Review: China Taste

The family-run place you're hoping for
By BRIAN DUFF  |  January 25, 2012

SCALLION PANCAKE Sizzling and with great texture.
It's often claimed that there is no good Chinese food in Portland. But when four Maine Chinese buffet restaurants were raided by federal agents for deplorable working conditions, money laundering, and other alleged crimes a few months back, it put things in perspective. Would it be nice to have a transcendent Chinese place that surprises and delights? Sure. But what every town needs is a good, clean, family-run spot offering take-out Chinese that comforts due to its familiarity. China Taste, which opened last year and serves some very good versions of traditional American-style Chinese cuisine, fills that need here in Portland.

Their building on Washington Avenue has the sort of tight-packed feel you might expect in a dense urban neighborhood, even though this part of Washington is pretty residential. They barely gesture toward a dining room — four tables (one hosting a homework session by the family's son) in a spare space. If you are getting food to go, there is a leather bench and some plastic chairs on which to wait while you listen to the tapping and scratching of the cooks at their woks.

One sister, in her high school tennis team shirt, takes orders, while a five-year-old patrols behind the counter looking for ways to be helpful. At one point she scales a barstool her own height to gesture more effectively at a photo of a dish. She is the only person willing to hazard a guess at the provenance of China Taste's smiling mascot. "It's a potato!" she claims. Could be, but at a Chinese place? His shoe is untied, whatever he is.

As there should be at a place like this, there are over a hundred dishes. Many of them illuminate what Freud called "the narcissism of small differences" through the use of brown sauce with different combinations of spices, meats, and veggies.

But first it's worth trying China Taste's very good appetizers. The scallion pancake sizzles loud enough coming out of the oil that the whole waiting area looks up. It has a great crispy-chewy exterior with an underlayer of soft dough and ample scallion. You dip it into a terrific spicy-sour soy-based sauce. A splash of the same sauce perfected a bite of the house egg roll. The crisp exterior is surprisingly light, and the inside has that slight pinkish hue from the spices mixed into the ground pork. The chopped veggies inside still have a sweet crunch.

Sweetness and vegetal crunch are also the point of moo shi, served with thin pancakes and plum sauce to smear inside. The sauce provides the sweet, and you pile on top of it a crunchy and savory mix of cabbage and scallion, along with tender pieces of beef. We also tried the house special lo mein, with pork, chicken, and shrimp. It was the thin chewy strips of red-tipped pork that contrasted best with the soft noodles and onions, and next time I will probably get the pork alone.

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