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The History of Chinese Food in Portland, America's Second-Oldest Chinatown

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Happy Chinese New Year! Here's where to eat.

Portland's Chinatown Gate
Portland's Chinatown Gate
Shutterstock

Portland sometimes gets a bad rap for not having great Chinese food. But as with everything, you just need to know where to look. And it's not in Old Town/Chinatown.

In all, Portland has had three distinct Chinatowns. The original Portland Chinatown was located in the heart of today's downtown in the 1850s, making it the second-oldest Chinatown in the United States. Between 1890 and 1910, it was also the second largest (San Francisco's is #1 on both accounts).

There were two distinct Chinese communities in Portland at that time. First, there were the urban Chinese who did "women's" work; mostly running laundries and cooking in restaurants or in private homes like James Beard's family's home on SE 23rd Avenue and Salmon. (Beard later wrote that Jue Let, a Chinese cook employed by his parents, had inspired his love of cooking.) Another famous Portland Chinese cook was Jim Louie, who worked at Huber's from 1891—when he was a 21 year-old transplant—until the day he died, in the restaurant, in 1946.

Another Chinese cook was Jim Louie, who worked at Huber's from 1891—when he was a 21 year-old transplant—until the day he died, in the restaurant, in 1946.

The second Chinese community living in Portland around the turn of the nineteenth century had settled in shanties along the slopes of Goose Hollow, where they grew acres of lush vegetables. They grew some western produce for selling door-to-door to white people, but they also grew traditional bok choy and winter melon for their own use.

By the 1910s, chop suey was all the rage in Portland, and letters to The Oregonian's cooking columnist began pouring in, requesting recipes. The Republic Café, Portland's reigning old timer of Old Town has stuck around since the 1920s, but rather than serving congee or hand-pulled noodles, their menu harkens back to the time when chop suey was the trendiest food in town. In fact, they still serve chop suey.

Portland's second Chinatown arose during World War II. When Japanese families were shipped out to the Minidoka internment camp in Idaho, Chinese residents moved into Nihonmachi (Japantown), to take up the empty spaces left behind. This is the neighborhood called Old Town/Chinatown, today.

Although vestiges of Chinatown still remain in Old Town, many agree that the new Chinatown is the Jade District, centered between Lents and Montavilla.

Although vestiges of Chinatown still remain in Old Town, many agree that the new Chinatown is the Jade District, centered between Lents and Montavilla. The Jade District is an area conspicuously lacking grand lion-statue gates, pagoda rooflines, and walled gardens; it is a staccato of car lots and Vietnamese bakeries, hooker-hotels and grocery stores selling the freshest taku choy. Not far off from how it was in the good old days.

With its affordable rent and availability of commercial space, the Jade District is, by all accounts, where the good Chinese food has been hiding since the late 1990s. Most Chinese entrepreneurs in the Jade District are from Hong Kong, and this is reflected in the predominating style of restaurant opening in the Jade District over the past decade: Cantonese. This means hot pot, dim sum, and noodle joints. Dim sum hotspots include HK Café and Ocean City, and Good Taste Noodle House is a go-to for noodle soup with roast duck and wontons. Got a cold? Beijing Hot Pot will clear your sinuses right up.

And one wish for Lunar New Year: that cha chaan teng (western-style Hong Kong tea restaurants) will be the Next Big Thing. Portland is so ready for Hong Kong-style French toast and macaroni-ham soup.

Article by Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Portland: A Food Biography

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