MAYBE IT'S the exclamation point that got folks all excited about Kung Pow!, a new "Szechuan" restaurant on Nob Hill. Lines are already forming on weekend nights, and the high-ceilinged space grows raucous over old-skool plates of mu shu, bowls of impossibly long noodles that demand cutting with scissors, and platters of prawns laced with chile pods.
It's also probably because this restaurant is exactly what NW 21st needed: a Chinese spot that offers plenty of bright-pink cherry pork and other Americanized options, along with gems that intrigue even the cynical palate of a food critic.
In that respect, it's much like its sister restaurant, Shandong in the Hollywood District—a solid love letter to the coastal Chinese province. But Kung Pow!, reflecting its position on the busy corner of NW 21st and Glisan, has more verve and playfulness.
Snag a Zodiac-themed drink like the Every Dog (Is Allowed 1 Bite) ($8), a refreshing house lemongrass-cucumber gin and tonic, muddled with more cucumber and fresh lime juice. (I was gratified to know my year—the Rafter Rat—is a simple shot of whiskey and PBR for $7). Or just be real and get the big bottle of Tsingtao. Share it. Or don't.
Now, here is some sage wisdom, dear eater: Always add an egg when presented with the option. Be it on a pizza, in a cocktail, or on a sandwich. Also, always say yes to fish balls, typically the stuff of hot pot restaurants and other more daring Asian dining rooms. Kung Pow! has elevated them to an art form—a golf-ball-sized round of whitefish, battered in rice flour and deep fried, six to a plate for $8.50. Go for the sweet spicy sauce, which coats the fish in a garlicky ginger hug without smothering it. The fish balls are what I will return for.
The hits keep coming from this 50-plus item menu: Pork belly with Brussels sprouts ($11)—could there be a more Portland-y Chinese dish?!—has a sweet/umami flavor that builds as you eat, creating a strange compulsion to keep taking more bites of veg and meat until it's all gone. And hallelujah, this isn't a small-plates place; this is an honest-to-God "two entrées and an appetizer will stuff two people" kind of place.
Also, while Kung Pow! claims it is Szechuan, very few dishes actually produced the numbing bliss of true spice. Even asking for a dish to be made hotter failed to accomplish the task. Nonetheless, make sure to order the lamb bao bing, a fairly spicy $9 appetizer of diced lamb with mah lah and chile served with mu shu pancakes and shredded green onions. And like one of those moths whose color evolved to make predators think it is poisonous, the hot and red peppers on a plate of Kung Pow! prawns ($13) are all bark, no bite. Yet despite any real heat, it all tastes good in the end.
Well, except for the soup dumplings. Why this town can't have a great xao long bao is a source of dismay. These, like too many others, are too thick, arriving with little to none of the promised soup. Also, Chinese lends itself to veganism well, but those riding the good karmic waves should steer clear of the red curry soy curl noodles ($12), which had the odd effect of drying out the mouth and grating against the throat on the way down.
But then, you'll inevitably turn back to those fish balls or snag a bite of the savory Sichuan eggplant, take a sip of your drink, and find the food worthy of at least one exclamation point.
Sun-Wed 11 am-10 pm, Thurs-Sat 11 am-midnight. Lunch daily 11 am-3 pm. Full bar. No reservations. Take-out is a great option.