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Rostra rating: 4
The dearth of decent Chinese restaurants in Portland’s Alphabet District is such that newly opened Kung POW’s chef/owner Henry Liu has been accorded status similar to a reincarnation of Yi Yin, the ancient Chinese “King of Cookery.” Chef Liu describes his Szechuan and other regional dishes as delivering such a level of spice and heat that “people are almost scared to come in.” How could MagoGuide resist such a brazen culinary triple dog dare? Well, we couldn’t and this review covers a welcome, but somewhat over-hyped, addition to the NW ‘hood.
First impressions can be tricky things. I have learned to trust them with respect to restaurant design but not so much in terms of food. Kung POW! is obviously a Chinese restaurant, but not a typical one in terms of décor. Chef Liu has conceived and built out a very pleasant place to eat and drink.The space is industrial but not stark with dark hardwood floors and chairs contrasting with blond wood tables. The walls are decorated with stonework backing a neon sign of the restaurant’s name and a mural of a Chinese street scene that brings an explosion of color to the dining area. The bar is a very convivial space dominated by a killer 3D dragon over the bar and a large canvas devoted to the humble fortune cookie.
My first impression of Kung POW’s food, however, was decidedly disappointing. Up until I tried Chef Liu’s potstickers, I viewed these quintessential dumplings in binary terms; they were either great or they sucked. Kung POW! threw me a curve because there was nothing wrong with their components. The wrappers were not too thick and they were correctly cooked arriving hot with crispy brown bottoms. The pork stuffing was just fine as well. The problem was that the ratio of stuffing to surrounding wrapper was all wrong. The wrappers were huge, the stuffing literally rattled around inside them. This not only made the potstickers difficult to eat, but threw the whole textural and flavor balance out of whack. They just did not add up to the sum of their parts. Finally, a single order comprised six of these monsters, any two of which would founder a glutton (such as myself).
The house-made wontons in Sichuan chili oil, however, were exemplary. The small wontons contained a mere morsel of the same stuffing used in the potstickers but in correct proportion to their wrappers. And that killer mah lah chili satisfied a deep craving dating back to Team Mago’s last visit to London. It’s also one of the few rationally portioned appetizers, since most absolutely have to be split in order to make it to and through the very generous mains.
I could not give the spring rolls any higher grade than a solid B. They were nicely fryolatered (or deep fry woked?), crisp and greaseless, but they had an over abundance of cabbage versus everything else.
The universal raves concerning lamb bao bing prompted Team Mago to give it a try. The good news comes from the flavor department. Lamb seems to have a special affinity for Szechuan-type treatments that tend to bring out its rich sweetness, while the lamb fat underpins a mouth feel one usually expects from pork dishes. The dual heat sources of chilies and a tasty red pepper salsa supercharge the dish and cut through the cloying hoisin nicely.
Like those potstickers, however, there is a major fly in this appie’s ointment. The accompanying mu shu pancakes were old and flaccid. I could go along with the culinary social media’s “wisdom of crowds” on the lamb bao bing if the pancakes simply did not add anything to an otherwise excellent dish, but they actually detracted from it to the point that I abandoned them and just mixed and ate the other ingredients with the serving spoon. Despite my spousal unit’s chagrin, it was a marked improvement.
The fried fish balls, on the other hand, live up to their billing and deliver significant sapidity in the way of spice and heat. While all three versions are quite good, Team Mago voted in favor of spicy curry sauce (composed of Sichuan mah lah berry, garlic, ginger, and house-blended curry spices), if only because there are so few curry-themed dishes on the menu. All the fish balls, which are all-fish balls by the way, choke real good with the bar’s rotating taps.
Kung POW! deploys an extensive selection of vegan offerings, especially for a medium-sized Chinese menu. Sichuan Eggplant was on point—definitely MagoGuide’s idea of a vegan dish.
Dry sautéed Brussels sprouts were even better, but Team Mago simply could not resist de-veganizing them with pork belly, the ultimate pig candy, that is wielded competently and generously across the length and breadth of the menu.
The beef cut of choice at Kung POW! is flank steak, and Team Mago has a problem with that. Patti in particular is no friend of the flank with respect to either texture or flavor. Use of top sirloin or even tri-tip (if it is correctly sliced against its multi-directional grain) would bring this key ingredient up to par with the restaurant’s otherwise very good preparations, particularly the honey dry fried beef.
Service at Kung POW! is attentive and friendly. A kitchen kerfuffle during our last visit was quickly corrected, our bill recalculated, and a couple free beers thrown in to compensate. Waitstaff also proved knowledgeable concerning all the dishes on offer, and were down right passionate about their favorites.
Booze is big at Kung POW! as one would expect from a menu loaded with drinking food and recovery from drinking dishes. Cocktails are designed to align with the Chinese zodiac, but the most unusual offerings involve bespoke infused Chinese white lightning. The wine list, however, is overly slanted toward Rieslings. If time travel were actually possible, I would definitely track down whoever decided that Riesling was the go-to wine for spicy Chinese food, lash the perp to the “expert” who declared Gewürztraminer the gift of Bacchus to Indian cuisine, and deliver them to the Kahn of Khans for re-education. Personally, I prefer a flinty Chablis with Kung POW’s spicy fare, but I would never push that choice on our gentle readers. If you are only going to offer ten or so wines, they should represent a full spectrum of choices, rather than goose-stepping diners in the direction of dodgy cuisine pairing standards.
In sum, while we have a hard time endorsing the avalanche of ecstatic “reviews” oozing out of the social media, we are also quite puzzled by Willamette Week’s admonition that diners treat Kung Pow! like a higher end Republic Café. There is simply no comparison between Chef Liu’s nicely realized watering hole with above average cuisine and a fetid, filthy dive bar with horrid food and worse service—not to put too fine a point on it. The glass is definitely, albeit barely, half full and MagoGuide would happily raise Kun POW! to 3.5 rostras if the kitchen would only down-size the pot stickers, rebalance the spring roll stuffing, serve decent mu shu pancakes, and nix the flank steak in their beef dishes. These are all tweaks that Chef Liu is imminently capable of undertaking. Here’s hoping he does before our next visit.