This week we pay a visit to another one of our five picks for hottest new restaurants in Portland. Get ready for a trip abroad, because we’re heading to the Far East. We’re on our way to the quiet South Portland Sellwood neighborhood to find, quite literally, a true taste of Taiwan.
Opened at the end of last year, Wei Wei – A Taste of Taiwan, brings big Asian flavors to a small space in a non-descript Sellwood strip mall, sandwiched between a nail shop and a convenience store. But don’t let its diminutive location fool you, a Taiwanese culinary discovery awaits.
From Taipei to Portland
Despite Portland’s thriving food scene, that that the city suffers from a lack of quality Asian eateries is no great secret. While there is an exception or two, you can find a pedestrian Chinese takeout place on every corner, but have few truly noteworthy, innovative Asian-inspired restaurants to choose from.
It’s likely if someone asked you where the nearest Taiwanese restaurant is, you’d reply with a blank stare. Wei Wei hopes to change that.
Opened by Judy Wang, Wei Wei is as close to the real deal as you can get. When you think mom-and-pop shop, it doesn’t get any better than this. Both of Wang’s parents work in the kitchen, dreaming up culturally authentic, yet slightly reworked Taiwanese creations.
“I got them out of retirement,” Wang says with a chuckle. “They are the ones back there with the recipes and what they remember from Taiwan back in the day. That’s why the food tastes so good and authentic.”
Having migrated to the United States from Taiwan in 1982, the family operates their menu with one foot in America and one foot in Taipei. The old adage of “knowing one’s audience” holds true at Wei Wei.
“We changed a few things to bridge the gap between the western palate and the Taiwanese palate, because in Taiwan we like a little tougher cut of meat,” Wang explains.
Despite this minor change, authenticity shines through. The flavor profiles are distinct and come straight from the source.
“We focus on Taiwanese street food and home-style cooking,” Wang says. “Some of the items, like the vegetable dishes or shrimp and wine sauce, those are dishes my parents came up with themselves and cooked for us, so we decided to put them on the menu.”
Prior to opening Wei Wei, Wang went to art school in Kansas City and got a degree in ceramics. Over some time, however, she felt she was “in a rut,” so she moved from Kansas City to Portland where she made what she calls “the natural progression from ceramics to food.”
Once she got here, serendipity struck. Wang’s brother owns the convenience store next to the space Wei Wei occupies. When the space became available, she purchased it from him, roped her parents out of retirement, and was off to the restaurant races.
Wei Wei Offers Small Space, Big Flavor
With only 19 seats, Wei Wei’s interior space is small, but well utilized. The décor is clean and welcoming, with smooth lines, wood elements and bright colors. The menu is written in chalk in a large swath across the wall closest to the entrance. It’s obvious Wang’s artistic mind contributed to her design aesthetic. “I like a nice, simple look that doesn’t distract from the food,” she says.
Quite frankly, it’s hard to see how anything could distract from the food. The meal begins with a trio of soft yeast flour steam buns in a shape that is, according to Wang, “very distinctly Taiwan.” Each bun contains a slathering of fermented bean paste, roasted peanuts and cilantro, and whatever cut of meat you want. Although only the meat separates the three buns, each has its own distinct flavor when all the ingredients meet in your mouth.
Once you’re done, you might wash them all down with a refreshing white gourd tea. Although Wei Wei doesn’t serve alcohol, they have a decent selection of authentic teas to accompany your meal. The white gourd tea has a unique flavor and refreshing finish.
With the starter steam buns put away, the beef noodle soup is arrives. The meat is braised for eight hours and literally falls apart in your mouth. The smoky broth bursts with flavor and is chock full of mustard greens, spinach and green onion. Hearty, hand-made wheat noodles rest at the bottom of the bowl.
The entrée arrives in the form of a breaded pork chop with seasonal vegetables, steamed rice with pork, and a soy braised egg. The pork chop is marinated for 24 hours before being coated in house-made gluten-free flour, dropped into the fryer, then brought to your table. It’s crispy, juicy and will leave you gnawing on the bone.
If you’re in the mood for another noodle dish, the house spicy noodle with minced pork is a great option. A heaping of aforementioned house-made wheat noodles provide the base for a mound of minced pork, diced water chestnuts, diced celery, green onions and shitake mushrooms. Although dish says “dry” on the menu, the sauce coats the noodles well enough to carry the flavor.
Although your brain says Portland, you’ll swear you hear the hustle-and-bustle sounds of Taipei just outside the window. These are the kinds of meals that take you somewhere.
“I think we are in the right timeframe to introduce Taiwanese food to Portland,” Wang concludes. And if their reception has been any indication, she’s absolutely right.
Don’t Miss Wei Wei!
Skip the expensive plane ticket and instead take a drive down to Sellwood, where Taipei meets Portland at Wei Wei – A Taste of Taiwan. They’re located at 7835 SE 13th Ave, number 102 in Portland, Oregon, are open 11:00am to 10:00pm Tuesday through Sunday, and can be reached at 503.946.1732. For menu information visit their Facebook page by clicking or tapping here.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is longtime journalist and blogger with over twelve years of professional writing experience. After a long career as an entertainment and political columnist, William now spends his time expounding on Portland restaurants, Portland plays and Android smartphone apps. 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.