If you’ve lived in Portland for any number of years, at least once you’ve heard someone say: “There’s no good Chinese food around here.” Fortunately, that may be changing. As more restaurants pop up on 82nd Avenue, and farther afield, it’s becoming easier to find quality Chinese food in Portland, in part thanks to Shandong.
Opened in 2010 by Henry Liu, Shandong is routinely named as one of Portland’s top Chinese restaurants. With a location that’s close enough to downtown without suffering a downtown restaurant’s “menu price inflation by proximity” syndrome, Shandong remains delicious and affordable. Most of all, Liu wanted to put down the naysayers who said you can’t find good Chinese in Portland.
“In the nine years I had been here running a bar,” he begins, “the complaint I heard the most was that there was no good Chinese restaurants. Not that I claim to have the best Chinese restaurant, but I wanted to bring a Chinese restaurant that they hadn’t seen before. Something that wasn’t just dim sum or hand pulled noodles.”
Originally born in California, Liu honed his skills cooking in his cousin’s restaurant in Berkeley before moving to Oregon in 2001. Although he owned a few small bars and made a decent living, owning his own restaurant was always a thought in the back of his mind.
“I wanted to do something that I learned in the bay area,” he says. “I wanted to add it to the repertoire that Portland has… this is bay area style Chinese food. It’s very simple and to the point, done fresh and innovative.”
As some may recognize, Shandong is a province in northern China. Going with this name choice has proven to be a minor pain point for Liu has he serves dishes that may not originate in Shandong.
“I have to constantly endure the onslaught of people that say ‘Well, you know I’ve been to Shandong and this isn’t the food they serve,’ to which I say I know,” he explains. “But then I ask them what their favorite version of turtle soup is; or if they tried deep fried scorpions-on-a-stick or snake’s blood soup,” he finishes with a chuckle.
Knowing the name choice for his inaugural restaurant might confuse some, why did Liu pick it? As it turns out, he didn’t.
“I needed some money to get it opened up,” he says, “I had most of it, but I still needed a little more. So my mom helped me, but she wanted something in return. She said she wanted naming rights.”
While to many this may seem like an innocent request, Liu knew he was in for a wild ride. “I was like, ‘Oh crap, this is going to suck,” he says in a jokingly ominous tone.
“So she came up with Golden Panda, Jade Garden, Eternal Happiness, and other crap like that. I exaggerated on the last two, but she really did want Golden Panda,” he says. “Of course, I just thought that was the dumbest thing in the world. So we settled on Shandong, which is the province where she’s from.”
While there may be some confusion regarding Shandong’s name, the welcoming ambiance and taste and quality of the food remains crystal clear. Conveniently located in a non-descript building in the Hollywood District, Shandong is routinely packed. “I consider myself lucky when people are willing to wait a half-an-hour for a table at Shandong,” Liu says.
The interior is dark, with flourishes of red and black. The small space means you’re in for an intimate evening. An attached tent-like structure provides extra seating area, although that section can get hot during the summer months.
Although they don’t have a full bar, Shandong does have an array of local, domestic, and import beers and wine to choose from. Instead of communicating with fancy cocktails, they let their food do the talking.
One such example is the Zia Jiang bean sauce on noodles. For Shandong province food purists out there, this one will be a great choice. A favorite of Shandong residents, this beautiful dish combines chopped steak sautéed with yellow onions and zucchini in their house black bean miso sauce. The steak is tender and the miso sauce has just the right amount of smoke to spring a leak in your salivary glands.
Want something a little more American-ish with Schezwan flair? Try the spicy dry fried chicken wings. After being battered and deep-fried, they’re tossed with Shandong’s house sweet garlic pepper sauce. Aromatics invade the senses as they are put before you dressed with minced ginger, garlic, chili pods, and green onions.
With over five years under its belt, Shandong has firmly planted itself square in the middle of Portland’s Asian food scene. Not content to let the northwest side of town go without quality Chinese food, Liu recently opened Kung POW! on bustling northwest 21st and Glisan. Considering, as he puts it, “Shandong didn’t even take a hit,” it seems Portlanders appetite for quality Chinese food has room for more.
With two restaurants now under his umbrella, Liu has no plans of leaving our fair city. “I really feel at home in Portland. It’s nice to have seasons,” he finishes with a smile.
Shandong is located in the Grant Park / Hollywood neighborhood at 3724 NE Broadway St, Portland, Oregon, 97232. For menu information visit their website or give them a call at 503.287.0331. They are open seven days a week from 11:00am to 9:30pm, with reduced price appetizers during happy hour from 4:00pm to 6:00pm
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.