In an otherwise strident world of superstar chefs, two humbler culinarians are holding sway in the kitchen of Portland newcomer Empire Chinese. Here this dynamic team sparkles in a glittering galaxy of master Chinese chefs who have been producing stunning Cantonese food to the delight of Portlanders clamoring to have it.
Chef number one is Li Bing Tian – “Uncle Tian” – who is Empire’s dim sum arbiter, brought over from San Francisco. He’s been a master of his trade for nearly 40 years.
Chef number two is Yue Chan, who creates all the wonderful stir-fry dishes and is a master chef of long standing.
That in a nutshell explains why Empire Chinese, which opened in mid-September, is considered one of the hottest restaurants in Portland. But you don’t need to read such fleeting food-gossip dispatches to know what’s already so obvious.
Empire holds a significant place in the annals of Chinese restaurants in Portland. It opened in 1916 as Empire Chop Suey – billed as Portland’s first deluxe Chinese restaurant –and ran for nearly 40 years at the same location in which its revival now stands. It had a striking two-story vertical sign spelling out “chop suey” in big red letters.
The dining space was upstairs then, where “ladies and gentlemen” were served in a white-clothed dining room, while another room was reserved for men to enjoy their drinks, meal and cigars.
It was further immortalized by artist Edward Hopper’s iconic work, “Chop Suey” (1929), a depiction of two urban women dining together in sullen repose.
At first it was assumed that the restaurant in the painting was inspired by a second-floor lookalike on Columbus Circle in Manhattan whose imposing “chop suey” sign hung similarly from the side of the building. But many art historians are now convinced that Hopper had the image of Portland’s Empire Chop Suey in mind because of these vital statistics: the red-lettered vertical sign, which figures prominently in the painting, as does the two extant bay windows through which the eye catches this vista. More importantly, Hopper and his wife summered in Cape Elizabeth from 1927 to ’29, and as big theater goers presumably visited Portland’s newly anchored theater district in the year (1927) when the State Theatre on the next block opened so close to chop suey territory.
Today’s iteration at the former Empire Dine and Dance is a full-body makeover done in a vaguely 1950s style with comfortable seating at booths and banquettes. Co-owners Theresa Chan (her father supervises the stir-fry station) and Todd Bernard (founder of Space Gallery) set a mood that has made this more than just a carousel in which hipsters preen. Rather, it produces some of the most authentic Cantonese cookery north of Boston’s Chinatown.
Don’t cool your heels at the door, however, if you’re expecting to find the familiar cliches of Americanized Chinese dishes like crab Rangoon, sweet and sour pork and other old standbys from the Column A and B era.
One standout among the small and large plates is the pastrami-Reuben egg roll ($6), an amusing culinary riff on Katz’s Deli meets Chinese take-out. Within its super-crusty shell is local beef pastrami, asparagus and cabbage. It’s served with a honey-mustard dipping sauce. It connotes a very new-wave Sino-American style launched by such Asian chefs as Joe Ng of RedFarm in New York and Danny Bowien of Mission Chinese renown in San Francisco.
For a great lunch, start with a bowl of Empire’s stunning wonton soup ($5). This is an enriched duck consomme holding wonton wrappers filled with ground pork and shrimp. Pair it with an order of char siu bao ($5.50) – steamed buns filled with barbecued pork in hoisin sauce. The buns are feather light because the kitchen uses special white pastry flour available only from a supplier in New York’s Chinatown.
At my most recent dinner with three friends in tow, the four of us feasted on 10 dishes, each as good as the next. We started with the Chinatown roast pork ($7) – boneless barbecue pork that’s sweetly pungent with five-spice powder, star anise and shacha sauce, a typical Chinese barbecue brew loaded with ingredients as diverse as fermented shrimp paste to garlic and sugar. New on the menu that night was pan-fried pork and shrimp dumplings ($5.50), followed by the sticky rice pocket ($5) – a molded square of rice filled with chicken, Chinese sausage, pork, shrimp and shitake wrapped and steamed in a banana leaf. A lighter interlude included an order of shrimp and pork shu-mai dumplings ($5.50) coupled with spinach dumplings ($5) filled with water chestnuts and mushrooms.
To accompany our large plates we ordered the garlic green beans ($6), which are quickly stir-fried to retain crispness and color ($6). A ceremonious plate of honey-walnut whole shrimp ($7.50) that’s coated in a citrus-yuzu mayonnaise was a crowd pleaser.
A succession of large plates included the sizzling teriyaki chicken ($14), which is marinated boneless thighs, followed by a stir-fry of beef with wide rice noodles ($14).
Unfortunately, the kitchen ran out of our party’s favorite dish – lobster longevity noodles in tequila sauce ($19). It’s a show-stopper preparation in both appearance and flavor. A whole lobster is cut into pieces, dredged in flour, fried in a wok with ginger and scallions and basted in a luxurious sauce of the lobster liquor and tequila. It’s reconstituted into the shape of a split lobster half and served with wide rice noodles.
Instead, the kitchen didn’t let us down with its unique fillet of flounder treatment ($18). The fillets are marinated in fermented black beans, the whole carcass stretched over a frame, dipped in an egg batter and fried, leaving the meat between the bones and skin intact; you can eat the whole fish, bones and all. The fillets are put back on the batter-dipped frame, looking like an ornamental bow of a ship. All of which is a voyage of inspired food that’s worth taking many times over.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: