Chinese Restaurants in the Greater Portland Area
Since moving to the Portland area, we have begun conversations with many of the strangers we meet the same way: “So, where are you getting your Chinese food?” Almost every single time we ask, that stranger will start with a laugh, and then slowly shake her head, eyes closed. Portland, while it may be many things, isn’t highly marked for its exceptional Chinese takeout.
After eating Portland’s largely above-passable Thai food until it was oozing out of our ears, we still weren’t able to scratch our Chinese itch. We started chasing increasingly peculiar leads: A bizarre fusion restaurant on outer Brighton Ave! A passable strip mall location in Falmouth! “Auspicious Pagoda isn’t too bad,” people would explain reluctantly, “for Americanized Chinese food.”
In fact, somewhat oddly, every conversation we have had with people about Chinese takeout in Portland, every article or review we have read in the newspaper, seems to come with the very careful explanation that, when it comes to local Chinese, you can expect pretty “Americanized” versions of dishes, at best. I’m sorry, Mr. World Traveler, did you just get back from living aboard a junk boat in Shanghai for four years? Were you feasting on bowls of duck beaks in steaming squid ink, or buckets of braised knuckles in frogbroth while the rest of us were learning to hold chopsticks and gumming our General Tso’s? “Authentic” isn’t necessarily something we get too hung up about, when it comes to our Chinese takeout.
We are just looking for, at the very least, well-prepared, possibly even fresh versions of classic, NYC-or-Boston-style Chinese takeout junk food. The kind where you order from a grid of really, really harshly-lit photographs. The kind where the signs are written in magic marker on faded pink posterboard. The kind where you can get fresh, cooling cut-up chunks of seedless watermelon in the Summer. The kind that go great with a Thursday night, and a little Amazing Race. “Americanized” or otherwise, someone, somewhere, can surely deliver a $20 grease-sodden brown paper bag of Orange Chicken, and we were determined to find it. And rather than run ourselves ragged all over town, chasing down the different options, over weeks or even months, we decided to do it all at once.
We visited eight local area Chinese restaurants, based on their popularity and ratings on Urbanspoon, on Yelp, on comments on our Facebook page, and on the informal opinions of others. We didn’t stray into Vietnamese or Korean territory, and tried to stay rooted firmly in Cantonese/Szechuan Chinese takeout. We chose a few dishes that we felt were the most simple, and least open to interpretation. After all, my idea of Mu Shu Pork may be wildly different than yours, but we can both probably agree on what a good piece of deep-fried chicken looks and tastes like. At each restaurant, we placed the same order: Steamed pork dumplings, scallion pancakes, fried wontons, and sweet & sour chicken, and noted the results.
Eight Portland area Chinese restaurants. One buffet. 38 fortune cookies. $170.67 worth of Chinese food. Eight photos of the insides of dumplings. And a physical increase in body fluid retention of at least 10 percent. What were the results, and who is serving the best Chinese food in Portland?
Initial Impressions: Specializing in Hunan and Szechuan cuisine, Imperial China is located on the Maine Mall Road in South Portland, near the Maine Mall. They offer take-out, and dine-in service, in a small, but nicely-appointed dining room. Imperial China claims to have been voted Greater Portland’s “Best Chinese Restaurant,” for 14 years in a row, between 1995 and 2009, by “Market Surveys of America.” We’re not sure what happened in 2010. All of the take-out from Imperial China is packaged in white, Chinese take-out boxes, even when the item contained may have made more sense in another kind of packaging. A full complement of dipping sauces, including duck, soy, and hot mustard, were provided, as well as fortune cookies, and a bag of crispy wonton skin pieces.
Scallion Pancakes ($4.25): Imperial China’s scallion pancakes are cut into tiny pieces. The pancakes are chock-a-block full of tiny pieces of cut scallion, and are very flavorful. We didn’t notice much in the way of flaky layers, and the scallion pancakes were a tad on the soggy side. I blame this on the unexpected inclusion of shredded cabbage at the bottom of the box, which added undo moisture to the container. This opinion is based on completely made-up science. They are served with a dipping sauce that doesn’t appear to be anything more than soy sauce, and the sauce adds little to the dish.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($5.50): The menu somewhat mysteriously (and un-appetizingly) lists this item as “Steamed Meat Dumplings.” When Jillian ordered, she carefully asked for “Steamed Pork Dumplings,” but, when the order was repeated aloud by the hostess, she had conspicuously again referred to them as “Steamed Meat Dumplings.” As unsettling as this was, the dumplings were one of the high points of the order, with a steamed dumpling skin of medium thickness, with a soft chew. There was a medium amount of minced meat-and-scallion filling, leaving ample room for dumpling sauce. The sauce, unfortunately, was not a winner, combining soy sauce with too heavy-handed a pour of sesame oil.
Fried Wontons: Not available.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($8.75): Instead of the usual Styrofoam container of sickly-sweet, bright red glaze, this sweet and sour sauce was unique in its inclusion of chopped pieces of pineapple, green pepper, and maraschino cherries. The fruit gave the sauce a tropical quality, and much more character than I am accustomed to in my Chinese delivery. It wasn’t enough to save the chicken, however, which, though crispy and golden brown, was caked with far too much breading, surrounding little tiny bits of chicken.
Conclusion: While far from the worst of the restaurants we tried, I am surprised to find this one of the highest-rated Chinese restaurants on Urbanspoon. Nothing stands out as particularly remarkable, while there are a few oddities that detract from the overall experience. It almost seems like this is a restaurant not particularly suited for take-out; a few of the boxes had the garnishes from their dine-in counterparts included, which leaves you with the impression that these dishes were plated the way they would be for presentation in the dining room, before being shoveled off into a box.
We Liked: Medium-thick dumpling wrappers; fruit-filled sweet and sour sauce; lots of scallions in pancakes; browsing in Newbury Comics while we waited; awesome million-year-old Chinese hostess
We Didn’t Like: Boring dumpling sauce; doughy, heavily-breaded chicken; soggy pancakes; too-vague description of “meat”; total lack of wontons
Rating: 2.25 (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Lang’s Express is conveniently located in the no-man’s-land that is St. John Street, between the hospital and and the entrance to Interstate 295. The building may have, at some point in its life, begun as a Pizza Hut, given the strange shape of the building, and the dingy, chipped red formica booths inside; now, however, the building looks like the place where meth addicts go to warm up their hands in the wintertime. Lang’s is staffed by an ancient Chinese man, who is friendly and quick to joke. There is a lunch buffet advertised at around $6, but it seems to be made up of only three or four steam trays, and a crock of soup.
Scallion Pancakes: Not available.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($7.25): Though expensive at over seven dollars for a large order, each dumpling was about twice the size I am used to, with very light, though very thick, fluffy dough. The filling, again mysteriously described on the menu not as “pork,” but as the more vague, “meat,” was flavorful, with good bite from the scallions, and a roomy pocket to absorb plenty of dumpling sauce. The sauce lacked a ton of character, but wasn’t overpowered with sesame oil. We beefed it up by mixing in some of the excellent, runny, and very spicy hot mustard, and were happy with the result.
Fried Wontons ($3.45): At first glance, we were excited by the appearance of these wontons. They filled a huge styrofoam container, were folded properly, and showed the right amount of blistering around the golden brown wrapper. I was dismayed to find, as seems to be the norm here in Maine, that they contained no filling; these were simply folded and fried wonton wrappers. Thumbs down.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($7.25): The chicken had mixed results. It unexpectedly included a small portion of plain fried rice, which we ignored. The small container of sauce was unremarkable, sweet, thick, and good only in very small doses. The chicken, while heavily breaded and plentiful, contained some reasonably-sized pieces of meat. Unfortunately, they appeared to have been fried in two different batches, leaving the first half of the order crispy and brown, and the second half kind of pale and wiggly. We ate the top half, dipped in hot mustard instead of sweet and sour sauce, and fed the rest to the dog.
Conclusion: This restaurant gets pretty thoroughly trashed on Urbanspoon and on Yelp, and we can see why it wouldn’t be appealing to some. Eating in certainly doesn’t seem like an option, unless you find yourself in the unfortunate position of already being at either the hospital or the Greyhound Bus Terminal. For takeout, however (and granted, ours was the first order of the day), I think you can do worse. Lang’s seems like a restaurant where you have to choose your dish carefully. You will find a lot of misses, but if you luck into it, you can find a dish that you like. The steamed “meat” dumplings, for example, were better than what we’ve found at most other places, even while the other dishes fell way, way short.
We Liked: Good dumplings; super-spicy, runny hot mustard; lots of styrofoam; the 90-year-old Chinese guy that will tease you while you place your order; half of the chicken
We Didn’t Like: Empty folded wonton skins; weak dumpling sauce; Methadone clinic atmosphere; the other half of the chicken
Rating: 2.5 (depending wildly on what you order) (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Located in a small, light brown unassuming building with tiny windows on Forest Avenue, Valley Chinese Cuisine’s interior is cozy and homey…almost like eating at your grandmother’s house, if she were Chinese. Which, if you’re Chinese, I guess she probably is. There are a few sparse booths, and pleasantly-restrained Chinese theming throughout. Valley was also one of the few restaurants we tried, that offered each item from our testing categories.
Scallion Pancakes ($4.00): Valley’s scallion pancakes are pretty sad. Four bucks gets you a Styrofoam container of little folded triangles of flavorless, deep-fried dough, with hardly a scallion in sight. A swab in the accompanying dumpling sauce didn’t improve these pancakes.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($4.55): In one of the more peculiar dumpling offerings in this roundup, Valley’s small order presents you with three very large packets of dough, filled with a comically undersized amount of mushy, characterless filling. The dumpling wrapper was much too large and thick for the dollop of filling within, and the included sauce was much, much too sweet; almost like a mixture of soy sauce and simple syrup.
Fried Wontons ($2.50): The fried wontons came packaged to overflowing in a standard white Chinese take out box, and were nothing more than a huge basket of knotted up wonton wrapping, with no filling in sight.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($8.95): Served with a scoop of pork fried rice, the sweet and sour chicken was a bit of surprise, in a field of some of the worst Chinese we tasted throughout this article. While the chicken took the usual form, that is, battered finger-shaped chicken with a crispy outside and a doughy inside, it somehow seemed lighter and tastier than others we tried. The sauce, in particular, was one of the best of any of the sweet and sour sauces we tasted for this article, with fruity flavors, instead of the usual cloying sweetness.
Conclusion: Sweet and sour chicken fans have good reason to visit Valley Chinese Cuisine; theirs was one of the best we tasted, even while it didn’t stray from the norm for local Chinese food. There is little else to recommend in Valley’s offerings.
We Liked: Light, airy chicken, served with a sweet, fruity sauce that was much more complex than we are accustomed to; dining room that feels like your grandmother’s house, provided you are Chinese
We Didn’t Like: Empty wonton wrappers; weirdly huge, doughy dumplings with too-sweet sauce; barren scallion pancakes; nearly windowless room; long cooking times
Rating: 1.75 (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Chia Sen came highly recommended on several forums, user feedback sites, and was recommended by some of the folks we know around town as being “some of the best Chinese available,” so we held out great hope for this entry in the tasting lineup. Chia Sen’s overall presentation is the most professional, with branded paper napkin rings, neat bundles of plastic forks and sauce packets, and appropriate containers for the different dishes.
Scallion Pancakes ($4.25): The scallion pancakes were a little on the rubbery side, though they did show nice layering in the dough. There weren’t a ton of scallions, and the accompanying sauce didn’t do much to dress the pancakes up. They didn’t taste like much of anything, but after the other specimens we tried, we were kind of relieved not to get another batch of pancakes that had been deep-fried to death.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($5.50): The dumplings at Chia Sen were definitely a letdown. On each first bite, our eyes lit up: “Finally! This is it,” we thought. Only on a second chew did we realize that no, no it wasn’t. The filling is much more cabbage-y than we found at other restaurants, and this excess cabbage didn’t improve the taste of the bland, pasty filling. The wrappers were the proper size and thickness, but the accompanying sauce was much too sweet.
Fried Wontons: Not available.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($8.50): The chicken was, once again, the doughy-deep fried finger shape we have grown so used to throughout this tasting. It wasn’t overly undercooked or mushy, and each crispy nugget contained a large piece of chicken. The sauce was peculiar; full of fruit, it boasted some very strong green pepper flavors, in addition to the usual sweetness.
Conclusion: We had really held out hope for Chia Sen, based on the opinions we heard, from people we respect. We even cast our net out into Scarborough, figuring that even a tiny bit of a drive would be well worth it, if the food was as good as we had heard. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, by any means, and we certainly sampled much worse over the course of this tasting; we just didn’t find anything unique or different enough in their preparation to warrant the extra effort.
We Liked: Pro presentation; actual chicken; packets of silverware and sauces pre-bundled
We Didn’t Like: Bland dumplings; too-sweet dumpling sauce; soggy scallion pancakes; strong green pepper flavor in sweet and sour sauce; driving to Scarborough
Rating: 2.0 (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: In my mind, Panda Garden was a distance away from Portland I measured as “to hell and gone.” Actually, it’s under three miles, but by the time you’ve driven out past the big box stores and vacant storefronts that make up most of Brighton Avenue, it seems like longer. Consistently mentioned on Urbanspoon and Yelp as being one of Portland’s better options for Chinese food, Panda Garden is located in what may be one of the most depressing mini-malls of all time, featuring not just Panda Garden, but also a rent-to-own furniture store, a nail salon, and a Coast Guard recruiting office. On the night we visited, the large dining room contained just one couple having dinner, with at least six staff members standing around the bar watching them. After handing us our food, they also gave me a coupon for two dollars off a future visit made out of green construction paper, which, for some reason, filled me with a profound sadness. Even the name “Panda Garden” kind of put me on a bummer.
Scallion Pancakes: Not available.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($5.25): The dumplings (again referred to on the menu as “meat” dumplings) had pleasantly thick dough, which hid some unusually dark, violent-colored filling, with a texture I didn’t find particularly appealing. The dumpling sauce was complex and balanced.
Fried Wontons ($4.50): While I was excited to see wontons on the menu, all hell broke loose when I opened the container, as you can see in the picture above. Instead of the little fried nuggets I was expecting, I was confronted with a slurry of steamed wontons in some sort of peanut sauce, mixed with sliced scallions. While I was pleased to see that these wontons had a filling (the first in our testing,) the rubbery wrappers and brown, overpowering sauce made these inedible. Why, oh why, hadn’t they just fried them?
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($8.95): The sweet and sour chicken was fairly identical to others we had sampled so far. This time, green peppers, chunks of pineapple, and bright red maraschino cherries mixed in with the doughy, heavily-breaded pieces of chicken. Also, how the hell much sweet-and-sour sauce are people eating? It seems like every restaurant includes about a quart of the stuff with your order.
Conclusion: Though the dumplings were better than others we have sampled, the inconvenience of the location balances out any of the few potential positives in this restaurant. A friendly staff doesn’t make up for the shortcomings found nearly across the board at this restaurant. Perhaps some of their more ambitious items are better (the half-Peking Duck caught my eye), but I have a hard time imagining that.
We Liked: Fair dumplings with unusually potent filling, served with a sauce that was shown some care; friendly (though overly-abundant) staff; quick service; proximity to a check cashing place, a Tire Warehouse, and PT’s Showplace, making using my last paycheck to buy a stripper an egg roll and a set of All-Season tires remarkably easy
We Didn’t Like: Inconvenient location; soul-crushing cuteness of coupons; complete absence of scallion pancakes, unexpectedly wiggly wontons served in watered-down creamy peanut butter soup
Rating: 2.25 (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Located in the heart of Portland’s Old Port, Oriental Table does a booming lunchtime business with the suit-and-tie set, who fill the small restaurant to forget their cares in the joys of the moderately-sized buffet. The staff is incredibly outgoing and gracious. Food is served in an array of every takeout container yet designed, mixing traditional Chinese takeout containers with insulated foil bags and white Styrofoam. We were also given six fortune cookies, which is always a good sign that you have ordered much too much food. We were also pleased to find all four of our food categories on the menu.
Scallion Pancakes ($3.95): The scallion pancakes were fried to perfection, with wonderful blistering on all surfaces. The initial crunch gave way to a satisfying chew, and each pancake piece was studded with a moderate amount of chopped scallions. The pancakes also came with their own container of dumpling sauce, which made us very happy.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($5.95): The dumplings had one of the best fillings we have tried so far, but suffered from a real lack of structural integrity, which made them much less satisfying to eat. The dough was very thin and unevenly rolled, which made most of the dumplings rip open, and lose their filling on their way to your mouth. The decision to package them in a regular Chinese takeout container also made them kind of soggy, and they stuck together into a giant rat-king dumpling-mass that you had to pull apart, thereby further damaging the construction of the individual dumplings. Very good dumpling sauce, though served in a tiny container. We were happy to have the sauce from the Scallion Pancakes to supplement.
Fried Wontons ($3.95): By Odin’s Beard! These were the first fried wontons we ordered anywhere that bore any resemblance to the fried, meat-filled version we are used to. The filling was minced beef, seasoned well, and the wontons were folded perfectly and fried until golden. They didn’t come with a sauce, but fortunately, I still had a five gallon bucket in the basement of all my leftover sweet-and-sour sauces I couldn’t use from our other orders. I was delighted to find these little fried (though slightly soggy) treasures, and noted that they were the same price as the other, filling-less “wontons” I had been served elsewhere.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($7.50): Oriental Table’s sweet and sour chicken is a huge departure from what we’ve gotten in other restaurants. Instead of the doughy tubes of fried mush with a sliver of chicken in them, these were individual segments of differently-shaped chicken bits, with a very crunchy coating, almost like you would expect to see in an Orange Chicken. The chicken came pre-coated in sauce, and contained no vegetables. The chicken was served with two scoops of pleasantly sticky steamed white rice. This was one of the few dishes throughout this project that we could face again in cold leftover form.
Conclusion: I was really pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying the offerings at the Oriental Table as much as I did, particularly after reading what other local area bloggers have had to say about the place. Make no mistake: The food being served at the Oriental Table is about as similar to Chinese food as Kentucky Fried Chicken is to Southern home cooking, or Margarita’s is to fine Mexican cuisine. This is Food Court Chinese, with greater variety. The different items have been so washed out and sterilized, that they’re barely recognizable. You could be eating almost anything. Many restaurants in the area are guilty of trying to accommodate too many tastes, but the Oriental Table at least keeps their forms correct (chicken that looks like it may have once been part of a living thing, wontons with meat in them), even when the flavors are dialed way down. Of any of the restaurants we sampled, we are most likely to return here for our fried Chinese appetizer needs.
We Liked: Filled, fried wontons (finally); crispy battered chicken pieces; the absence of another bucket of sweet and sour sauce; blistered, browned, and blissfully unhealthy scallion pancakes; abundance of dipping sauces, including homemade duck sauce (?); recognizable appetizers
We Didn’t Like: Weakling dumpling wrappers that couldn’t contain filling; dumpling packaging which made dumplings soggy; overall bland and rather generic flavors
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Located next to a Dollar Tree (and, in fact, being the culinary equivalent of a Dollar Tree), near the Maine Mall in South Portland, the “Super Great Wall Buffet” comes up often in any conversation about local Chinese food. It is a huge space, with several banks of steam tables. There are several handwritten signs explaining in all capital letters that the CRAB LEGS and the CLAMS are for DINNER, and if you are found eating them at LUNCH, you will be charged for a DINNER! NO EXCEPTIONS! There are additional signs explaining just what the limits of “all you can eat” are, detailing how many hours you can spend before it’s time to go, or pay for the buffet again. It’s funny to think about what must have happened to make these signs necessary. We were also struck by how many non-Chinese items there were on this Chinese buffet, including a roast beef carving station, pizza, macaroni and cheese, and tacos. The lunch buffet costs $8.95, provided you heed the warning about the crab legs.
Scallion Pancakes: Not available.
Steamed Pork Dumplings: Compared to every other item on the various steam tables, the four bamboo pots labeled “dim sum” were the most edible of anything available at the Super Great Wall Buffet. The dumplings were small, with a good filling-to-dough ratio. They were pan-fried and then steamed, which gave them significantly more chew than others we tested. Other dumplings were folded into a basket shape, and were similarly tasty.
Fried Wontons: Fried wontons weren’t available, and so we sampled from the mysterious “dim sum” trays again for these steamed versions. They were as uninspired as they look: gray, wiggly lumps, with a boring, unappealing filling. At least there was a filling, however…had these just been steamed empty wonton wrappers, they would have been even more depressing. If only they had been fried!
Sweet & Sour Chicken: The sweet and sour chicken was some of the worst we have encountered thus far. It took the same familiar, golden-brown oblong form, but was filled with barely a trace of chicken. The sauce was standard-issue, red sludge.
Conclusion: The Super Great Wall Buffet was at least 75% full both times we visited it. The first visit was for comedy’s sake, where we marveled at the sad, old couples staring at each other silently over stacks three-plates-deep of raw oysters (!!!) and half-empty Diet Cokes, children feasting on giant bowls of American Chop Suey and chocolate pudding, football players in training taking advantage of the pure cost-to-calorie ratio of the buffet, and middle-aged men who had figured out how to game the system by eating only mountains of steamed crab legs. We didn’t like the food, at all, and vowed to never return. Then, by our second trip, something had changed; namely, this article had forced us to try all of the other options available in Portland. Suddenly, shockingly, Super Great Wall Buffet wasn’t looking so bad, by comparison. The lesson here is twofold: First, through repeated exposure, you can start to find anything palatable. Second, if you stick to the dim sum steamers and the soups, you can have a perfectly satisfying, non-regret-filled lunch at Super Great Wall Buffet. Dip a toe into into the sushi station, and you’re on your own.
We Liked: People watching; steamed dim sum trays; wonton soup; free WiFi; efficient staff quickly clearing plates; spicy mustard and dumpling sauces; dimness of interior hides your shame
We Didn’t Like: Anemic non-Chinese options; fried appetizer table curiously lacking in some staples; empty chicken pouches; overall grim sadness permeating the room
Rating: 2.50 (provided you choose responsibly) (out of 5)
Initial Impressions: Jan Mee is located on St. John Street, in a shopping plaza that also houses one of the most awful supermarkets I have ever seen, outside of my own visions of a post-apocalyptic future. They seem to sell primarily old brown meat, pink bags of marshmallows, and off-brand canned pinto beans to morbidly obese men with plastic bags tied around their feet. Jan Mee reflects this mood in both its visual appeal and the relative quality of its patrons. Jan Mee Chinese Restaurant was, however, the only restaurant we sampled that offers a catering option; in this case, “100 pieces mixed fried appetizers and pork fried rice,” presumably by the bucketload, for $68.
Scallion Pancakes: Not available.
Steamed Pork Dumplings ($5.95): The steamed pork dumplings were oddly large, with a small amount of filling. They were also completely dried out, and a really unappetizing dishwater brown. In an order of eight, we sampled just half of one before bailing out. The wrapper was much, much too thick, hiding a dark filling with large chunks of vegetables.
Fried Wontons ($2.95): Finally, we’re getting to the right price point for what I am quickly learning is becoming the usual wonton form here in Portland: a big, greasy bucket of folded, fried, empty wonton wrappers. Every time I open a new bag from a new restaurant to find one of these, I break just a tiny bit more, inside.
Sweet & Sour Chicken ($8.95): The chicken is served as long, heavily battered blobs, with a too-sweet sauce. There was no way to salvage them.
Conclusion: In a field crowded with really, really bad options for Chinese takeout, Jan Mee is rather remarkable for how unappealing it manages to be. Please, just walk down the street and go to Lang’s, if you are in the mood for sketchy St. John Chinese. Or better yet, just stay nodded out in your bathtub; the opiates have probably shut your stomach down, anyway.
We Liked: Being reminded of of how much we enjoy the parts of our lives that are not spent inside of Jan Mee
We Didn’t Like: Everything else
Rating: 1.25 (for being still technically food) (out of 5)
Here’s what it’s taken me eight restaurants and a little over 5,500 words to figure out: The overall Chinese food situation in Portland is not good. After testing all the restaurants that lead in popular opinion, we couldn’t find one to recommend across-the-board. Some restaurants did one or two things well, while severely botching others, and some restaurants couldn’t seem to get anything right. Our suggestions for where to go for Chinese depend entirely on what you like, and if were forced to pick favorites, among a huge batch of very, very similar food, they would go as follows:
For steamed pork (erm, “meat”) dumplings, our choices would be either Panda Garden, for their proportions, sauce, and flavorful filling, and, in a surprise to us as well, either Lang’s Express or Super Great Wall. Lang’s manages to produce a steamed dumpling that, as terrible as it is, has the ability to get in your head. It was the one dumpling we are most likely to try again, and there are much worse things to eat after a night of heavy drinking. Finally, Super Great Wall Buffet’s dim sum trays offer some of the better steamed dumplings available. I know. We can’t believe it, either. The problem is that, unless you are a much, much better person than we are, you won’t be able to resist sneaking in some dried out BBQ pork bits and some tragically overcooked roast duck at the buffet, and for that, you will be sorry.
The sweet and sour chicken we tried in each restaurant didn’t vary much from store to store; most seem to have agreed upon a very doughy, deep-fried finger shape, with a tiny dab of chicken inside. The only variance seems to be in amount of batter, and the restaurant’s level of interest in its sauce. In this category, Valley Chinese Cuisine is serving some of the best sweet and sour chicken in town, due particularly to its unusual, light, fruity sauce. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find much else to recommend, there. We also were impressed by the sweet and sour at Oriental Table, the only restaurant in town to change up the sweet and sour form factor, with deep-fried, very crunchy nuggets of chicken, pre-tossed in a decent sauce that ran a little on the too-sweet side. For being brave enough to depart from the norm, though, we salute them.
For fried wontons, we have learned that local expectations for this dish are much different than our own. We wouldn’t dream of paying, in most places, upwards of three bucks for a bag of empty, deep-fried wonton wrappers, and neither should you. If the wonton urge grabs you and just won’t let go, Oriental Table is selling the only filled versions, with a reasonably flavorful filling, though they can get a little soggy in transit.
Unfortunately, we were unable to find a source for Scallion Pancakes. We found that they were only available in about half the restaurants we tried, and were either much too over-fried, or were soggy, plain bits of dough, with little-to-no scallions.
Throughout our testing, we were most surprised to find that, in terms of reputation, the “big three,” that is, Imperial China, Panda Garden, and Chia Sen, didn’t seem to be doing anything sufficiently differently to receive special recognition or attention. We didn’t rate a single restaurant we tried over 2.75 stars, out of five. These are not high scores, and the needle barely moved from one place to the next. We learned that, unless you have a specific craving in mind, it almost doesn’t matter where you order Chinese from in Portland.
Nothing seems to rate above merely passable, which is surprising, in a town where Chinese restaurants have a history that reaches back to the rowdy “chop suey joints” of World War I. It’s not clear to us whether restaurant owners from larger cities forget all they know about Chinese food on the long drive from Kittery to Portland, are keeping the real stuff for themselves, or whether they have had to so dilute their recipes to accommodate the highest number of palates (which would also explain the prevalence of buffets that feature 60% family-friendly, “American” food). Maybe it’s a combination of all three of these factors. The food that’s left is an unrecognizable mash of sticky flavors and textures: a little salty here, a little sweet there, a little goop, a little glop.
Order food from the Chinese restaurant closest to you. Or the one that has a delivery guy that you like. Or the one that has an old Chinese guy that will good-naturedly tease you. It’s not going to, unfortunately, make much of a difference. Just don’t base your decision on the food. Unfortunately, for now, the old adage seems to hold true: For the best Chinese food in Portland, drive to Boston.