Looking to sample Taiwanese cooking? Try these dishes (clockwise from top left): fried pork chop at Wei Wei, "Taiwan special dry noodle" at Oolong Yuan, housemade sausage at EC Kitchen and tofu salad at Taiwan Eats. (Wei Wei, Oolong Yuan and Taiwan Eats photos by Adam Levbarg; EC Kitchen photo by Bruce Ely)
Taiwanese food is making inroads in cities across America, and Portland is no exception.
If you’re not familiar with this unique style of Asian cooking, you’re in for a treat. Taiwan’s geography and history have contributed to its multifarious cooking traditions, which incorporate Chinese and Japanese elements as well as those from indigenous people. As such, the cuisine is hard to pigeonhole as anything other than itself.
Here in Portland, you may have enjoyed gua bao, five-spice braised pork belly in a folded pillowy-soft steamed bun, dusted with peanut powder, hoisin, fresh cilantro and the pickled mustard green suan cai. The wonderful Nom Nom, which has resumed seasonal summer service at the Portland State University and Shemanski Park farmers markets, is run by husband-and-wife team LiWen and Jeff Chang. Their pork belly gua bao is an excellent representation of what you’d find in Taiwan.
Also, let’s not forget what is arguably the king of Taiwan’s most famous dishes next to stinky tofu (chou doufu): beef noodle soup (niurou mian). Properly made, niurou mian centers on an intensely rich beef shank, braised for hours into tender, juicy submission, in a base of the fermented chili bean paste known as douban jiang, ginger, garlic, star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. The collagen in the shank transforms into silky gelatin as it melts into the soup, imparting a gloriously rich mouthfeel. When served, it should be topped with a dollop of suan cai, whose sourness offsets the broth with a bright crunchiness. Wheat noodles are cooked separately and added to the bowl just before the hot soup.
While it may be a while before the heady funk of chou doufu wafts down the boulevards of the City of Roses, several Portland venues serve some of Taiwan’s greatest hits.
The pork buns at Wei Wei. (Adam Levbarg)
Wei Wei
7835 S.E. 13th Ave., Suite 102; 503-946-1732; weiweirestaurantpdx.com
Wei Wei has brought to Portland a small but well-executed selection of classic Taiwanese snacks, with bright and complex flavors true to their origins. Examples are yan su ji, a fragrant and crunchy white-pepper popcorn chicken, and a striking version of the Taiwanese equivalent of diner food — a massive fried pork chop (paigu) splayed into “fingers” to maximize crunchy ends, alongside a rich and savory minced pork gravy over rice (lu rou fan). It is clear the people at Wei Wei know what they’re doing. The kitchen is small, so the menu is streamlined — but the new owner, a Portlander of over 30 years who goes simply by Mrs. Chow, turns out well-seasoned Taiwanese favorites. Her niurou mian is by far the best beef noodle soup for sale in Portland. Oddly, Japanese udon noodles are the default, but you can ask for the skinny noodles which are closer to what you’d get in Taiwan.
Also, on one visit the pan-fried sheng jian bao pork buns were surprisingly juicy, bursting with soup (be careful!) and the petite gua bao was rich and fatty, savory and overall excellent. A great accompaniment to this dish is the pickled cucumber appetizer. It may not be strictly Taiwanese, but the spicy, numbing bite of Sichuan peppercorns, raw garlic, the brightness of rice vinegar and a bit of sugar are a refreshing counterpoint to the richness of the other dishes.
A tea egg, a ubiquitous snack in Taiwan, as prepared at Oolong Yuan. (Adam Levbarg)
Oolong Yuan
8680 S.W. Canyon Road; 503-206-5576
At first glance, you may be confused by Oolong Yuan’s smattering of bagel and sausage croissant breakfast sandwiches. But look deeper, and you’ll see a streamlined list of Taiwanese comfort food. There’s a lot to love, as owner and chef Tammy Chen focuses on keeping her Taiwanese recipes tasting like they do back home.
The pork chop rice was more in the style of a boneless Japanese tonkatsu cutlet than the bone-in behemoth at Wei Wei, but equally delicious. The tea egg (chaye dan), pre-salted and seasoned by steeping in a blend of tea, star anise, soy sauce and other fragrant ingredients, was a satisfying and delicious snack.
The item listed as “Taiwan Special Dry Noodle” (Taishi gan mian) is an intensely satisfying $5 bowl of wheat noodles topped with minced onions or shallots that have been fried in lard, minced pork and green onions. The meat acts not as the focus, but rather as a condiment, and the aromatics infuse into the fat, coating the noodles thoroughly.
The gua bao were slightly larger than at Wei Wei, but equally succulent, moist and satisfying.
Also worth noting is that Oolong Yuan is one of the few places in town serving traditional Taiwanese breakfast. Twice a week, they purchase fresh soy milk (doujiang) from local Japanese tofu maker Ota Tofu. Although Oolong Yuan does not make the deep-fried, savory cruller known as youtiao in-house (sadly, we’ve yet to find a shop in Portland that does), we are told that the youtiao are from Taiwan, frozen and cooked to order.
Lastly, with the closure of Wu’s Kitchen, Oolong Yuan is the only local seller of the afterschool snack ba wan, a pork and bamboo shoot meatball wrapped in a mochi-like dough — a gigantic dumpling, essentially – and steamed until soft. In Taiwan, the ba wan would then be deep fried, layering on a tantalizingly crispy element, but the small kitchen and low demand don’t warrant the extra step.
Popcorn chicken gets a Chinese/Taiwanese update with five spice powder ($6.75), photo by Mae chef @mayalovelace. Tag your best food pics with #eaterpdx for a regram.
A post shared by EaterPDX (@eaterpdx) on
EC Kitchen
6335 S.E. 82nd Ave.; 503-788-6306; eckitchenllc.com
The cheery outpost of EC Kitchen may well be the only place where you can find Taiwanese dishes in the Jade District. Owners James and Florence Ho are a husband-and-wife team from Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively. Although the menu consists primarily of Hong Kong-style cooking, it has a few well-known Taiwanese dishes.
EC Kitchen was one of the first restaurants in town to sell Taiwanese gua bao, but its true claim to fame is the excellent Taiwanese sausage, made from a family recipe with house-distilled rice wine. The partially dried, sweet and savory sausages are fragrant with warm spices like anise that impart a distinctly Taiwanese flavor. It’s not offered on the menu this way, but ask for thinly sliced raw garlic with the pan-fried sliced sausage. The garlic’s pungent, spicy bite contrasts with the sausage’s warm notes remarkably well.
Also notable is the pan-fried luobo gao, a steamed loaf made of shredded turnip, rice flour, shallots and water and flavored with bits of meat or dried shrimp. Whole cakes can be purchased to go for cooking at home. You may have eaten a slightly glutinous luobo gao as part of a Cantonese dim sum spread, but try it the Taiwanese way — take thick slices and gently pan fry them until lightly crisped, and in the last minute cook a scrambled egg on top. Dip chopsticked pieces into soy sauce seasoned with minced garlic and eat — delicious.
Pork plays a huge role in Taiwanese cuisine, right down to the ears, which are julienned and braised to make a cold appetizer at Taiwan Eats. (Adam Levbarg)
Taiwan Eats
4708 N.W. Bethany Blvd., Suite E6.; 503-888-2378
Taiwan Eats is a tiny 4-year-old takeout place in a Bethany shopping center, with a few Taiwanese dishes that you cannot find elsewhere in Portland. Although beef noodle soup is on the menu, the broth is too thin and sweet. There are better things to get here.
Owner Sophia Hou has curated a collection of cold appetizers not found elsewhere in town. Of note is the super-tasty julienned braised pig ear (zhu erduo), which is simultaneously tender and crunchy, fragrant and slightly sweet with star anise.
Hou is particularly proud of her handmade wheat gluten (mianjin) cold appetizer. Gluten for Chinese cooking is made by mixing wheat flour and water, and washing the starch off. Once fried, the result is a slightly chewy, spongy bite that, like tofu, absorbs the flavors of the dish in which it is prepared. Here, it’s tossed with wood ear mushroom, sliced carrot, garlic and sesame oil.
There’s also a delicious pressed tofu salad, tossed with slivered green garlic (suanmiao), fermented black beans and tiny salted fish that pack a savory punch. This is listed on the menu only in English, as “seasoned tofu.”
If you’ve been to Din Tai Fung (in essence, a Taiwanese restaurant dressed up as Shanghainese), you’ve seen a Taiwanese version of the savory noodle dish zha jiang mian (listed as “Noodles with Mince Pork Sauce”). At Taiwan Eats, the preparation is in more of a Beijing style, with noodles covered in a thick fermented bean and minced pork sauce, tossed with cubes of chewy pressed tofu. The sauce is topped with freshly julienned cucumber. It’s simultaneously rich and refreshing, a hearty and satisfying dish.
In the refrigerated case you’ll see cans of what appear to be bizarro world Coca-Cola, with the words “Hey Song Sarsaparilla” (Hei Song Sha shì) dancing across the front. It’s a beloved drink which is essentially Taiwanese root beer. Another typically Taiwanese drink is called “plumenade” (wumei tang). It’s a sour preserved plum beverage with sweet, sour, salty and smoky overtones that can be a refreshing accompaniment to a spicy bowl of beef noodle soup.
Specials are posted below the menu. Of note is the classic pan-fried rice noodle dish known as chao mifen, available Saturdays, and a Taiwanese lunchbox version of the Shanghainese dish “lion’s head meatball” (shizitou). We’ll be back to try these.
An earlier version of this post misspelled Sophia Hou’s name.
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