A GIRLFRIEND noted that it felt like we were on a date in a new city as we walked down Sellwood's SE 13th—quaint antique shops, a friendly cat dashing out to say hello, and zero signs of urban strife or malaise. Sellwood's long been our sleepy suburb-within-city-limits, so the arrival of two new noteworthy Chinese restaurants is big news.
First up is Wei Wei, which focuses on Taiwanese cuisine from a retrofitted nook between a nail salon and a convenience store in a strip mall (which is often where the best Chinese food can be found). Hot on its heels was last month's opening of Tam, a hidden little closet of a restaurant in a courtyard. Tam serves up family legacy Hong Kong wonton noodle soups from Either/Or owner Ro Tam and her brother, Simon Tam (who's the bassist in Portland band the Slants).
Both restaurants are small, relatively unadorned, and at the moment not serving anything stronger than bitter melon tea. There isn't a noodle revolution going on down south, per se, but there are some very solid choices at both places, should you make your way there. In fact, it's possible to go to both in one noodle-centric crawl, and if you do, here are our top five best bets:
1. Beef Noodle Soup ($13), Wei Wei
This soup lives up to its ever-growing hype. The cauldron of umami-packed beef broth is complex, fatty, rich, and deep with a floating blend of proprietary spices. Packed with braised beef slices and house-made noodles, it joins the upper echelon of Asian soups in Portland—a lofty place indeed. Pickled mustard greens and bok choy are the crisp finishing touches. Eat fast, because those hand-pulled noodles tend to get soggy.
2. Pork Chop Rice Plate ($11), Wei Wei
Breaded and deep-fried, Wei Wei's pork chop is juicy and served on the bone. And as someone who loves chewing on meat bones, a layer of fried breading is a delicious bonus. Go with the rice plate over the pork soup, as the broth is an inevitable letdown after the beef soup's flavor explosion. Also, the rice plate comes with a perfectly done soy braised egg.
3. Pork and Mushroom Wonton Noodle Soup ($6), Tam
Tam is likeable—with family pictures on the wall and a modern aesthetic—and the Tam siblings have nailed the most important part of their operation: wontons. On their small four-item menu, the dumplings are the rock stars, and none more so than the pork and shiitake mushroom variety. It's the most aggressive up front, with a burst of salt and texture that makes you wish there were more than four in a bowl of noodle soup. (Pro tip: Skip the noodles and order eight wontons for $8.) But the noodles have their place as well—and overall a more generous portion of soup would be nice.
4. Steamed Bao ($2.50-3), Wei Wei
Of all Wei Wei's appetizers, this is the one. The grilled squid ($9), laid out on a platter from head to tentacles, may look more impressive, but it won't have the flavor of the steamed buns. My favorite was the grilled chicken bao, the crisp flesh contrasting with the soft bun. But the pork belly and the braised beef—same as you get in Wei Wei's wonderful soup—aren't too shabby either. Each comes with a swipe of fermented bean sauce, cilantro, and crushed peanuts.
5. TIE: Shrimp and Pork Belly Wonton Noodle Soup ($7), Tam; House Spicy Noodle ($10), Wei Wei
Tam says the shrimp and pork belly wonton is their muse. It's a twist on the traditional ground pork and shrimp wonton. Now it's time to pay attention to the broth: It lacks that garlic-heavy, throat-coating greatness a superb wonton soup has. Doctored with chilies at the table, the whole arrangement has a bit more oomph. A nod to marrying tradition with the present, Tam also has vegan and gluten-free options.
As for Wei Wei's offering, it may not be exceptionally spicy, but the "dry" spicy noodles actually come with a delightfully slick broth that gets even better with a few generous dollops of chile oil. Their hand-pulled noodles stay firmer than in their soups, and are so satisfying to chew and gulp down—especially with crunchy water chestnuts and celery chopped into the ground pork on top. Oh, and save room for dessert: There's a rotating case of lemon chiffon and s'mores cupcakes, and a chocolate chip cookie sandwich with chocolate ganache in the middle that kept me in a happy sugar coma for three days.
8235 SE 13th
Wed-Sun 11 am-8 pm
7835 SE 13th
Tues-Sat 11 am-10 pm, Sun 11 am-9 pm