I’ll probably never be enlightened enough to understand the actual meaning of the word “zen”, but when I saw Zen Chinese Bistro had opened last year, I figured I should go anyway. I have long rued the Portland food scene’s lack of good Chinese cuisine and this place gave me some hope that we might have a new contender in our midst. Chinese is my favorite category of food after seafood and the Portland scene has Chinese joints which range from not so good to okay, with a select few or less that are in the very good to great range. We need more per capita; the current situation just won’t do.
Historically, when I think about Chinese food, I drum up memories of two different types of restaurants. The first, which make up probably 98% in my experience, are the traditional Americanized version. Their menu has lo mein, chow mein, fried rice, General Tso’s, dumplings, rangoons, and all the other typical fare you generally expect from a Chinese eatery. Often the place is a real dive and the restaurant scenery is indirectly proportional to the taste of the food – dumpy restaurant equals amazing food. This seems to be especially the case in bigger cities for some reason.
On rare occasion, you might run into the second type of Chinese restaurant. This is a higher end, bistro-type place with nicer decor/atmosphere and some original, gourmet takes on more authentic food or traditional favorites. These tend to be really nice on the inside, do less of a takeout business, and have decent table service. I suspected that Zen might be this type of place, having been to previous restaurants that were in the same Danforth street location.
When I entered Zen, the interior looked as I remembered it from its previous incarnation. We were greeted by the host right away as we walked in. The downstairs was adorned with a long bar nearly the length of the entire floor. The tables were well-spaced, allowing for plenty of breathing room. We were ushered to the upstairs which also resembled my memory of it. A nice room with a bar in the corner, it seemed the bar was for prep rather than for seating like the one on the main floor. We were left with menus and told a waitress would be by shortly. I noticed that it wasn’t very busy.
Quite quickly, the waitress showed up with waters. She came back in a couple minutes and we were ready to order our drinks from the sizable drink menu. My wife chose a wine and I went with a Scorpion Bowl for one; it wasn’t a scorpion bowl for two type of night. We looked at the food menu which was pretty typical of a traditional Chinese restaurant, but without the combination plates. They had all the standards but in a higher end setting. That was fine since I like Chinese pretty much any way it gets served to me as long as it’s tasty.
One more visit to the table from our waitress and we had drinks. We were ready to place our orders. I took the Steamed Pork Dumplings and General Tso’s Chicken. My wife selected the Vegetarian Rolls and the Chicken with Cashew Nuts. I tried my scorpion bowl. It was magnificent. The drink was icy and the juices were nice and sweet. The scorpion had a sting and came with the requisite orange slice and maraschino cherry. It was among the better “bowl” drinks I’ve had.
It didn’t take long at all for our appetizers to come out. My wife got two large rolls – probably about one and a half times the size of a typical roll. I had 6 nice looking dumplings on a bed of cabbage and carrots on a long plate. The waitress had already dropped off my dumpling/ginger sauce and a dish with hot mustard and duck sauce. Even though I’m a sauce guy, I’m not a fan of duck sauce unless we’re talking about the electronic musicians. I’ve had dreams that the edible version is squeezed from the head of live, pre-pubescent ducks from the eastern islands of Indonesia and that’s not something I want to eat. However, I do have a love of ginger sauce and hot mustard, so I was ready to do some dipping.
I began my perfectly perfect dumpling consumption routine. I dipped the prongs of my fork in a downward 12:00 to 6:00 manner into the mustard to ensure only a small amount adhered to my silverware. Once I got the mustard on my fork, I stabbed one side of the dumpling with it, liquid from the fork pooling in the stab location, and took my knife to cut it in half. The side I impaled then got dipped in the ginger sauce with the open end being used as a dough ladle to scoop the maximum amount of the sweet, tasty liquid into it. I then sent it express fork delivery into my mouth, chewing in a precise and rhythmic manner allowing all the flavors to blend together. I proceeded to perform the same routine – mustard sauce fork dip, dumpling stab, dumpling cut, ginger sauce scoop, chew, chew, chew – with the other piece sans the cutting and followed suit with the remaining five pork wraps.
Upon first trying the dumpling, I was quite pleased. Both the dumplings themselves and the sauces were up to par. Contrary to my usual crunch preference, I love the doughy, gooey outside of the steamed dumplings. These were no exception. The inside was also delicious with excellent sweet, meaty flavor. The sauces were a great compliment. There was one issue with the dumplings though; the filling was a bit sparse. I generally expect that the meat concoction will fill any space inside the dough and these were probably only half full. I suppose that wouldn’t be so much of an issue if they were huge, but they were just average-sized. Nonetheless, the taste was superb, but more meatiness would have taken these to another level. My wife’s veggie rolls were decent, but not spectacular. They had a great fresh flavor, but needed more seasoning.
Our appetizer plates were taken away and within a few moments and the entrees came right out. They both looked great and were sizable portions. My breaded, saucy chicken was accompanied by a decent amount of veggies including broccoli, red peppers, and pea pods. I was hungry so I quickly did the downward dip into the mustard and properly slid my fork into the chicken careful not to snag a hot pepper which could burn my face off. It was really delicious and I was pleased with the level of spice. I find that many restaurants err on the side of too sweet and not spicy enough with the general’s chicken. This was a bit sweet for sure, but with a definite, but not overwhelming, spice. It was a winner.
As my wife kept taking pieces of my chicken which she really seemed to like, I snuck a piece of her food into my face. It was very good. The sauce was delicious and the chicken fresh and tender. We continued to eat until mine was done and my wife’s nearly so. My mouth had a slow, steady, burn from the meal. We passed on any dessert as we were quite full. The bill came to 57 smackers before tip – 15 of which were for the drinks. Our fortune cookies had fortunes that I didn’t understand.
So where does Zen stand in comparison to the rest of the Chinese food in the greater Portland area? It’s near the top. That’s not saying much, but it was good. The drink I had was superb. Our entrees were particularly delicious; however our apps could have been better. But make no mistake, the issues with the food were not huge and could be easily fixed if the desire is there to fix them. I was concerned with the lack of business on a Saturday night, but it was relatively early so that may or may not have reflected a typical weekend evening. I hope that this place sticks around. Portland really needs some decent Chinese food, and with the nice scenery, Zen adds a twist to the mix. Bring your friends, drink some scorpion bowls, and down a bunch Chinese food. That’s definitely the path to enlightenment.
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