Pssst. I’m cheating.
It’s not that I intend to write about something other than a restaurant that serves small plates — oh, I’m all about multitudes of small plates (just ask the nurse who weighed me in at the doctor’s office today) — it’s that time frame thing that’s got me in a pickle.
More specifically, this, Sarah’s rule #2:
Go eat any time betwixt now and Monday, February 27, 2006.
(“Now” being February 3rd when Sarah posted her announcement.)
First, can I tell you where we’ve eaten betwixt February 3rd and February 27th? Aside from around our dining room table or in front of the telly laughing at melodramatic ice dancers, that is?
The Thai place for lunch.
The pub again.
The crappy Chinese place when the pub was unexpectedly closed.
Oh, yeah, and the pub again.
Note the alarming trend. The trend that screams: It’s Off-Season! It’s the pub or (almost) nothing, baby, cuz until the spring tourists arrive, this place is all about wonky restaurant hours and tiny paychecks.
Yup, winter on the island; so not conducive to culinary exploration.
Not that we’ve got much of that to begin with, mind you. Take this month’s Dine and Dish theme, for example. Amazing Graze? Small plates? I can think of one — yup, one — restaurant that falls under that category on this island, and go figure, we already covered it back in Dine and Dish #3: The Freshman.
Now the Thai place could count as a small plate venue — if we were to write about their spring rolls — but we got that one back in Dine and Dish #4: Rachael Ray for a Day.
And the pub? Hah. Been there, done that in Dine and Dish #1: Barfly. Not that their plates are even remotely small, mind you.
So, nothing left to write about. Or, I cheat.
Which (after this absurdly long preamble), brings me to the place I want to tell you about. The place that’s 251 miles (plus ferry ride) away and we haven’t been to since Christmas. Chopper’s and my favorite dim sum joint, Fong Chong, in Portland’s Chinatown.
Now Fong Chong isn’t much to look at — in fact it’s got detractors who bitch about the lack of atmosphere (as if that’s more important than a damn fine steamed hum bow) — but we’re not here for pretty décor. I can find plenty of places that scream heavenly temple and serve up deep fried MSG-laden crap any day of the week. Well, any day I’m in an actual city, mind you.
No, Fong Chong is not about elegance. It’s a cavern of a space with scuffed floors and smudgy windows, but it holds a special place in our hearts and come hell or high water, when we take a trip to Portland, we make a stop at Fong Chong.
My first time dining out with Chopper’s parents was at Fong Chong. It was one of those early, get-to-know-the-folks meals, and we couldn’t have picked a better place. At any other restaurant we’d of run the risk of gulfs of silence; each of us engrossed in our own private plate, only occasionally exchanging pleasantries.
How’s the salmon? Oh, good. How’s the steak. Fine. Vegetables are over-cooked though.
Not at dim sum. Here, we shared the excitement of approaching carts together. Is that ginger chicken? Yes! Oh, and yu chee gow. Score! We sampled our favorites together and together we came just inches away from the big dim sum Do-We-Dare Challenge: Chicken feet.
In the months that followed, Fong Chong became our spot, and Chopper and I were such regulars we even had a favorite server who recognized us on sight and popped by our table soon after we were seated. “Two Tsingtao?” she’d ask after every greeting, to which we’d invariably say “of course,” because we could never resist a crisp Asian beer to follow up a good chomp of dim sum.
We had our favorite dishes – mine was the har gau, Chopper’s the siu mai, but every so often we’d venture out of our safety zone and try something we’d never tried before. Sometimes it was a one-shot deal, but more often than not we’d finish the meal exclaiming “I can’t believe we waited this long to try that one! We are idiots! Gah!”
(Yes, that last line should be read in a Napoleon Dynamite voice.)
Even so, we never quite got up the courage to face the chicken feet. That is, until a day we arrived and found Fong Chong so busy they were seating multiple groups of diners at their large, Lazy-Susan centered tables. Not that this hadn’t happened before; we’d shared tables many times — it was just that this time was different. We landed at a table with an absolutely charming and loquacious Chinese couple who’d just come into town from Astoria out on the coast. Fong Chong, they told us, was a necessary stop to their every Portland trip, and then they proceeded to recommend their favorite dishes, including — oh look, there they are on the next cart! — chicken feet.
How could we resist?
And y’know? Those crunchy collagen-filled feet, they aren’t half bad.
(I could go on, but remember, I’m terrible at waxing eloquent about flavors. See, I even admitted it. Ooh, the chicken toes, so crunchy yet tender in my mouth! They make me happy! They are happy feet! [giggle])
Actually, I’m lying. The chicken feet were just a little too fatty collagenesque strange for my liking. Chopper, on the other hand dug them so much I feared this would lead to a new culinary extremity trend. Pig’s feet, frog’s legs, lizard toes…
When Chopper started culinary school full time, we had to cut back on our visits to Fong Chong, sometimes going without dim sum for two to three months at a time. (Agony!) Meanwhile, we were working hard, saving what we could for our absurdly DIY wedding, which we’d foolishly planned for month number eight of Chopper’s schooling.
The day after the wedding (which I may write about sometime after our second anniversary, when I’ve fully recovered), we were so utterly dim sum deprived, we had to make the Fong Chong trip. Nothing else mattered. Presents? They could wait. Cleaning up the mess from our 11th hour wardrobe construction? Feh. What’s a living-room full of fabric scraps, anyway? A sign of creativity, that’s what!
So, off we went with visions of sesame balls and onion buns dancing in our heads.
As luck would have it, the new (and newly married) manager was working that morning, and she was so tickled to learn we’d made Fong Chong our choice for First Meal Out as a Married Couple, she knocked the price of the food right off our ticket. All we owed for was beer and tip — and a good thing too because oh did we pig out that day!
Now, you might think that my ode to Fong Chong will end on a melancholy note. That things have changed or that we’ve moved on to a new favorite spot. Not a chance. Even after our longest dry spell — a gap of nearly half a year without a Fong Chong visit — our return was just like old times. Last December, halfway down I-5, driving late at night after catching the 10:15 ferry (Chopper having hightailed it from pastry station to ferry line), the urge kicked in.
“You realize what we need to do tomorrow,” I said.
Chopper glanced at me from the driver’s seat to check my expression. He saw my smile and returned it.
“I mean, we’re getting into town at what, 2 a.m. at the earliest,” I said. “We can get ourselves out of bed by 10:30, and…”
“Fong Chong,” Chopper said.
“Fong Chong,” I echoed. I was grinning from ear to ear now in the dark car; the anticipation of har gau, hot chili oil, lotus leaf rice… it was almost too much to bear.
We were there within 45 minutes of waking the next morning. And there, first at our table, was our favorite server.
“Two Tsingtao?” she asked.
“Yes, yes, oh YES!” we answered.
301 NW 4TH Ave
Portland, OR 97209-3882
Best time to go: Fong Chong opens for business at 10:30, but they don’t really get rolling till a little after 11. Show up between 11 and 11:30, before the line kicks in, and you’ll be there when the carts first hit the floor with goodies fresh from the steamers.
On the table: The hot chili oil (that fire orange liquid in a jar) is a must. Pour it on your plate. Lots of it. Don’t be shy.
Thirst quenching: We love our Tsingtao and think you should too, but if you’re not in a beer mood, don’t worry, the house tea that comes with every meal is a light jasmine blend that tastes great even if you’ve been sitting at the table for an hour letting the tea pot go cold.
What is on those carts, anyway? You might not be able to understand everything the servers say, but here’s a tip: Just try it anyway. You can hardly ever go wrong, and at just two to three bucks a serving, the experimentation’s worth it. P.S. Chicken feet. Chopper insists on it.