Chin’s Kitchen, a nearly 70-year-old Chinese restaurant in Northeast Portland’s Hollywood neighborhood, has long been easy to dismiss. The restaurant, fronted by a large, animated neon sign with the restaurant’s name in a brushstroke font; an animated quasi-caricature of Mr. Chin eating from a bowl while wearing a Tang suit; and an old-fashioned motto — "Portland’s Original Chinese Food to Go" — looks like the kind of faded Chinese restaurant you might find in some forgotten corner of outer Portland, a place where the General Tso’s mostly exists to justify the video poker.
Looks, as they say, can be deceiving. Years ago, I remember skulking down the narrow, one-way street behind the Hollywood Theatre toward Chin’s Kitchen’s flashing neon one rainy night, stepping inside and walking unnoticed to the back dining room. There I found tables inset with burners and a tall shelf filled with thin-sliced vegetables, seafood and meats. This was back when you could count Portland’s hot pot parlors on one hand.
Chin’s Kitchen, in other words, has had its moments. But despite that inadvertent hot-pot speakeasy and that impressive neon, it’s never been a particularly interesting restaurant, let alone a great one. At least until now.
In July, sisters Wendy and Cindy Li took over the restaurant, keeping the name but throwing out the menu of mostly Americanized Chinese fare in favor of dishes drawn from their hometown, Harbin, about 750 miles northeast of Beijing. Today, Cindy Li, a self-taught cook, can often be seen pulling noodles, folding dumplings or arranging bowls of purple-tinted wild rice on the ledge of the restaurant’s new window-wrapped prep kitchen. Wendy Li, who worked in imports and exports and has little previous restaurant experience, manages the dining room.
Harbin’s food, and the cuisine of the larger Dongbei (literally "Northeast") region, has a multitude of influences, from the Shandong province immigrants who arrived after the Cultural Revolution to the ingredients and techniques introduced by neighboring Russia, Korea and Mongolia. Still, the biggest inspiration seems to be the cold. Harbin, China’s northernmost city (geographically, it’s in China’s Maine; culturally, it’s more like Michigan), hosts a sprawling annual snow festival with elaborate ice carvings that can stay frozen outdoors for months. At Chin’s Kitchen, the Lis have introduced a wealth of aromatic stews, braised meats, fermented vegetables and hearty dumplings — food built for a place where the weather can dip below -20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Those dumplings were the first thing I heard about Chin’s Kitchen. They’re good, with thick, dimpled skins wrapped around a half-dozen fillings, including shrimp and egg and the classic Dongbei combo of pork and Chinese sauerkraut.
But it’s the stewed, braised and slow-roasted meats that have impressed me most: the downright Teutonic bone-in pork and cabbage ‘kraut; the jiggling, soy-drenched ham hock similar in size, shape and texture to a 1950s Jello mold; the supremely tender stewed beef, carrot and just-cooked potato under scallions in a hot, oily broth.
Supremely tender stewed beef with potatoes and carrots at Chin’s Kitchen.
Sit at one of Chin’s Kitchen’s booths or brushed metal chairs, the nearby walls decorated with black-and-white photos of New York City, and you’ll be given a small bowl of lightly salted peanuts and some sweet, watery kimchi. If the weather outside is Harbin-esque, order the stewed beef and potatoes, each cube layered with gorgeous rendered fat and glistening with that fragrant, oily broth. That same beef is the star of an otherwise unassertive beef noodle soup (consider adding chili oil to unlock the flavors of the hand-pulled noodles and broth). In its own way, this inexpensive beef cut’s transformation to luxurious winter warmer is just as impressive as the finest fatty brisket from Matt’s BBQ.
Dongbei-style la pi at Chin’s Kitchen.
Beyond the aromatic spicing, which leans on cumin and star anise instead of the fiery chilies and Sichuan peppercorns common in China’s southern provinces, Dongbei food distinguishes itself from other regional cuisines by its embrace of raw vegetables. The la pi, a sort-of noodle-vegetable salad (listed here as "Classic Northeastern Handmade Clear Noodles Cold Plate in Sauce") is a work of art, with hundreds of cucumber, carrot and purple cabbage matchsticks arranged around a pile of Cellophane-clear mung bean noodles under a handful of crispy red chiles and fresh cilantro. Toss this colorful mandala in its oil and vinegar dressing before eating.
Dongbei — formerly and somewhat controversially known as Manchuria — sits at a historical crossroads, its people having launched the Qing dynasty and its three centuries of imperial rule, its land more recently controlled, occupied or fought over by Russia, Japan and, eventually, the People’s Republic of China. As such, there are plenty of avenues of Dongbei food left for Chin’s Kitchen to explore: breads and corn cakes made possible by the region’s large-scale agriculture, lamb dishes introduced by neighboring Mongolia (the restaurant’s cumin beef will do for now) or the famous dessert of fried sweet potato or taro tossed in sugary syrup that hardens to a candy crunch when dipped in cold water.
But right now, the restaurant’s menu is limited by the creaky kitchen equipment inherited from the previous owners, Wendy Li says. That explains why an early hit, the crisp, honey-colored slices of Harbin-style, ginger-garlic-spiced sweet-and-sour pork, far more nuanced that the candy-sweet American version, has disappeared. The dish took up too much real estate on the restaurant’s balky stove.
And there’s already plenty to explore. On a recent visit, some friends and I filled the table with ribbons of spicy, goose-pimpled tofu skin and similarly sized strands of clean, white tripe doused in a smooth sesame sauce. Wok-fried garlic vegetables retained their vibrant green, warm slivers of potato and green pepper arrived in tart vinegar, while whole slow-cooked croaker fish arrived bone-in and dripping in a mellow orange sauce. Wendy Li recommended the stir-fried pig kidney, but we didn’t have room.
Wendy Li takes guests’ orders at Chin’s Kitchen in Northeast Portland.
Outside of the large Chinese communities in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles and the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York, Dongbei cuisine is almost impossible to find in the United States. To have such a fine example here in Portland, where the majority of traditional Chinese restaurants specialize in either Cantonese or Sichuanese food, seems doubly impressive. According to Wendy Li, that difference has been a draw for her Chinese and Chinese-American customers. "What do we eat if we don’t want spicy food?" Li says they ask.
Right now, the Li sisters’ Dongbei menu feels new and exciting, a fitting revival for a forgotten restaurant and a version of Chinese food unlike anything Portland has seen before — one perfectly suited for the coming winter. As Li’s customers have already discovered, Chin’s Kitchen is the answer to a question we didn’t even know we needed to ask.
Lunch and dinner, Tuesday-Suday; 4132 N.E. Broadway St.; 503-281-1203; portlandchinskitchen.com
— Michael Russell
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