1:11:12 String Beans

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 "string beans."

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.

[string beans]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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