Just past the intersection at Southeast 82nd and Division going east, you arrive in New Chinatown in the Powellhurst-Gilbert neighborhood. Pull into the parking lot where you see the Chang Fa Market, Best Taste Chinese BBQ Restaurant, and Tin Seng Trading Company. These shops cater to the Asian American community. If you're looking on a map of cultural destinations in Portland, you'll miss this. It's not the official Chinatown; it's the destination for Asian residents of Portland who want to buy foods that remind them of home.
Best Taste is a family-run restaurant. You can find real Chinese food, not too greasy, not too sweet, not like the American-style Chinese food. Grace Lee is the front of the house and her husband cooks. "If it's a big restaurant the cooking changes," Lee says. "With a small restaurant you have good taste." This is Hong Kong-style cooking. The Lee family is from Hong Kong by way of Oakland, where they ran a restaurant for twenty years.
There are only Asian American customers when I arrive for a late lunch. I eat an order of pork dumplings (four for $2.50). They're steamed, retaining all their flavor without the grease. I try the rice cake for dessert. The flavor is of fermentation before sugar becomes wine, not too sweet, not too sour. It's made from rice flour––like jello bread.
An Asian American couple arrive and order take-out. "Do you have roast pork every day?" the woman asks. "Every day,” Lee affirms. “We're already sold out." After the lunch crowd and before dinner, the Lee family sets a table for four in the small restaurant. The father comes out from the kitchen to eat with his wife, their son, and a family friend.
After lunch I decide to shop for some groceries. When I step inside Tin Seng Trading Company, I can't read the signs and I'm confused about how to go beyond the obvious choice of crackers, cookies and tea. I ask for help and the owner refers me to his wife. Wendy Chen runs the store with her husband. He was a pharmacist in China and they sell herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine. Some of their customers are students at the Oregon College of Oriental Medicine.
"People who live close by come in every day," Chen says. Her customers are mostly Chinese and in China not everybody has a refrigerator. They buy vegetables, meat and seafood fresh daily. Tin Seng offers Chen's customers fresh produce and live seafood. There are aquariums of prawns, crabs, clams, lobsters and tilapia. Chen says her customers can find the same food they would eat at home in China. Opo squash grows in the Northwest and yet it represents another culture in the vegetable aisle. Taro root is like a potato but it's a newcomer to the American diet. And the green papaya, Chen says, is usually eaten in soup.
Along the front counter there's a row of bins heaping with ginseng root. Chen explains that it's used to make soup, usually with chicken. She says that ginseng root is a popular gift her customers send to relatives in China.
You can find ingredients for tonics, soups and teas: lotus flower seed, hawthorne berry, and red dates (also known as jujube). Goji berry, sometimes called wolfberry, grows in the Pacific Northwest and it’s another health food on the shopping list of students of oriental medicine.
A trip down the aisle at Tin Seng Trading Company.
The competition advertises its name in three languages: English, Spanish, and Chinese. Chang Fa Market is bigger than its neighbor, more spacious, although it appears to offer the same products.
When I find three different vegetables labeled "Bitter Melon", I ask the woman in the vegetable aisle for help. She says Asian shoppers can recognize the vegetables by sight. The shopkeepers didn't know the English word for the vegetables so all three got labeled bitter melon. She shows me the bitter melon looks like a wrinkled cucumber.
Esther Huang is from Taiwan and she lives at Fisher's Landing in Vancouver, WA. She drove to East Portland to get a hair cut and do some shopping. Huang says the shopping in this area is better than old Chinatown because there's fresh food and the best price in Portland for Chinese medicine at Tin Seng.
Processed food from China, she examines carefully before buying. "Check the color," she says, "and the ingredients." Huang says you can tell chemicals are in dried food if it has a very bright color. She shows me two brands of dried lily flower. She points to the brown-colored lily flower and says it’s the natural color. The other dried lily flower is bright yellow from added chemicals. The color contrast between the two packages of lily flower is extreme but I wouldn't have known how to interpret the difference without Huang's help. "You can make chicken soup with lily flower," she says. "It's very good."
Huang teaches Chinese at the Portland Chinese School located on Portland State University campus. She says many of her students are children of Chinese immigrants who speak English every day. Their families send them to learn Chinese so they won't forget the language and culture. "In this area, I think most people don't speak English. They immigrate here through relatives, then they start to learn English.” Huang says the more entrepreneurial will open restaurants, shops, or hair salons. Fisher’s Landing is home to many Asian Americans with advanced degrees who work in high-tech. Huang’s husband earned a PhD and works at Hewlett Packard. Many recent arrivals find their first paid job in Chinese society around East Portland.
You don't have to fly to China to experience authentic Chinese food and culture. Travel to East Portland and explore New Chinatown. All three businesses are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Dim Sum at Best Taste Restaurant.