Options for excellent Asian cuisine in Portland continue to expand with the formidable set of Chinese, Thai and fusion Japanese hipster haunts in dining rooms that rock and where great food is served to a discerning flock who love it all.
From the fusion Japanese kitchens of Masa Miyake to the likes of Boda for Thai street food, Empire Chinese for stylishly authentic Cantonese cooking and the recently opened Bao Bao Dumpling House, the kickshaws of these creative chefs are on a par with Portland’s best restaurants.
What’s more, these establishments are some of the trendiest in the city — enough so to attract a peripatetic herd of hipster gastronomes that contribute to Portland’s infectious foodism.
By our local standards, however, we covet the best of our Asian eateries. Nightly they’re jammed into the wee hours. And while other Maine businesses lumber along, our restaurant scene rocks.
Of the group, I frequent Boda and Empire Chinese the most—two establishments that anchor the vitality of the restaurant row from Longfellow Square to the Congress Street Arts District.
Though, lately, I’ve felt that Boda’s been static. Their printed menu rarely changes, and even the blackboard specials posted nightly revolve around the same group of dishes. Still, if you go often, as I do, grazing amongst the tapas, salads, grill bar and entrees keeps it interesting. In fact, on a recent visit I had a tapas dish called Miang Kum Som-oh, which I’d never had before. Leon, the presiding drinksmeister who keeps his bar crowd amused, well fed and libated, recommended the dish, saying it’s one of the best in the house. Served on porcelain Chinese soup spoons, they hold pummelo fruit on betel leaves, with toasted coconut, lime, peanuts, shrimp, ginger and shallots in a plum sugar dressing. Down the hatch and each bite is a slippery burst of citrus flavors that are exotic and delicious.
Most recently, I went with out of town friends who wanted to try Boda because they’d heard so much about it. I suggested the quail eggs (Kanom-krok), one of Boda’s signature dishes — and a show stopper it is with quail eggs baked in a cast-iron pan steaming hot and prickled with scallions and soy.
The rest of our meal was pure Boda. The Wood-Sen Pad Thai is sheathed in a thin omelet casing, almost like a delicate paper-thin crepe, holding stir-fried glass noodles with tofu, salted daikon, sprouts and a choice of chicken or shrimp. The filling is a marriage of contrasting elements from salty to sweet to hot. The Kee Mao Noodles, another popular entrée, is a typical stir-fry of wide rice noodles, onions, tomatoes and pepper with chicken or shrimp.
Other tapas dishes that are done well here include the Mar Har (little spoons of pork and pineapple), crispy squid (sticky and very sweet) and skewers of tofu. One of my favorite entrees is the crispy duck in five-spice honey sauce.
The place has tremendous energy from a cast of characters who frequent its tables and bar. The restaurant has a special discount menu on Sundays after 9:30 and an industry night on Wednesdays at the same time frame. Thursday night is very popular, an evening that’s universally locals’ night out at city dining meccas. Up to the 1 a.m. closing time the restaurant is usually packed seven nights a week.
On the hipster scale of 1 to 10, Empire Chinese is top drawer. But it’s much more than that: The food is terrific, delivering on a menu of authentic Cantonese fare with some fusion touches that keep it exciting. In my December 8, 2013 review as the Portland Press Herald dining critic I gave it 4 1/2 stars, saying, in part, that it was “. . .a glittering galaxy of master Chinese chefs who have been producing stunning Cantonese food to the delight of Portlanders clamoring to have it.”
That hasn’t changed. In fact the food is even better. Ever since it opened last fall I’ve been going nearly once a week and find that there’s always something excitingly new on the menu.
That’s because co-owners Theresa Chan and Todd Bernard have made this more than just a carousel where hipsters preen. Theresa especially comes from a family of Asian restaurateurs from New York to Maine. Even the set menu has grown to include a plentiful array of dim sum and small plates as well as substantial entrees done in classic Cantonese style without resorting to treacly sweet dishes that are typical of American-Chinese restaurants. Instead authenticity prevails based on dishes with fresh ingredients and natural flavors, lighter and healthier. From terrific stir fries like the Peking lo mein with beef to such fanciful dishes as the Cantonese flounder in black bean sauce filling an epic crispy bowl made out of the fish carcass. The lobster longevity noodles is another remarkable dish of lobster reconstructed and set in a spackle of tamari and tequila.
At my most recent dinner last week we enjoyed two new dishes: the eggplant salad swathed in a sweet plum sauce that is absolutely addictive with its silky sweet flavors. And brand new is a Szechuan soba noodle soup with beef and shrimp in a moderately spicy broth, richly textured. Pair it with dim sum—floppy soft steamed dumplings or pan seared style (the newest is one with chives and shitake)–and it makes a great lunch or light supper.
While pork buns of various kinds can be found at Miyake and Bao Bao, Empire’s char siu bao are superb. The soft steamed buns are filled with hoisin sauce that makes the barbecued pork sweetly luxurious. Other dishes like the honey walnut shrimp coated in a citrusy mayonnaise are a lip-smacking delight as are the classic stir-fry of green beans wrapped in roasted garlic that emerge bright green and crisp from the wok.
When I go with friends we always order too much food because we want it all. But what most impresses me is the authenticity of flavor in every dish — not Americanized as in the typical strip mall Chinese joints where General Tso’s chicken remains a mundane feature.
As with many Chinese restaurants there’s often a revolving door of chefs, but Chan has managed to keep the quality high and the cooking consistent. Whether there’s been a master cook presiding from the West Coast or Hong Kong the kitchen is consistently good. Typically the Cantonese cooking that we’re used to can be sticky sweet with too much corn starch and sugar. But at Empire their chefs exhibit the coolness of restraint, keeping authentic flavors intact. And that’s why starting every day at 11:30 AM when the restaurant opens, there’s a line out the door with diners waiting to get in.