For some time, my favorite independent (non-chain) restaurant in
Portland has been Zien Hong, a Chinese restaurant up on NE Sandy
Boulevard. It brings together a number of virtues that make for a
predictably satisfying dining experience.
If I had to distinguish Zien Hong with a word or two, I'd say
You first arrive at the red front door of Zien Hong--this is a
Chinese restaurant!--and enter a foyer before you are taken to the
guest seating area proper. On your right, not unexpectedly, a counter
and cash register. On your left, a few small tables and chairs. But one
table invariably has a large basket of string beans, More often than
not, a woman diligently snips off the ends and puts trimmed string
beans in a second basket.
My first thought, years ago, was such prep work out in the open was
calculated, meant to impress guests with the freshness of ingredients.
Well, perhaps it is. But there's also the attraction of a refuge
from the hot kitchen behind the cash register to suggest more. Perhaps
a better place to trim string beans and baby bok choy—while talking. Or
as I've loved overhearing, in wildly fluctuating tones, two women
appeared to be arguing about what I'll never know. It was in Chinese.
As for the food, I'll start by saying on any given day, a number of
Chinese restaurants in Portland probably offer more authentic, more satisfying, more exceptional food preparation. But
for those, I'd add the caveat, all for a price.
For value, however, Zien Hong has all of them--day in, day
out--pretty much beat. The lunch menu at $6.50 gives an entree from
literally dozens, soup (hot and sour or egg flower), hot oolong tea,
steamed rice (white or brown) and a fortune cookie.
Besides value, the food is always well-prepared with tasty sauces
that are not facile (beef with black bean sauce is a standout).
That I'm recognized as a regular is partly because the staff never
really turns over. So Zien Hong has a friendliness that summons an
ambiance the British might call
homey. The interior is clean, understated Chinese decor.
Background music, though, thoroughly American pop hits from the 60s and
70s, but subdued. All of it okay by me.
On the way out, having another satisfying Chinese meal, I'll pause
by the string beans, then go to the counter and pay the check. Okay,
some of the work in the foyer might be for show. But the proof is in
the eating: With all the vegetables in Chinese cooking, nothing quite
succeeds like fresh.
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