The chef/owner of Shandong, one of Northeast Portland's most popular Chinese restaurants, is branching out to NW 21st Avenue.
Henry Liu is taking over the former Blue Olive space and transforming it into Kung Pow, where he plans to make Szechuan-inspired dishes so spicy "people are almost scared to come in," he says.
"Shandong was set up as a family restaurant, but Kung Pow will be catering to the millennial palate. We'll be going after bolder, spicier flavors and really giving Portlanders what I think they want. Hence the name Kung Pow."
Along with business partner Vo Chien, who's currently the manager of Jin Wah, Liu is giving the space a more modern makeover. "It's going to be urban industrial," he says. "We're keeping the beautiful hardwood floors, but I've already opened up the ceiling and exposed the beams." He's also hired an artist to paint a 20 foot by 14 foot mural on one wall. He won't reveal what it is, but he says, "it'll be a scene from China. It's a cool little scene. No dancing dragons or any of that stuff. If we have time we'll do another mural in the bar."
"We're trying to be a little more on the hip side," he continues. "I definitely want to have more fun with this."
Liu grew up in the Bay Area, cooking at Shen Hua, his family's restaurant in Berkeley, and he also spent time at Kirin in San Francisco. He moved to Springfield and opened a few dive bars before making his way to Portland. "I finally got the chance to open my own restaurant, and Shan Dong was born from that."
Kung Pow is Liu's chance to stretch out a bit. Both literally — the kitchen is double the size of Shan Dong's — and figuratively. "With Kung Pow I don't have to serve any allegiance to any specific style. When I opened up Shan Dong, my mom wanted naming rights. She wanted to name it things like Fat Panda or Happy Garden. After arguing with her we agreed that she could at least name it after where she came from." But Liu says with that name, patrons tend to expect it to offer traditional dishes from the Shan Dong region, which has kept the menu hemmed in.
"I can play with whatever food I want now."
He's planning to bring over some of most popular dishes from Shandong, including the handmade noodles, Shandong beef, and potstickers. But he'll be adding more appetizers and menu specials, like wontons in Szechuan chile oil, and marinated lamb served mu shu style. And, of course, he'll be brining in lots of heat. "I'm going to center my menu around the Szechuan chile pepper," he says. "With a name like Kung Pow it would be weak sauce if I didn't."
The restaurant will have a full cocktail bar complete with in-house infusions. To appeal to the late-night crowd, he plans to keep the restaurant open until midnight on Friday and Saturday nights, and possibly other nights if there's demand.
If all goes according to plan, Liu and Chien will have Kung Pow open by mid-March.
Kung Pow: 500 NW 21st Ave., Portland