Mural by Murphy Phelan Photos by Aaron Lee

You can have far worse Chinese food in Portland than at Danwei Canting, but you can also do far better.

Danwei Canting opened this winter with the promise of reflecting the regional diversity represented in China’s capital city, where workers’ restaurants offer a range of hometown favorites to soothe the homesick souls of migrant employees.

The result is a menu that promises convenience and range: Danwei, located in the first floor of a new build in inner Southeast, is the only decent Chinese food option for miles. There’s no need to drive to Beaverton’s Taste of Sichuan for la zi ji chicken buried in hot peppers, to Bing Mi downtown for jian bing crepes, or to Good Taste Noodle House on Southeast 82nd for wonton noodle soup—those specialties are all on its menu.

Aaron Lee

Yet when it comes down to it, Danwei Canting’s most analogous restaurant may be something along the lines of an American diner—the variety of dishes guarantees everyone will find something to like, but being good at everything often means the restaurant isn’t great at anything.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the best places to start at Danwei, like at a diner, is the burgers. Here, these come in the form of roujiamo, made with pork or lamb ($6-7). Served in a paper sack to contain their braised contents, the lamb is well-seasoned with cumin, chiles, and garlic, and comes atop a thin, crisp bun that holds up well to the saucy meat and an herbal slaw that gives freshness and crunch.

On a recent visit, Biggie Smalls bumped on the sound system, and there was a short queue to order at the counter. Spend your time in line checking out the comic-style (and very cool) mural depicting a mashup of Chinese and Pacific Northwest scenes by local artist Murphy Phelan. The idea of the melting pot menu comes courtesy of co-owner James Kyle, who spent more than a decade guiding food tours in Beijing, while former Bluehour chef Kyo Koo crafted the actual dishes.

By all accounts, the food has grown stronger since opening in January, but there’s still work to be done. On the upside, all of it goes well with Beijing’s Yanjing beer in 20 ounce bottles ($6) and baijiu, a clear grain-based liquor served straight up or in a variety of cocktails.

Aaron Lee

A Shanghai specialty of soft and tender red-cooked pork belly ($11) was pleasing, especially with the crispy pork skin hidden throughout the savory sauce spiked with star anise, cinnamon, and fennel seed. It’s a rich dish that’s best shared—in fact, order family style and get two dishes per person.

Add in a cumin-dusted lamb skewer, some crunchy Beijing peanuts, and toss on some crispy wok-fried shoestring fries to start, and pass over the underwhelming trio of dumplings ($7-$8). Available with pork, lamb, or mushroom and chive, all had overly thick dough and a filling that a dipping sauce of black vinegar and ginger couldn’t liven up. The quest for Portland dumpling bliss continues.

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For a counter-service spot, Danwei’s staff have been friendlier and more attentive than you’d expect, and seemed concerned when we left a large part of our pepper chicken on the table, until we explained it was coming home to eat later. The mission of serving (and probably introducing many American eaters to) Chinese regional specialties is laudable—here’s to hoping Danwei Canting dials it in enough to become a draw for those all over Portland.

Sun-Thurs 11 am to 9 pm; Fri-Sat 11 am to 10 pm.

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