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One of the most surprising things I learned while putting together the Fearless Critic Portland Restaurant Guide is that the single best preparation of duck in Portland is sold only by the pound.
It's angrily hacked into pieces, thrown at room temperature into a plastic bag, and shoved across a mostly-take-out Cantonese BBQ counter called Best Taste, near the gritty corner of SE 82nd and Division (not to be confused with the better-known Good Taste, a separate chain).
I realize that I must be part of an extremely small minority in Portland who believe that Best Taste's Cantonese roast duck is really the best duck prep in the city. But after my last visit to this blank little room, I seriously challenge you to produce breast or leg meat anywhere in the city that's this juicy, or to find any duck skin with the ethereal texture of Best Taste's, which mimics the light crunch of a tuile or a caramelized sugar wafer.
Given that, according to historians, the first Thanksgiving actually involved something closer to game birds than to today's breast-heavy turkeys, I think there's even an argument to be made that this should have been the ideal bird for last Thursday.
Whole pigs are also roasted at Best Taste, and their meat is every bit as moist as the duck's, with glistening skin that's arguably even more delicate. There's also delicious dim sum, headlined by a superb version of chicken feet. The only drawback is that the staff will try to strong-arm you into ordering significant by-the-pound quantities of each roast meat, thus driving up the bill — but also driving up the number of people you can feed. Do you really need an excuse for a pig-and-duck party?
So why has nobody heard about Best Taste?
Well, it's not even the most famous Chinese restaurant in its own little 82nd Avenue neighborhood. That title would go to Wong's King Seafood, whose fresh Cantonese-style seafood from the tanks and reliable dim sum are diminished by shoddy service and high prices.
I was discussing the Wong's King phenomenon with a Cantonese-speaking friend the other day, and she told me something funny: the family name that's transliterated as "Wong" is pronounced the same way as the Cantonese word for "king," so the restaurant's name is actually a kind of arrogant pun. You might translate it as "King's King."
Add to this the fact that it's in "King Plaza," and you're approaching real delusions of grandeur — the sorts of delusions that sometimes lead restaurants to raise prices and let service slip. This phenomenon, writ large, is one of the things I want to talk about in what I hope turns out to be a spirited PDX restaurant discussion/debate at the Fearless Critic book launch event, which is open to the public.
Of course, back over at Best Taste, the service couldn't really slip, because it's hard to imagine how it could get any worse than it is now. If you're the submissive type, you'll love listening to the stern demands about quantity minimums coming from someone holding a giant cleaver. Otherwise, this is not a place for a date.
Best Taste is not quite the #1 Chinese restaurant in Portland in the Fearless Critic book. That title goes to Ocean City Seafood, on SE 82nd Avenue, which gets a 9.1 food rating, putting it at #19 on our book's overall "Most Delicious List" (the top-ranked kitchens for pure food) and edges out Best Taste's 9.0.
I'm not sure if this restaurant's reference to the crusty Maryland resort town is intentional, but if it is, the kitchen easily one-ups its supposed provenance. My last visit yielded a plate of sweet head-on bait shrimp, taken live from the tank, gently steamed, and dipped in the mess of soy sauce and chili oil that covers the plate of anyone who's begun a dim sum meal with a few dumpling courses.
Those dumplings might be the crowd pleaser at Ocean City, but the real wonders lie in the giant set of fish tanks, where you'll see (beyond the bait shrimp) things like lobsters, Dungeness crabs, and striped bass swimming around.
The unromantic aspect of the authentic Chinese restaurant — the big room, the bright lights, the rows of identical tables, the opposite of intimate — remains at odds with what most of us are looking for in an evening's entertainment.
On my last visit, though — with several Fearless Critic panelists — we found entertainment enough in the bo lo bau, or so-called "pineapple bun," an explosion of creamy, slightly salty custard against eggy, baked crust that is the best sweet thing I've had from a Chinese restaurant in Portland all year. To call it dessert would be to insult its intelligence. The name is smartypants, too: there's not actually any pineapple involved, just a bright yellow glow and a quadrillage of ridges and shiny egg wash segments that help to mimic the design of the fruit.
My erstwhile volunteer Cantonese translator reports that bo lo bau are actually better known in Taiwan, where they're sold as loaves of unfilled egg bread at room temperature. Hong Kong, meanwhile, has apparently co-opted the bo lo bau as hot dessert bread, stuffing dim-sum-sized buns with cheese, custard, or other fillings and baking them just before serving. It turns out that the Hong Kong hot dessert version has become so popular that they're now beginning to offer "Hong Kong-style bo lo bau" back in Taiwan, too. And so it goes.
One of the biggest challenges with Chinese food in Portland, if you're a non-Chinese person, is even getting the right menu. Too many establishments translate only the Chinese-American dishes into English, concealing the best traditional Chinese options from view. So I salute the ones that don't, like Lucky Strike, where the ma la dishes tingle with Szechuan peppercorns, or Beijing Hot Pot, where you can cook your own meat and vegetables in broth, fondue-style, an old tradition. At my last visit to Gold Garden Seafood, another unsung traditional Chinese restaurant that's even further from central PDX, I got to try a daily special of gelatinous cubes of ya shiu (duck's blood) with scallion and ginger, which — at least to lovers of blood sausage and other vaguely metallic-tasting innards — mounts a serious challenge to Best Taste's duck for best-preparation-in-the-city honors.
Of course, I haven't tasted every single duck dish in Portland. Not even the entire team with whom I put together the Fearless Critic restaurant guide — 15 local food critics, writers, bloggers, cooks — could aspire, in sum, to taste every single duck dish in Portland.
Food criticism is an imperfect science. You fight against bias however possible: no announcing yourself, no star-chef-fucking, no doing business with restaurants. You try everything and you assume nothing. You apply your technical checklist and, when you've gathered enough specifics, you try to draw generalizations.
But sometimes, just as you're trying to do all of that in order, a bite of duck (or maybe duck's blood) just carries you off.