Roughly one month ago the heat of northern Chinese cuisine arrived in northwest Portland. As if northwest 21st Avenue wasn’t bustling enough, now the neighborhood welcomes Kung POW! to the mix. In a city near constantly lamenting the lack of Chinese food restaurants, Kung POW! is a welcome addition to the crowded corner of 21st and Glisan.
Kung POW! is brought to you buy Henry Liu, who also happens to be the owner of Shandong, across the Willamette and to the southeast. While Liu was originally going to name Kung POW! Shandong 2, his intent to go in with a business partner led him to let this one stand on its own.
“I wanted something different when it came to my second restaurant,” Liu says. “I feel like with a partner it needed a new name and a new identity. It can very well be a sister restaurant, and that’s fine, but at the same time it has to be its own thing. It wouldn’t be fair to Shandong or my partner.
As we reported in our coverage of Shandong, Liu had already gone through some heartburn with the naming of that restaurant. This time he wanted the naming experience to be a little different.
“We did a focus group,” he says. “A friend of mine had come up with the idea of naming it Kung Pow and I thought it was a great name – directly to the point. Although I did want to add something that said something about ‘Chinese grub,’ Kung Pow was such a powerful name we didn’t have to add anything to it.”
As to why he decided to capitalize the POW and add an exclamation mark to the end, he says matter-of-factly “yeah, I put an exclamation point at the end of the restaurant’s name.” He pauses. “Look, you do it hardcore or you don’t do it at all, right?” He asks rhetorically. Apparently that is all the explanation we need.
Although it may not seem so in name, Kung POW! is still technically a sister restaurant to Shandong. As such, much of Shandong’s menu can also be found at Kung POW!
“The menu takes about 75 percent of Shandong’s menu,” Liu explains. “I have added an expanded wings dish. I also have a few extra appetizers and included a deep fried fish balls dish, which is a Hong Kong and Taiwan staple.”
Knowing he was entering a competitive neighborhood, Liu wanted to do a few things differently. Where Shandong is small and dark, Kung POW! is open and spacious. Large windows and high ceilings give an impression of space that Shandong cannot match.
Another differentiating factor lies in the bar. “We don’t have a dedicated bartender at Shandong,” Liu explains. “But at Kung POW!? Boy, do we!”
While the space and the bar are important in a town like Portland, it’s all about the food. Liu’s commitment to food excellence has not waned in the new venture. The dishes are refined and delicious. The flavor, texture and heat profiles transport you to northern China in a way that few other Portland Chinese restaurants can.
You might start the evening with the Lamb Bao Bing, which is composed of diced lamb, Sichuan mah lah berry and chili, served with a spicy roasted bell pepper salsa, mu shu pancakes, hoisin sauce and shredded green onions. The tender juiciness of the lamb is perfectly accented by the smoke of the salsa and the light tang of the hoisin sauce. Yes, that’s an appetizer.
Are you a fan of heat? For your main course, try out the Zhen Bang Chicken. This diced chicken is tossed up dry rub style with Sichuan mah lah berry, Mandarin orange zest, chili pods, garlic and ginger. The heat and crunch of the dry rub combine to create one amazing flavor and texture profile.
In case you were wondering, ma la berry is one component of Chinese ma la sauce, which also consists of Sichuanese peppercorn, chili peppers, and other various spices simmered in oil. Its intense flavor is matched only by its heat.
The absolutely delicious house made Chinese barbeque sauce in the spicy Gwai Wer Noodles is worth the price of admission by itself. Combine it with chicken breast, zucchini, peas, white mushrooms, onion, Korean chili and curry, and your taste buds are in for a treat.
One of Liu’s primary concerns in opening Kung POW! was in poaching customers from Shandong. Fortunately, his fears have proven unfounded.
“Shandong didn’t even take a hit!” He exclaims. “We’re off to a killer start and have been very well received in the neighborhood. Both restaurants are doing really well.”
With both restaurants doing well, one may tempted to ask Liu what’s next. After all, this is a serial entrepreneur who has owned multiple successful bars and now two successful restaurants. Surely number three is on his radar.
He laughs. “Man, I’m three weeks into Kung POW! It’s like when you have a baby and the first thing people ask is ‘so when are you going to have the second one?’ And you’re like ‘man, I’m so underwater right now with this baby, I can’t even think of a second baby.”
Looks like we’ll have to wait for Liu to fertilize his next restaurant adventure. But in the meantime, we can certainly be content to explore Kung POW!’s riches.
For a taste of northern Chinese that’s sure to leave a mark, visit Kung POW! at 500 NW 21st Avenue, Portland, Oregon, 97209. Visit their website at kungpowpdx.com or give them a call at 503.208.2173. Kung POW! is open from 11:00am to 10:00pm Sunday through Wednesday and to 12:00am Thursday through Saturday.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.