Hong Kong Cafe - DIm Sum in PDX?
A friend who is uninitiated in the rituals, wonders, and pleasures of dim sum recently tried a few items on a whim. I'd report his findings, but he has no baseline for the sake of comparison.
Yes, better dim sum is to be had elsewhere, and I usually save my appetite for trips to SF. But I'd rather avoid the advice to go elsewhere, as that's not always an option.
PDX does not have a good reputation for dim sum. Good dim sum chefs don't stick around and find the greener pastures to the north and south.
However, with Ocean City, Wong's King, and a few others now having regular service, and noting that these places can get packed well before noon, it seems to me that PDX, having a decent enough Asian population, is ripe for a decent dim sum place. Or are my perceptions skewed?
I am wondering if any local Hounds have tried this newish place in the Eastport Plaza? Are there others worthy of note?
I finally got a chance to try HK Cafe.
I'll start with some non-food observations first. I like the decor and cleanliness. We went at 10:30 in the morning, and I noticed that the place was relatively crowded. By the time we left, there was another wave of hungry diners.
On to the food.
1) Char Siu So. BBQ Pork in flake pastry. I found the pastry not be flaky enough. On the whole, not bad.
2) Char Siu Bao, Steamed. The dough met my expectations. Light and fluffy.
3) Char Siu Bao, Baked. Nice yeasty dough.
* Now for a note on the char siu filling in the above items. The filling could be a bit more generous. However, the filing itself wasn't as savoury as I would have liked it. And there were bits of cilantro, an odd choice, in the filling. For now, Good Luck Dim Sum in SF sets my standard for Char Siu Bao.
4) Wu Tao Kok. Fried taro dumplings with mushroom-pork-dried shrimp filling. Not bad at all, though they could have been warmer, as this is one item that is best when straight out of the fryer. The taro's texture was a bit runny, somewhat like refried beans. But it was fresh as no ammonia odor could be detected. The filling could be a bit more savoury. (Sensing a theme?)
5) Har Gow. Steamed shrimp dumplings. Lots of shrimp packed into wrappers that were not too thick or thin. However, the shrimps were way too mushy, lacking any snappy bit and indicating that too much baking soda was used to treat the shrimp.
6) Pi Gwut. Steamed spareribs in black bean sauce. Nice meaty morsels with only a tiny amount of bones.
However, for all of the garlic and black beans that were in the dish, none of the flavor came through! In addition, a piece of sweet potato was steamed along side of the ribs, adding another unexpected flavor.
7) Gawn Chow Ngau Ho. Dry fried beef chow fun. The litmus test for the kitchen. Not oily, the noodles were well coated with soy sauce. There was a hint of wok hei. The green onions and bean sprouts didn't overwhelm the dish. The beef, however, suffered from too much of the tenderizer treatment and was mushy.
8) Shui Mai. Steamed Pork Dumplings. No problems with flavor or unexpected ingredients, the pork filling was a bit too soft, indicating again an overuse of tenderizer.
My two criticisms would be the use of the cilantro and the sweet potato which added a bit of dissonance which didn't really harmonize with their dishes. The use of tenderizer on the meats/shrimp needs to be restrained.
So, overall I would give it a B. I wouldn't turn this place down, but I wouldn't put it at the top of my list.
A few corrections and a more generous hand with the seasoning could make this place shine.
For comparison's sake, Ocean City is next on the list.
I will be trying HK Cafe for dinner now that crab season is here.
It could have been kabocha or pumpkin, now that I think about it.
When I first saw it, I thought it might have been a piece of salted duck egg yolk. It had the texture, but not the taste. Because it was orange and had a slightly sweet flavor, I assumed it was sweet potato.
I think my disappointment stems from the black beans and garlic having no effect on the dish's flavor. Combine this with an item that didn't compliment anything else and you get that feeling of dissonance.
I must say it's not a fave for me, and the black bean seems often to be lacking. I'm always curious about the way similar dishes are presented during dim sum in different cities. There is a red hot sauce, really a paste, that is ubiquitous here, either with or without accompanying mustard. When I asked for it in San Francisco, I got very blank looks.
HK Cafe's dim sum doesn't suck, but I think that overall, Ocean City has better dim sum. Haven't been to Wong's King in a long time, as OC definitely had better dim sum the last 2 times I gave WK a last try. WK might be better than HKC, but I'm, not really sure, at this point.
HK Cafe has XLB (xiao long bao - soup dumplings), which are not easy to find around this town. They are decent, but not as good as anything you can get in NYC, SF or Vancouver.
Nothing you can get here, in terms of dim sum or just about any type of Chinese food, is as good as any of those three places. (I'm from NYC, but I've dried my tears over this after about 12 years here in PDX - I prefer living here for many reasons, not gonna move just to get better dim sum ;o)
Ocean City does a great job on their dumpling fillings, but the wraps (esp. the rice/rice flour-based wraps) can be a bit thick and clunky. Their sticky rice (my GF's fave, not mine) is better than HK Cafe's by a long margin. OC's chicken feet (a fave of mine, but not the GF ;o) are delicious - the sauce they make is great, and I end up eating it with other things it is so delicious. They also make great, flaky bbq beef pastries. I also like their shumai, which are large, and have a nice chunk of shrimp in them. Shrimp always have that nice snap to them (in both their Har Gow and their Har Cheong Fun) at OC, too.
HK Cafe is cheap, noticeably cheaper than the other two...and it is defiitely worth a try (esp if you want XLBs), but also give OC a whirl and see how they compare. Just do not expect SF or NYC quality, it's just not gonna happen.
P.S. - If you are really after congee, though, I'd go to Kenny's Noodle Shop for that - theirs is better than at any dim sum house.
And yes, I think you are absolutely right - dim sum chefs can get better gigs in other cities, so they don't usually stay here. sigh.
With so many regular breakfast/lunch places here in PDX that are only open until 2pm or 3pm, you'd think a dim sum only (no dinner service) place with a similar schedule might do well. Must be something about needing a full kitchen to do the kind of prep you need for dim sum, and maybe you can't make rent if your kitchen is so large and you can't count on dinner and delivery revenue.
We don't have a huge Chinese population here, though - more Korean, Thai, Viet (which is probably why we have more of those and better of those restaurants than Chinese).