(Re)introducing Master Kong, Portland’s Best Daily Dumpling Restaurant (Review)
My dumpling habit didn’t really develop until I moved to Taipei.
There, in Taiwan’s capital, nights were for exploring the markets, snaking through mazes of vendors pulling fried cubes of smelly, smelly tofu from a vat of hot oil or dipping skewered pig intestines into vats of spiced broth. and boiling Any other time of day was fair game for a dumpling race, even for breakfast. (Especially breakfast.)
We had a potsticker boy. Two, actually, a father and son who made some fantastic vegan dumplings in a cast iron skillet in a barely altered garage. But more often, dumplings meant shui jiao, literally “water dumplings,” boiled bundles of ground pork and enough cabbage to convince you they made a balanced meal. Wherever I was in town, my nose could usually lead me to a place that sold 10 for about $4, with the rice hot in a pot near a station mixing DIY soy sauce, vinegar, and chile oil
There are many reasons to love Portland: the temperate climate, the proximity to nature and the movie theaters that serve the main beer among them. But it hasn’t always been a great place to indulge in dumpling practice. (This, and the celebration of dumpling’s many global forms, were the main reasons a colleague and I came up with Dumpling Week nearly a decade ago.)
Historically, most Portland dumplings have been of the northern Chinese variety, with thick, batter-wrapped meatballs deep-fried to a hearty crisp. More recently, local chefs have turned their attention to perfecting pelmeni, hooking up with winged gyoza, and summoning piping hot soup dumplings. But it wasn’t until Master Kong opened its second location on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard that I found the dumpling spot I’d been craving.
Let’s back it up. When I first visited Master Kong, the Southeast Portland restaurant hadn’t yet been discovered by Yelp, let alone the subject of a viral TikTok video. Located in a renovated house next to the X-otic Tan (“men’s”) underwear store on Southeast Division Street just east of 82nd Avenue, the restaurant’s menu was filled with a variety of dishes from Tianjin, the port city near Beijing where chef and owner Kang Zhu worked for more than a decade, and Taishan, the much smaller city west of Hong Kong where he and his family were born.
This combination, and the relatively early opening time of 9am (now 10:30am), made me more interested. In our review, I suggested Master Kong as a breakfast alternative to nearby dim sum options Pure Spice, Ocean City, and Wong’s King Seafood, describing Zhu as one of “Portland’s greatest chef chameleons” for his work here and previously at the dry hot pot restaurant. Pot and spicy. Featured dishes included Zhu’s take on wonton soup, jian bing and goubuli, the rustic and relatively rare Tianjin pork buns.
Like many Portlanders, Master Kong became one of our family’s takeout options during the pandemic, and the “Chinese potstickers” became a must-order. During one pickup, Zhu’s sister, Amy Zhu, sent me home with a tightly wrapped bag of frozen pork balls. A week later, I cooked them for dinner and realized that I had been missing a great dumpling restaurant.
Master Kong opened a second restaurant last November in the former Bazi Bierbrasserie, once Portland’s best Belgian brewery. Visit now, and you can order half a dozen different dumplings, wontons and steamed, boiled or pan-fried buns ($7 to $9) from a large vertical touchscreen similar to those found at McDonald’s . Start with those “Chinese stickers,” thin, slightly pinched bags of ground pork with a light, golden-crispy base, or the “handmade” boiled dumplings, either chicken or pork, all equally juicy.
Portland has many more dumpling restaurants now than when I moved here 16 years ago, including outposts of Taiwan’s famous Din Tai Fung and Seattle’s alternative Dough Zone, and good local options like Chin’s Kitchen, Duck House and XLB. But right now, Master Kong is hitting the sweet spot of quality and price.
Master Kong doesn’t have the kinds of syrupy fried chicken or stir-fried noodles found in many American Chinese restaurants, but there’s more to it than dumplings, too. Zhu’s stir-fried snow pea leaves are well done, their butter wonton soup is a contender for best in town, and I prefer their jian bing to Bing Mi (although neither compares to the Taiwanese version that I prefer). Other dishes are good, but not great: the signature fried buns at Dough Zone on the South Waterfront are better. Ditto for the beef noodle soup at Wei Wei in Wastmoreland, there are better dumpling restaurants around (there are also worse).
Parents of young children should take note: Portland has never offered much in the way of kid-friendly restaurants, and many of the options that were here have closed during the pandemic. The two restaurants closest to my house with play areas got rid of them for good in 2020 (a nearby brewpub had already replaced one with an ax throwing lane). Master Kong isn’t exactly kid-proof, but it does have a little-used side room, spinning laser logos, and it’s on an island in Sewallcrest Park.
That said, if I had one suggestion for Master Kong Hawthorne, it’s to beef up the beer selection. When it first opened, the restaurant offered a bottled tour of mass-produced Asian beers, and has since added some random cans of hoppy beers. But there are still signs of the building’s former tenant, including a long bar and a large Duvel chalice that is now used to hold candy. What if this wasn’t just Portland’s best casual dumpling restaurant, but also its best Belgian beer bar?
A child can dream.
What to order: Homemade dumplings, Chinese potstickers, congee, wonton soup, goubuli, fried vegetables, jian bing.
Details: Master Kong’s new restaurant is located next to Hawthorne at 1522 SE 32nd Ave., 503-384-2184, masterkongor.com. Find the original location at 8435 SE Division St.
Who needs dim sum? Master Kong gives a provincial touch to the Chinese breakfast
— Michael Russell; [email protected]
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