FIVE SPICE has a hell of a poker face. Tucked away in a little strip mall in outer Southeast Portland, this new Chinese restaurant doesn't put on much of a show. The exterior looks like a check-cashing business, and the interior—if you ignore those three roasted ducks hanging in the window—couldn't be more plain and utilitarian.
I wasn't sure what to expect. I've mistaken shitty for "authentic" before, only to end up with greasy orange chicken and varying degrees of stomach pain.
Our server, on my first visit, handed us two sets of menus—one "for Chinese," one "for Americans" (I assume this meant white people, of whom my friends and I were the only three). Maybe a good sign? Everything was relatively inexpensive—all in the $7-11 price range. I stood up to better see the handwritten specials on a white board by the kitchen, and the server took me through a few she was particularly excited about. But when I asked her about the bottom one—the item they neglected to translate from Cantonese—she just shook her head, as if to tell me that it wasn't for the likes of me. I found Five Spice's tell. This was Chinese food for and by Chinese people; I was lucky enough to hear about the place (the only advertising or web presence I've been able to find is a single YouTube video, not in English). I pressed our server, and eventually, sweetly, she relented, "It's intestines. You won't like it."
Normally, that warning would rankle my contrarian spirit. Even in writing this, I can't help but feel disappointed in myself. But she was so firm, so sure of herself—I had no choice but to respect her discretion.
She did, however, give me a nice tour of the menu and directed me toward an item I may not have tried otherwise, some variation of which will keep me coming back: the oyster and spare rib clay pot.
To be clear, this isn't do-it-yourself, cook-at-the-table hot pot. While the dish comes out simmering over a dollop of that purple flammable gel, all preparation was taken care of back in the kitchen. Your only task is to give the stew in front of you a few moments to simmer, which, once you get a whiff of that smell, isn't as easy as it sounds.
The broth itself is pungent, flavored with plenty of garlic, ginger, cilantro, and wagon wheel-shaped slices of lotus root. Huge chunks of fried tofu soak up the broth, and the oysters are cooked through to a point that even those who can't usually stand the texture might be able to give them another shot. The spare ribs are cut close to the bone, so even though they're wonderful in flavor and texture, they're a bit of a chore to eat. This dish is tremendously rich, and the flavors, seemingly disparate, balance perfectly.
My next time in, I tried the beef tendon pot (our server told me it would be good for my joints). When I eat pho I usually avoid tendon, as it can come out sinewy, but the texture here was consistent, almost a tough gelatin (my texture-sensitive date was able to pick around the tendon for different cuts of meat, and still enjoy the dish).
Another highlight was the pan-fried beef noodles. The meat is heavily marinated in soy sauce, and the wide egg noodles avoid being heavy on the grease. The pan-fried dumplings are a treat as well. An order comes with only three, but each is the size of a five-year-old's fist, packed with pork. The dough is thick, and just a touch crisp.
A page of the menu is dedicated solely to butchered meats. We decided to try a three-meat sampler, thinking we'd do just that: sample. Instead we got something like a party platter there was no way we could finish. The highlight was the five-spice duck—you can see why they chose that seasoning as the restaurant's namesake—but the roasted pork was the most interesting. It's roasted with the skin on, so the outside has a thin, crispy bark. Unlike the duck and barbecue pork, this one is served cold.
The menu is large, and not everything knocked my socks off. The tan tan noodles, a dish I usually love—and the sole noodle dish with a red-pepper warning in the left-hand column—was bland and forgettable. The fried rice was nothing spectacular, good only for dousing in broth from the clay pot. The one dish I've ordered from the "American menu," General Tso's chicken, was a step up from the crappy Chinese bistros of my childhood, but no match for the dishes everyone around you will be eating. My advice (if you're not a connoisseur): Until you're ready to try those mysterious intestines, order from the Chinese menu and let the Five Spice staff be your guide.