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Rostra rating: 3
A sexagenarian Chinese American restaurant bought by recent Chinese immigrants that is “suddenly making some of the best Chinese food in Portland?” MagoGuide — always on a dual mission to tastebud check our competitors and find more sources of good Chinese food — just had to check out Chin’s Kitchen.
Our initial preparation of the dining space yielded a necessary corrective to Willamette Week’s tendency toward hyperbole with Rip City Asian cuisine. While Chin’s metamorphosis from Egg Foo Young and Chop Suey to eight kinds of Dongbei dumplings as well as hot and cold bespoke noodle dishes should be cheered and supported, there are basic issues of kitchen and service consistency that will have to be addressed before this Hollywood eatery can aspire to diamond in the rough status, much less be placed with cut and burnished facets in the “some of the best of” category.
The small dining space (Chin’s pretty obviously once included the sushi place next door) is bright and clean, clearly a makeover that dates to owners Cindy and Windy Li’s acquisition of a huge neon sculpture with an attached restaurant. The lighting is sensibly recessed and booth/table spacing is reasonable for such a small establishment, while the noise level is surprisingly low, at least when the place is not slammed. The black and white photos on the walls seemed like a good and frugal way to enliven the decor until I began to wonder why so many of them seem to be of New York City (hmmmmm).
WW describes the service at Chin’s as “earnest but a bit overwhelmed,” and intimates that this is due to the crowds of locals that inundate the place now that word of its unusual and tasty Northeastern Chinese fare has spread. Well, the restaurant was less than half full when Team Mago showed up and our earnest waitress could not really handle a couple deuces, one four top, and a single. We had to ask for the roasted peanuts WW says start every meal at Chin’s and the accompanying daikon-and-carrot white kimchi was a total no show. And those sweet and sour pork cutlets about which WW waxed rhapsodic? They were not even on the menu and our waitress was unaware that they ever had been. By the end of the evening, we had been handed off to Cindy and a guy from the kitchen who helpfully arranged several of the dishes table side for Patti’s beauty shots. If the place had been crowded the night we ate at Chin’s, I would be forced to fear for our dining experience and their rostra rating.
But as me old gaffer would say, “enough bellyaching, did you eat anything or just whine all night?” There is a lot of good food at Chin’s and Team Mago certainly ate some of it. We definitely get all the fuss about those dumplings. We chose the leek and pork dumplings, having subsisted on their Sichuan counterparts at Falls Church’s venerable Peking Gourmet Inn for years back when we were swamp creatures. Chin’s are better. It’s all about the wrapper; these were silky and medium thick with just enough tooth to compliment the juicy mingled flavor of pig candy and mild onions. Given that these morsels seemed cooked to order, it was a shame that they were not served a bit warmer — the first of several kitchen consistency problems.
Mago Tip: Although the dumplings come with a very good, viscous, garlicky sauce, be sure to ask for a) house made chili oil, b) dumpling dipping vinegar, and c) Sriracha, because these condiments take the dumplings to the next level and you probably will not get them if you are not proactive.
Stir-fried pig kidney: I can’t resist kidneys, especially the porcine variety. These turned out to be surprisingly mild with just a slightly mineral earthiness that was a nice contrast with the crunchy bell peppers, carrots, and onions that seem ubiquitous in Chin’s stir fries. The sauce was medium thick but not cloying and correctly seasoned with exception of heat. There were plenty of whacked up dried red peppers in the dish, but they had very little kick. Again the condiments saved the day, but next time Team Mago is going to ask for spicier preps on many of Chin’s offerings.
Mago Tip: Those swinish kidneys made a fantastic duck egg omelette the next day. You just might want to over order by a dish or two. The staff is very happy to supply you with classic Chinese take away boxes.
Cumin beef: Willamette Week troweled on the praise for this dish to the tune of “a wildly spicy and saucy plate of cumin beef.” Well that wild spice had bolted for Outer Mongolia and left the dish pretty much a one note wonder. The liberal use of cumin proved to be both unusual and savory, but again, kitchen consistency seems to be a problem when you are not a pre-announced reviewer for a well known alternative weekly.
Yu-Shiang shredded pork: This was the weakest dish we tried. Perhaps this owes to attempting a Sichuan treatment in a kitchen otherwise devoted to Northeastern Chinese cuisine, but the bright red sauce was cloying and lacked the serious hits of garlic, vinegar, and pickled hot peppers that make it such a killer treatment for eggplant. WW claims that “among two visits and many dishes, nothing failed.” OK, does that mean if you want to eat C-/D+ food you should throw some precious ducats at Chin’s Kitchen? MagoGuide opines that perhaps the small but interesting menu should be purged of dishes that do not originate in the Li sisters’ Dongbei culinary sweet spot.
The only rice option to accompany Chin’s cooking is a lightly purple, slightly sticky version that worked nicely with the food, but will never be confused with killer blue rice served at Farmhouse Kitchen (see Farmhouse Kitchen: Finally a Competitor for Pok Pok). The beer selection is limited to an unholy bottled trinity of Tsing Tao, Coors, and Deschutes Mirror Pond. Team Mago loves Tsing Tao with Asian fare, but Chin’s needs to serve it colder and their dumplings hotter.
Bottom line: Chin’s Kitchen has definite potential in a town that has a surprising scarcity of good Chinese regional cuisine, but for right now Danwei Canting (see our review Danwei Canting Has Very Few Peer Competitors) and Kung POW! (see Kung POW! Does Pack a Punch) blow it away in terms of food, alcohol, service, and location. MagoGuide will be back for more of those killer dumplings and to try the noodle dishes, braised ham hock, and who could resist the pan-fired pork intestines and a beef tripe cold dish (well my wife and most of my friends, but can you imagine a pig guts and duck egg omelette)? But we are really hoping for some important improvements in service and kitchen discipline, so as to reflect WW’s culinary experience.
And what is up with the website confusion? It seems that the previous owners have retained control of Chin Kitchen’s domain name with the old menu (but no venue?). Some idea of the current menu can be gleaned from https://eat24hours.com/chin-s-kitchen/1251, but until the Lis stabilize the menu a bit more, it is a probabilistic exercise.