Dragon’s Milk, Shiso Crazy, Yellow Fever. These are a few of the cocktails you’ll find at Empire Chinese Kitchen in Portland’s arts district. Scorpion bowls don’t cross the menu, nor do cocktails with tiny paper umbrellas.

Theresa Chan, who co-owns Empire with Todd Bernard, wanted to have fun with the drink menu, while ridding the bar experience of Chinese cocktail clichés. Until opening Empire in early September of last year, Chan co-owned Little Tokyo in Brunswick and while there, also helped to create a more unique drink menu. Her inspiration for the Dragon’s Milk cocktail at Empire – a mix of coconut milk, green tea-infused gin, pandan syrup and muddled Thai basil leaves – arrived on a food shopping trip in Boston at what she described as “Costco but for Chinese groceries.” Chan found a bottle of pandan syrup – a common ingredient used in Chinese baking and often paired with coconut milk – and decided to create a cocktail based on the sweet, classic flavor.

The cocktail list is a modest group of six, all $9, but they’re served strong and pretty. Each one has its own distinctive Chinese spin, such as the Oolong Martini, which is made with Oolong-infused vodka, fresh lemon, and pu-er cordial (pu-er is a dark tea from the Yunnan province).

Not on the drink menu, but highly recommended, Empire’s “whiskey pot” is a less citrus-y, more boozy take on the hot toddy. And at Empire, it’s served in a porcelain teapot with a matching Chinese teacup. Available by the half pot ($6.50) or full pot ($13), this steaming hot drink is made with the aforementioned pu-er tea, sweetened with simple syrup and combined with whiskey, gin and triple sec. The half pot is rather generous and the drink is strong, so start small.

If you’re not in the mood for hard alcohol, there are eight beers on tap to choose from: five bottles, including Crabbies Ginger Beer; and five canned beers, including cider, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Sapporo. Nine wines are available by the glass or bottle and Chan and Bernard plan to add more to the list soon.

The bar area is tiny compared to the adjacent dining room, where there will likely be more people awaiting Empire’s popular dim sum dishes.


Chan admits she and Bernard were on a tight budget when renovating the bar area, but they were able to give the bar more of a curve, making it easier for bar patrons to retreat to a cozy corner. The vintage blue vinyl bar stools are from the previous Empire restaurant, which was more of a classic bar and concert venue, but the stools work perfectly with the décor. On one wall, large marquee letters spell out “Eat” in Chinese and asymmetrical shelves are lined with teapots, polished wine glasses and cloth napkins.

On weeknights, Empire’s bar will be sparse. A few lone diners might grab a stool and nurse a cocktail and a bowl of hot and sour soup. The bar is removed from the dining area enough so that staff members often mingle here, where they come to open and close checks and retrieve drink orders. On slower nights, this could be a distraction to bar patrons who would prefer not to overhear staff conversations. Depending on the night, there will likely be a designated bartender who will be helpful and knowledgeable, but with too many staff members behind the bar, it might get confusing as to who is making drinks.

Weekends prove to be a different scene. The bar will be crowded, likely with many people waiting for a table, but plenty of folks will be happy to sit at the counter, which has views of Congress Street.

Claire Jeffers is a Portland freelance writer.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: