Out of all the newer restaurants in town, Empire Chinese Kitchen was one that my friends seemed the most eager to know about and were surprised when I repeatedly had to admit I hadn’t tried it yet. My original experience was a bit awkward and not long after it had opened. A friend and I walked inside and there were people huddled over at the bar. We stood there for a bit and nobody greeted us, so I thought maybe we were supposed to seat ourselves. It turns out it was all staff at the bar and we finally approached them to ask if the kitchen was closed. Apparently they are closed on Tuesdays which was bit confusing since we had no problem getting through the door. They explained that they keep the bar area open if there is a show going on upstairs. Every night since then, whenever I’d get out of work hellbent on crossing them off my to-chew list or had a hankering for Chinese, always seemed to fall on a Tuesday (a similar phenomenon happens on Mondays with Boda).
Needless to say, I did not let this cruel ‘hours of operation’ trick deter me from another visit. Persistence prevailed and I was finally able to stop in one rainy afternoon. I started with an order of green beans in garlic sauce. Flavorful but not overpowering, which can be a fine line with garlic. The beans themselves were not as al dente as I prefer, but far from a serious detractor. I also ordered some veggie dumplings and the Char Siu Bao, steam buns filled with barbecue pork. The veggie dumplings used a gummy rice dough wrapping and were filled with spinach, corn, carrot, and ginger. The ingredients definitely tasted fresh but didn’t really pop. Luckily it wasn’t anything a little dipping sauce couldn’t resolve. The Char Siu Bao made the meal for me because it just totally warped my expectations. This was practically a dessert bun. Seriously delicious, but it was just well beyond the hint of sweetness you’d expect with BBQ pork. I’d just advise future diners that if you’re craving salty/smoky flavors, these buns will not fit the bill. My server also seemed genuinely excited about the menu and provided recommendations for next time. Maybe I just ordered the wrong stuff from Zen Bistro, but it didn’t really seem to stand out from any other delivery place in the area. I would say that Empire is the best Portland has to offer for Chinese right now, but I also have the feeling that Cara Stadler is ready to shake things up and bring her A-game in the coming months!