and prawns. If I were to go back, I'd definitely be interested in trying some of these more expensive dishes.
Fa Fa Gourmet: This is a Vancouver szechuan/hunan place. It came recommended in my Best Places Portland and by my neighbors who are family members of the owners. Similar pricing to the others, but with an interesting selection of house specials at a slightly higher price point ($11 avg). We got spring rolls, egg rolls, hot and sour soup, the moo shu chicken, and the double-flavor lamb. They also give you fried won-tons with sauce, almost like chips and salsa at a Mexican place. Liked the spring rolls better than the egg roll -- and it was the best spring roll of the three places so far. The hot and sour soup was very good, too. Very rich and flavorful broth. They prepared the moo shu chicken tableside adeptly using two spoons as tongs in each hand to apply the plum sauce and fold the crepes. The moo shu was decent, but it's not my thing. The lamb was very good. Very tender in two sauces, a mild garlic sauce and a spicy sauce of some sort. It came out on a large platter with the two preparations separated by orange slices. On one end of the platter was a garnish of a large rose made of out some sort of vegetable slices and held together by toothpicks in the bottom. Very cool looking. They sat the platter atop a cylinder like you get pita or pizza at some places. I really enjoyed the dish. I liked the menu and the execution here best among the lower cost places I've been. They don't have the interesting seafood options that Sam Ho has, but I prefer meat anyway in general.
Legin: I heard the Sunday brunch was something to behold. I don't know about that since I was in a booth and not able to see around me as much as I would like. But I needed some more dim sum experience before San Francisco. Difficult to do for the first time. English is very much a second language there and so trying to divine what stuff was and what it had in it was near impossible. The exception was one of my more adventurous food experiences. I've eaten lengua, blood sausage, head cheese, tripe, raw oysters, ground worm, and hot dogs -- and now I've had chicken feet. I wouldn't say they're good, but they're not bad. Just a bit too much effort for the minimal payoff of sucking whatever you can find between the bones, and hell, they're gross looking. But I've had them. We also got chow mein, shrimp and spinach dumplings, some sort of ground meat in a wrap and sauce, large won-ton crispy treats, and pork rib bits. I think that was it. We weren't really into trying much more. It just wasn't that good. Everything was very greasy and not that flavorful. I've heard their live fish is good, but none of that made it's way as dim sum and we got no indication that we could order off a menu. I much preferred the dim sum items we got at Sam Ho.
Sungari: I know some wouldn't exactly consider this Chowhound-esque. But to me, a Chowhound ignores everything but the food. And the food here is top notch. Sure, most of the dishes are 50% or more than you would find them at these other Chinese restaurants. But I think the quality is at least nearly in proportion (and then you're paying for service, decor, presentation, and wine list after that). Sungari, in many ways, is to Chinese food what Cafe Azul is to Mexican. And I realize that many see Cafe Azul as a bad value (I don't). The ingredients here were noticeably better than anywhere else and the preparations were clearly more refined. I got the wintermelon soup. We also got the appetizer sampler with noodles in a nut sauce (sesame or peanut, I think), spring rolls, fried prawns, and some sort of roasted or cured beef with plum sauce. For entrees my wife got the crispy shrimp with glazed walnuts and I got the hunan pork in black bean sauce. The wintermelon soup was quite tasty with a hammy broth and ginger aroma. Very nice. All the items on the sampler platter were good. Best spring rolls of any of the chinese places. Simple, but tasty. The shrimp were rolled in panko maybe and were perfectly cooked. Nice sweet meat and firm but not chewy flesh. The beef was interesting. I wasn't too thrilled at first, but then kept eating it and kept eating it. I wish I knew exactly how it was made. The noodles were good and I wondered whether they were house made. The sauce had a little spice to it. My wife kept downing them even though she kept saying with every bite how she was getting full already. The crispy shrimp were, it looked like, tempura battered. Very light and crispy and not at all greasy. They had a nicely candied walnut on top of them along with a lemon sauce not at all like the jello pudding flavored sauces you normally get at fast food Chinese. Good. I really liked mine. The pork was tender and flavorful, the snow peas crisp and tasty. The sauce had all kinds of depth to it along with a good kick of spiciness. Very well balanced sauce -- one of those sauces I could have just kept running my finger through and slopping it up. We finished with fried bananas with ginger ice cream. A decent dessert. The fried bananas were good, but I have had better, but rarely. Overall, this is easily the best of the places I visited. Sure, it's more expensive, but it's competing with ethnic places like Oba, Pambiche, Cafe Azul, Plainsfield Mayur, Bewon, and Pho Van.
Bewon: This is the "+1". Bewon is the first of these that I visited. I have a friend coming in from out of town who lived in Korea for a couple years so I wanted to see if this was a must-do. Boy was it. Honestly after one visit, I would say this Korean place tops all these Chinese places. And I like the fact that they have a tasting menu and give you lots of small plates even at lunch. That's when I went, lunch. I ordered the dae ji bul go gi, sliced pork in a red pepper paste. Very good. Spicy with good, balanced flavors and plenty of depth. They brought out 5 small side dishes, too, including kim chee, black beans in a sweet sauce, new potatoes in a light sauce, some sort of shredded vegatable in a pepper sauce, and a combo of spinach, mushroom, and bean sprouts. It was all very good. You could tell how much the chefs care for the dishes and the ingredients. All flavors were well balanced and there was a mastery of textures. This is a place I will definitely visit again.
To wrap up: if you don't mind the extra dough, Sungari and Bewon are excellent. Sam Ho and Fa Fa Gourmet are both good. Thien Hong and Legin aren't worth it when there are better options so nearby.