Dim Sum From East to West and Every Day of the Week YUM!

By on November 30, 2017

By Doug Mitchell

I grew up in New York’s Greenwich Village within a short walk to the city’s Chinatown, a vast area of restaurants, gift shops, tea houses and tenement housing that, in my young mind, bustled with exotic activity night and day.
As a boy, I didn’t know that this 2-square mile area housed the largest community of Chinese in the nation, or that a future niece (my nephew’s bride) would spring from its loins. All I knew at the time, was that I could stroll the half-mile or so to 21 Mott Street, walk down the steps to the basement restaurant, and get the greatest plate of something called Moo Goo Gai Pan in New York City.
It wasn’t until decades later, while viewing a Tony Bourdain episode that I learned that 21 Mott Street actually had a name, Hop Kee, and that it offered two menus, one for Chinese, and another for the “chop suey” crowd like me. Had I known, I would have learned to speak Cantonese.
I’m in Portland, Oregon now, and like that Hop Kee menu, there are two Chinatowns here – one for the Chinese, and the other. . . well, you get the point. The official Chinatown is located off Burnside in the Northwest quadrant of Portland. It’s characterized by an ornate entrance beckoning to tourists more interested in sightseeing than they are in food. Me? Well, I’ve seen the sights. I want the food I was denied in my childhood.
I want that other menu.
The other Chinatown, the real Chinatown is on the Southeast side of town about a 20-minute drive due East. When you turn unto 182nd Avenue, you are immediately aware of a vast cultural change. Many of the stores sport signs written in Chinese or some other Asian language. Continue to drive past Powell Street, and you will eventually come to our featured restaurant, HK Café. I’m not sure if the initials are for Hong Kong, or, as my imagination would desire, an offshoot of Hop Kee. Still, I find it interesting.
The place is huge, and, around lunch time, most-often filled with generations of Chinese families sitting with steaming plates of Dim Sum before them. Servers wander between the tables with rolling carts carrying small plates of food, each one a wonder to the untrained eye and palate.
There is a famous Chinese legend of Imperial Cuisine which could include up to a thousand separate dishes. HK Café may be a bit more limited, but the vast assortment of dishes available can be overwhelming. While waiting to be seated, a cart rolls past and exotic aromas waft toward us, awakening our appetites and taste buds.
Dim Sum; to me, the ultimate Chinese feast, translates to something like, to touch the heart. And mine begins to beat faster in anticipation.

Finally seated, our servers immediately push their wares to our table. Plates of pea sprouts with garlic, steamed chicken feet (Fong D’jau) and Nor Mai Gai, a lotus leaf-wrapped mound of sticky rice with pork, egg and Chinese sausage are offered. Another cart, this time with steaming hot Conjee, a rice porridge dotted with bites of chicken and vegetables rolls up. An assortment of steamed dumplings, some stuffed with shrimp, others with pork and greens arrive, and we order everything with the point of a finger.
The dishes are served three or four to an order, and without consent, the server automatically tops the individual dish with the proper sauce. As on Mott Street, 3500 miles away, if you are Caucasian, the Chinese server tries to sell you the “safe” stuff, and shies away from the more exotic dishes.
But I’m not fooled. I demand to know what mystery dish is in the metal serving container on the bottom of the cart. That’s how I found Siu Long Bao, an exquisite dumpling filled with a pork ball and hot soup. Yes, soup inside a dumpling.
There’s a plate of slippery steamed rice cakes wrapped around lightly cooked shrimp, and another of beef meatballs in a crepe-like coating. My finger is my greatest ally, and here, pointing is perfectly acceptable. The server says, “you won’t like this,” as she tries to hide a container deep in her rolling cart, but I insist and point at Lap Chong, a Chinese sausage encased in puffy, steamed dough, unctuous with pork fat and seasoned with the Orient.
Ordering from the menu is a choice for the uninitiated and unadventurous, but that ignores most of the excitement of discovery as well as the fun. The worst thing that could happen is that our server could be right, and I won’t like it.
I have found the most delicious dishes through kind insistence; plates of Chow Fun, wide rice noodles with chicken or beef; roasted duck with hoi sin sauce; pork belly with an incredible crunchy undercrust; mushrooms with black bean sauce; plates of steamed Gai Lun, Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce; salt and pepper shrimp; and, salted squid deep-fried to perfection. Like the Imperial Feast of folklore, the combinations are seemingly endless as is my appetite for the exotic. I have learned from my youth; insist on the other menu.
HK Café is at 4410 SE 82nd Ave., Portland, Oregon in the WalMart Shopping Center. Phone 503-771-8866. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 9:30 AM to 11 PM. Dim Sum daily for lunch and off the menu during dinner. To go orders, full bar and wine. Weekends are particularly busy, so expect up to an hour wait for a table.
Footnote from the editor:Linda Eckhardt.
My daughter, Katherine, worked for Mayor Dinkins years ago and once when I went to visit her at City Hall in New York – smack up against that Chinatown, she invited me to lunch.
We plowed into this Chinese joint just a block or so from City Hall. It was jammed with both Chinese and other nationalities. I mean, hey, this is New York.
So the waiter brought a menu and we both perused it. K made her choice and then I told the waiter what I wanted.
He looked over his round black glasses at me and snarled. “White people won’t eat that.”
My daughter threw back her head and laughed. “You don’t know my mother,” she told the waiter.
Our lunches came. K had gorgeous dumplings and I had a dish that was a mixture of veggies steaming with a gorgeous sauce and what looked like rubber bands on the top.
I had no earthly idea what they were – still don’t – but I ate every bite and it was delicious – if not a little chewy.
Just a quick jaunt to China for lunch.
And now that I live in New Jersey, I find dim sum in two or three joints around here. Still one of my favorite foods.

About Doug Mitchell