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Rostra rating: 3.5
In a town often consumed with mutual admiration for transplanted Japanese fast food outlets, Danwei Canting–a Beijing work unit restaurant masquerading as a New Portland industrial cookie cutter eatery with concrete floors, big ass bell and pendant lights, and exposed everything–remains very unusual. Maoist restaurateurs must also have mastered the art of floor-to-ceiling windows that open onto outside picnic table-like seating. Perhaps the demise of work unit restaurants in the 1990s can be blamed on Chinese air pollution? Oh well, the Forbidden City’s loss is definitely Rip City’s gain.
Jiaozi pork dumplings with ginger, chives, garlic and Napa cabbage. Very good pot sliders (vice stickers) with an excellent pasta-to-meat ratio. The table side shanxi mature vinegar rocks, and absolutely makes this dish.
Jiaozi lamb dumplings with cumin, ginger, fermented chilies and napa cabbage. These bits of green Beijing tortellini are clearly superior to their porcine brethren and that is saying something. The pasta was perfectly cooked and the ground, delicately seasoned lamb was downright juicy. Team Mago could not resist firing them up with heat and acid, further elevating a humble dish that is often made indifferently even in the Portland gastropolis.
Wok seared green beans, with fermented bean paste and minced pork: B+. The beans were fresh and correctly cooked, but the pork lacked punch. The dish needed heat and more garlic. The heat is easily solved with the chili oil thoughtfully deployed on every table alongside that killer vinegar. This dish included some very good steamed rice for street food. The pickled Chinese radish just might have been the best bits o’ the dish, they certainly elevated the beans. Note to owner James Kyle and chef Kyo Koo: a dish devoted to pickles would be fantastic and would almost certainly have the added advantage of boosting alcohol sales (never a bad thing for a restaurant’s bottom line).
Egg noodles with pork wontons served with Chinese greens, scallions, and chili oil in a shellfish-based broth: This is what all the fuss is about. Sort of a cross between ramen and wonton soup. The fantastic wontons are the centerpiece of the dish, medium-sized and meaty (lots of them too!). The pasta is Asian al dente swimming in a light and flavorful stock. The julienned radishes provide a great crunch and subtle flavor.
Lamb skewers: leg of lamb marinated in cumin, garlic, chilies, and Sichuan peppercorn. The conspiracy theory-minded diner could be excused for considering this dish a culinary propaganda adjunct to Xi Jinping’s One Belt One Road initiative. The lamb’s excellent marinade straddles the flavors of the Asian steppes and the subcontinent. And the meat is served unapologetically on hot metal skewers instead of overgrown toothpicks, yessssss!!
Pork burger: braised shoulder with star anise, fennel seed and ginger. Evidently Uyghurs do que, who knew? Our waiter told us that the burgers at Danwei Canting were based on comfort food that involves stuffing a wheat flour-based bread pocket with a braise. MagoGuide’s culinary investigations led us to conclude that these burgers probably evolved from lamb pies griddled over a pastoralist’s campfire into flat bread spread with braised meat sold by village and town bakers and thence to street snacks peddled by immigrant Uyghurs to the Chinese capital, who brought with them the cuisine of Xinjiang. It turns out that Uyghurs also have their versions of naan and bagels, but I digress. The “burger” was great, tasting like classic North Carolina BBQ with an Asian twist when sauced with vinegar and chili oil. However, the use of piggage–given that Uyghurs have practiced Islam since the 10th century–is either a modern Han interpolation or a culinary throwback to the Tengrianism of the distant Uyghur past.
La Zi Ji chicken: wok fried spicy chicken with whole chili peppers, scallions, ginger and Sichuan peppercorns. TeamMago does not really see what all the fuss is about in both professional reviewer land and on social media over this preparation. The fried yard bird is fine for what it is, but even leavened with rice the dish comes off as too dry. More importantly, the chicken is not really spicy enough unless you ingest one of the many, many fierce red pepper pods. MagoGuide loves a bold rustic burn as much the next Portland dining app, but please don’t ask us to masticate whole peppers of uncertain strength to top off the heat in a dish. In TeamMago’s opinion, this signature dish could use some tweaking.
Great food aside, Danwei Canting is, somewhat counterintuitively especially for first time clients, a fun place to hang out and drink. Several reviewers have noted the presence of the iconic dive bar Slammer and Rum Club across Stark St. as the preferred locale for quaffing followed by a brief visit to Danwei for homeward bound ballast. But there is plenty of draft craft and bottled Chinese beer, cider, wine, and a fairly decent cocktail offering specializing in baiju (Han white lightening) concoctions at Danwei Canting itself. If you need a tie breaker, consider Danwei Canting’s young, enthusiastic, and genuine friendly staff (and I triple dog dare ya to allocate those three attributes simultaneously to any dive bar staff anywhere, because then it would no longer be a dive bar per se, n’est-ce pas?). Service is fast but not rushed, all questions are answered or referred to the kitchen and then reported back to your table, and any mistakes are corrected quickly with great self-deprecating humor.
The only real shame on display at Danwei Canting is the missed opportunity at the bar/chef’s counter. Why have an open kitchen and then deliberately obstruct the view? As gold plated culinary voyeurs, TeamMago is living proof that the punters who like to watch tend to spend more ducats per meal than most customers.
Bottom line: If you go to Danwei Canting for great Chinese fast food, you might just end up staying for a very engaging slower food and longer libation experience than you had planned.