Gold Garden, on 82nd Avenue, shares a parking lot with an unsightly motel. The neighboring bar, the Gold Coin Lounge, is home to grumbling old alcoholics, and the dining area overlooks Budget Used Car Lots. How typically 82nd Avenue, then, that some of the best Chinese food in town can be found amid the rubble.
While ignoring (or marveling at) all the ugliness, walk through that door, and you'll be staring at a clean, crowded banquet hall filled with hungry Chinese families. They'll be picking at fragrant, exceedingly fresh seafood dishes with chopsticks--and soon, my fellow Chinese-food worshipper, will you.
Like other West Coast cities more widely known for Asian food, Portland is blessed with high-quality seafood and produce. This is a more important determinant of good Chinese food than the size of a city's Chinese population. Put these raw ingredients into the hands of a careful and dependable kitchen, and the end result can be blissful.
The crabs, lobster, rockfish, and jumbo (I'm talking huge) shrimp are housed in a tank near the kitchen where their fate awaits them. Sold either by the pound or at a fixed price, you can discuss with the waitstaff how you would like them prepared. I sampled a Dungeness crab in Thailand sauce, which was out of this world, but so difficult to eat that I sensed the whole restaurant laughing at me. I don't know if licking one's fingers is disrespectful, but I couldn't help myself.
Gold Garden's cooking ranges from dependable to sublime. I've ordered many disparate menu items and all of them, with the exception of the Ma Po Tofu (which I'll get to later), were excellent. Among my favorites have been a Chicken, Salt Fish, and Eggplant dish served in a clay pot. The salted fish was in fact not salty at all, but lent a defining sweet/briny flavor, which was then soaked up by the soft eggplant slices. It was a sweet bargain at $7.50. I've also guiltily consumed an entire plate of the Salt and Pepper Squid and Shrimp. It was a sensual assault on my taste buds, liberally sprinkled with jalapenos, sautéed garlic, and pepper flakes.
Many local Chinese eateries serve only slop for their lunch specials, charging higher prices for the good stuff. But here you'll find a scaled-down menu of affordable noodle dishes, rice porridges, and "over riceÓ specialties that will satisfy most serious Chinese food urges. Try something with black pepper sauce, or some vegetable you haven't heard of. I like bitter melon, which is kind of like a quinine-injected cucumber. I did run into one roadblock with my Ma Po Tofu lunch, which wasn't as flavorful as I'd have liked and contained large chunks of bell pepper--a nasty vegetable that in my opinion doesn't belong in this dish.
Gold Garden is a Hong Kong-style seafood lovers' Chinese restaurant. If you want combination plates and Polynesian décor, go elsewhere. But for superb pan-fried noodles, clams with black bean sauce, or shellfish so fresh it'd been smiling at you minutes earlier, this is the place.