Is Chinese food an underdeveloped market in Portland? I’d say so. There’s not an overwhelming amount of go-to Chinese restaurants in the area and that is even more true if you’re not just looking for take-out. The opening of Sichuan Kitchen on Congress St. adds another one into the fold. I wanted to try it, so I dragged my wife there for a visit. My hope was that it offered something different from what was already here in town.
The menu offered small plates, salads, vegetables, entrees, and noodles and rice and had both items that looked familiar and those that were new to me. Neither of us took long to figure out what we wanted. We decided to share Sichuan Cucumber Salad – crispy, juicy cucumbers and fresh garlic. I wanted to try their Zhong dumplings – pork loin dumplings served in an aromatic sauce. For her main course, she decided on the Sichuan Poached Fish – Swai fish fillets (a delicate white fish) cooked in a special broth with chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, and yellow bean sprouts. I went with the Gong Bao Chicken – chicken, peanuts, scallions, and a sweet and sour sauce with chili spice and peppercorns. Despite the slight name alteration, it appeared to be similar to the Kung Pao Chicken at most local Chinese restaurants.
Before the waitress left our table, my wife ordered some tea. The one on the menu was E-mei Kafengt – light jasmine floral aromatics, sweetness of early spring green tea. It didn’t take long for that to come out, and though I normally detest tea in any form, I decided to try it. It wasn’t half bad. It had a weak, floral taste and smell. I wasn’t dying to drink alot, but I must admit that I wasn’t turned off by beverage which was a first for me when it came to tea.
Cucumber salad came out first. The cukes were neatly sliced and sitting in what appeared to be a chili oil. My first piece confirmed my visual assessment. The veggies were very fresh and the main portion of the dressing was certainly chili oil, which offered a reasonably pleasant spice. I tasted the tiniest hint of sweetness somewhere in there too. I liked that the plate deviated from similar dishes I’d had at other restaurants in that it wasn’t particularly sugary.
Next to come out were my dumplings. There were five in a small bowl covered in what appeared to be the same oil that was on the cucumber salad. I tried one and it did have similar taste. Again, they were less sweet than I was used to because they didn’t come with the traditional dumpling sauce. Still, I found them pleasing because they were different and lacked significant sweetness.
Main courses arrived in due time and I couldn’t wait to try my chicken dish. The meal was heavy on peanuts which I liked. It wasn’t particularly spicy, but definitely flavorful with chicken that was a little leaner than I was used to. The sauce was not all that different than the norm except – and I suppose a theme was developing – it wasn’t quite as sweet, though certainly still the most so of the night.
Once I finished my food, my wife offered me some of hers. I pulled the bowl of fish soup over and was shocked. It wasn’t just that the bowl was massive, but it was also filled with tons of fish and vegetables. Sure, there was some broth, but there were more of the other omnivore delights than I could believe. Undoubtedly, there was enough for two or more hungry eaters. Clearly heavily infused with chili oil, the fish was beautifully prepared. I loved its delicate flavor and its ability to take on the nuances of the soup which consisted primarily of the various pepper flavors.
A few bites in, the soup presented a problem. Despite the excellent flavor, my mouth was consumed by a prickle. Try as I might to avoid the peewee pellets of peppercorn, there were a plethora of them in there and they were overpowering the dish. It was a bit disheartening as the concoction was quite delicious with a nice touch of heat and the peppercorn flavor was actually great, but the quantity of the whole spice in the bowl was just too much to handle.
I tried my best to work though eating the rest of the fish and a few sprouts, but it was difficult and I gave up. Other than that, I thought the meal to be quite enjoyable. Sichuan Kitchen used chili oil heavily in the dishes we had, but they were good so it was hard to complain. There are plenty of other dishes available without that. Our meal focused less on the candied flavors of typical Chinese restaurants and more on a version of the relatively mild peppers and, as they implied on the menu, balanced flavors. It was true. Except for the peppercorns, no one flavor stood out in any dish – the heat was not overwhelming, nor the sweetness.
Our meal came to about $60 before tip which seemed pricy at first glance, but the soup was easily enough for two. I’d definitely give Sichuan Kitchen another shot. The first one was pretty successful. I might pass on the poached fish unless they cut back on the peppercorns, but otherwise their food is well thought out and somewhat unique to the area. The atmosphere is relatively bland, but the food isn’t. In the end, it was more than good enough for me to plan a return visit.
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