CONSIDER FOR A MOMENT the nearly 70 years of French occupation in Vietnam. Just stick with me here. Now, consider it while biting into a Vietnamese meatball sandwich at Jade Teahouse and Patisserie. That baguette? House made and spot-on. That meatball? More European than Vietnamese, and utterly tender and delicious. But the daikon? The carrots and cilantro? There's something wonderful going on here—a mix of flavors and styles that would not have happened without the insanity of colonization.
Jade Teahouse and Patisserie offers what could be considered "Indochine" cuisine, operating beyond the realm of many of Portland's Southeast Asian joints. Neither divey nor high-priced trendy, it offers a menu of Vietnamese and Thai-tinged plates that are plentiful without feeling uninspired; options marked by a hint of fusion that don't feel unmoored from deeper traditions.
The space is just about perfect. In the afternoon, the atmosphere below the lofty ceiling glows with light. The blond wood and bamboo tones are soothing, and the dining room remains just this side of annoyingly trendy with comfy leather chairs and enough rustic embellishments to keep a lid on all the slickness.
The staff is helpful and friendly, but Jade suffers from a clunky and uncomfortable ordering experience. Diners place their order at the counter and are given a number. This can often lead to a line out the door. Sure you have ample time to contemplate your order, but by the time you reach the counter your neck may suffer from craning to read the large menuboard above the register. I would appreciate the place much more if they had both table service for meals and register service for placing patisserie orders.
The biggest French influence is in the baked goods. The pastry case features a colorful selection of delicious and airy macarons, cookies, cupcakes, and gorgeous vibrant green Vietnamese wedding cake—with its vanilla-tinged velvety goodness shot through with a crunchy pastry wafer.
The tea side is just as astounding. Behind the counter, a floor-to-ceiling lazy Suzan holds a dizzying amount of tea, some of it quite rare. But there is so much more to be had. The menu is practically bursting.
For starters, tear into hum bao, a perfect white mound of dough with a graphic, bright red medallion stamped across the top. That bold red stamp is a good indication of what's inside the steamed bun: luscious, tender BBQ pork with perfect hints of five-spice.
Salad rolls are a better indicator of the bulk of Jade's menu. A tight cylinder of vegetation, rolled up in rice paper, is crispy, fresh, and flavorful. The accompanying crunchy peanut sauce is less sweet than most and plenty zippy, but the shrimp and chicken are lacking. The problem is that shrimp and chicken are everywhere on Jade's menu with mixed results. They are mingling in the full-bodied broth of the wonton soup, but floating among them are the namesake dumplings themselves, packed with tight balls of savory pork.
Shrimp appear in the green papaya salad, and they are largely unnecessary. The long strands of papaya and the spicy sauce work just fine when paired with sticky rice.
On the other hand, chicken works very well in the yellow curry, thrown in as whole drumsticks. With potatoes and carrots over rice, the interplay of textures is wonderful and the slow heat is lovely.
The duo shows up again amid stir-fried green beans, but here the shrimp and chicken are upstaged by those wonderful, slightly crispy beans, still quite firm, sharing the plate with a mess of additional vegetables equally fresh and crunchy.
There is beef on the menu if you pay enough attention. Happily it can be added, with great effect, to a dish of wide noodles and broccoli. If you're a fan of Thai food you know this dish as pad see ew, and Jade does one of the better versions I've had. With fresh-made wide rice noodles, crisp broccoli, and Jade's ability to rock a very good sauce, what you get is a slightly smoky dish without too much sweetness, and a good bit of heat to keep it all together.
There is so much to have at Jade you could take a good month to explore it all. Consider it a scholarly task. What a thing it would be, taking time to suss out the interplay of French and Vietnamese cuisine sprawled across the plates and pastry case shelves—trying to find the smallest improbable good as a result of empire building.