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The Wait Is Over

Szechuan Chef: Portland's Best Chinese Restaurant?

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CROSSING THE WILLAMETTE at dusk, gazing across the deep landscape of train yards, skyscrapers, and soaring bridges, you'd think this city wanted for nothing. When I left the Bay Area for Portland a few years ago, I boasted to the miserable dot-com flotsam and blue-tongued commuter drones I'd left behind about the intimately sized but full-fledged city I'd adopted as my own. While they joylessly coded client-side JavaScript accounting software for featureless men in unlit cube farms, I wandered Sodom West with a hot Cubano and a firkin of marionberry wine. From nights of unclothed beauties to blissful afternoons of smoke and barbecue, I thought I had it all. But a worry slowly grew within me as the years wore on: I had, in fact, left something behind. Good Chinese food.

I have eaten at every bad Chinese restaurant in Portland, or at least I've tried. From the microwaved Kung Pao at Chin's Kitchen to the manure-scented squid and cornstarch gravies of NE 82nd, I have been on a tireless hunt for that glowing, in-from-the-cold treasure, a temple of steaming broth and glistening dumplings. Wong's King and Shandong are good, but they feature very little of the king of Chinese cuisines: Szechuan, the fiery, rich, and forceful food of Southwestern China. Armed with chiles, garlic, ginger, and the near-mythic Szechuan pepper, Szechuan chefs add notes of heat and numbing to the chords of flavor in their dishes, creating food whose pleasure is enhanced by a flirtation with pain.

Szechuan Chef opened in John's Landing earlier this summer to put an end to my long, dark journey. Live seafood wells with meaty fish and petulant crab stand in the lobby, and four dining rooms on three levels are tastefully decorated with sturdy marble-like tables, upholstered leather chairs, and wrought-iron railings (photos on their website seem to show the restaurant's Bellevue location, and are misleading). While I've occasionally gotten the wary "are you sure you want to order that (we don't want you sending those intestines back)" treatment when asking for an unusual dish, the service standard is efficient and unobtrusive.

The presence of Chong Qing hot chicken ($11.95) on the menu showed me all was well in the world. This standard Szechuan dish, elsewhere called anything from Chicken with 1,000 Chiles to Chicken in Exploding Dynamite Bath, is popcorn-sized, greaseless fried chicken tossed in a dry wok with a mountain of dried red chiles and batons of scallions. It's charred with bona fide wok hay, and, at first glance, impossible to eat. But the chiles are there to perfume and season the dish more than they are for eating, though the pods, when deeply browned and blistered, have the crunch and nutty flavor of a roasted pumpkin seed, and they are delicious. The heat of the chicken builds slowly and evenly, creating a slow buzz in your nervous system, more about getting high than getting hurt.

Xiao long bao ($7.95 for 10) are available to start, and are a very good—if small—version of the popular soup dumplings. These are nearly bite size, and filled with a light, hot broth, which due to its limited volume will reset to aspic if not enjoyed quickly. A less-common find are the addicting dry-style Szechuan wontons ($6.95), a bowl of silky, tender, and ragged hand-made dumplings in an oniony soy and chile oil. A cold starter of chewy Szechuan noodles with a peanut paste and chile oil sauce ($6.95) is simple and filling.

Hot and spicy hand-shaven noodles ($10.95 with meat) showcase fresh noodle dough sliced freehand into strips ranging in size from chow mein to chow fun, and are more tender than the hand-pulled noodles at Frank's. The shrimp, another quick litmus test, were perfect: a white, pinkie-sized tail, tender like a scallop. Yang Zhou fried rice ($8.95), fluffy and steaming, with finely julienned cabbage, chopped shrimp, sweet sausage, and shredded egg, was also deeply satisfying.

Boiled, skin-on peanuts—as well as carefully chopped vegetables that were more for texture and flavor than filler—made the Kung Pao chicken ($9.95) one of the best versions in town, and the twice-cooked pork ($10.95) was a generous serving of thickly sliced, sweet, black-bean-tinged Chinese bacon with leeks and celery. The only miss was the cumin lamb ($12.95), which for all the heat and cumin could probably just have been beef.

Szechuan Chef is, without a doubt, a must-try restaurant for anyone on the hunt for the ultimate local Chinese food experience. It closes the chapter on a clichéd Portland shortcoming, and is now the gold standard for those that follow.

Let's hope they start delivering.

Lunch and dinner seven days a week, closed from 3-5 pm. Lunch menu 11 am-3 pm, dinner menu all day.

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