My typical experience with Chinese restaurant food in America has been vegetables and meat swimming in a non-descript sauce. No matter what I ordered. Even the egg dishes, the fried rice dishes or the noodle dishes all tasted the same.
Not much to write home about.
Needless to say, I was not one to seek out Chinese restaurants.
Beijing Street Food
I admit that I was skeptical when my picky friend raved about a new restaurant in Portland called Danwei Canting which opened in January in Southeast Portland.
I googled Danwei Canting and was intrigued by this description.
“Inspired by our lives in and travels to the Middle Kingdom , DĀNWÈI CĀNT ĪNG (the Work Unit Restaurant) is a snapshot of the food and energy of Beijing. Our goal is to share Chinese home-style dishes (JIĀCHÁNG CÀI) with the people of Portland, using great technique and fresh local ingredients.
Our name derives from the place where workers in China, up until the mid-1990’s would eat their meals. Since the members of the work unit came from all over China, the chef needed to be able to not only prepare local dishes but regional specialties as well. Our chef has created a menu which continues this tradition, bringing the best of China to the PDX Danwei.” (www.danweicanting.com)
Long story short, one of the owners, James Kyle lived and worked in Beijing for 13 years. Upon returning to the USA, he realized how much he missed the authentic food he had enjoyed during his long stay in China. He set about to bring the food experience to Portland with his business partner Kyo Koo, a local chef with an amazing cullinary pedigree.
“Danwei is a summation of my 13 years in China and the places I loved to eat,” says Kyle. “We want to bring a different but respectful perspective of Chinese food to Portland, with a little edge.” But after several research trips to Beijing, Kyle and chef Koo discovered recreating Chinese flavors in America has challenges.
“The produce here is so different,” says chef Koo, and even the U.S. pork is much leaner than pork in China, which Kyle attributes to the fact that “most fat was bred out of U.S. pork.” Danwei Canting is working to find a similar pork from local butchers like Tails & Trotters.
Danwei Canting has also held test dinners with Kyle’s Chinese friends living in Portland, and Kyle says it has been a valuable learning experience and the feedback has been direct and honest. “There are people in the U.S. who love food,” he says, “but food is very important in Chinese culture and it seems every Chinese person is a foodie. I mean, didn’t the foodie selfie start in China and come west?” (Eater Portland magazine, 8/8/2016 issue)
The result is Danwei Canting with talented chef and also owner, Kyo Koo turning out fantastic dishes in their light and airy kitchen. Local fans of Koo will recall his excellent dishes from Blue Hour. Kyo Koo Profile
Walking in the front door of Danwei Canting , I was struck by the colorful mural and bright, airy space. Industrial chic with a bit of whimsy.
It was hard to decide what to order as everything sounded good. Finally, I ordered two entrees plus a dessert.
After my food was served, James came to my table to insure that I understood the different sauces and to share his enthusiasm and knowledge.
From the extensive menu, I had selected three items.
Spicy Lamb Jiaozi : dumplings filled of lamb with cumin, ginger, fermented chilis and napa cabbage.
Spiced Beef Xiambing: Beijing stuffed pastry with minced beef, ginger and scallions.
Egg Custard Tart : A light custard in a flaky pastry shell.
I took home half of the lamb and beef dishes. I finished the egg custard tart with no problem!
What I love about Danwei Canting
The food is fresh and made from local ingredients. Nothing was sitting under a heat lamp getting soggy. The flavors were bright and distinctive.
The menu is extensive so I can eat there often without getting bored. As I was leaving, I saw other dishes being served that made me resolve to return soon and often.
The prices are fantastic so I can try lots of dishes without breaking the bank. Another good reason to return.
The entrees are healthy so I can eat without abandoning my healthy eating regime or worrying about an attack of MSG.
The industrial chic decor creates an ambiance that is easy and fun. There was a lot of energy. It felt good to be there sharing great food with others even strangers.
The staff are friendly and enthusiastic about the food which is always a plus.
More to come
When summer makes its appearance, Danwei will be grilling Chinese specialities outside. They were testing recipes when I was there.
Then, the sky’s the limit as they also plan to serve on the roof top!
Portland summers are fantastic. What could be better than a cold Yanjing beer, peanuts in black vinegar and crispy pork ribs served with spiced Jacobsen salt and scallions under the stars?
It’s great that Danwei Canting will have more space because they will be even busier when warmer weather and longer nights arrive.
Year round, I know Danwei Canting will be on my radar for a quick meal or snack when I am on the go in SE Portland or have time to enjoy a leisurely meal with friends.
I’ll be there!
Danwei Canting, 803 SE Stark St., Portland, OR 97214, 503-236-6050.