In the former First National Taphouse space, Duck House bustles six nights a week, fewer when it’s forced to close an extra day to restock. It often does, as crowds gather and line up at the door for a taste of the restaurant’s lauded dumplings, from its xiao long bao to wontons in searing hot chili oil, as well as noodle bowls, stir-fries, and dozens of other dishes on the extensive menu. In a town that suffered for years from a dearth of good Chinese spots, Duck House was a welcome addition when it landed in September of 2016, earning it the Game Changer of the Year from Eater PDX for 2017. Here’s why it works.
1. The Dumplings
It’s a crime to visit Duck House without ordering at least one serving of dumplings. Whether it’s the wontons sizzling in hot chili oil, lamb dumplings, or the signature xiao long bao, these delicate pockets of tender meat, vegetables and aromatic, silken stock have helped make Duck House a destination. Don’t just take Eater’s word for it, either: PoMo called them “some of the best steamed, fried, rolled, and savory-stuffed starters in town.” The Merc praised them as “the most consistently great soup dumplings in town,” and OregonLive’s adoration was unambiguous, saying, “The xiao long bao are the best in Portland.”
2. The Sprawling Menu
Duck House’s menu comes from its co-owner and executive chef Ivan Liu, who left his Sichuan restaurant in San Diego to come to Portland, bringing his menu along with him (as well as a few trusted cooks). Besides his take on spicy Sichuan cuisine, Liu and his staff cook up iconic Chinese-American dishes like General Tso’s, Taiwanese staples like braised beef noodle soup, and Cantonese dishes like the wide chow fun noodles, all of which are thoughtfully prepared.
3. The Unconventional Space
Duck House feels more like a casual pub environment than a busy Chinese restaurant, because that’s exactly what it is. The First National Taphouse didn’t last long, but it did build in a comfortable, welcoming space for Duck House to later use. The tables are still stamped with the bronze logo of the shuttered pub.
4. The Price
In a town where the cost of living and the prices on menus constantly rise, it’s hard to find cheap eats outside of food carts (and sometimes not even then). Luckily, many of the dishes on the main menu are around $12, and are served in a heaping mound that is easily shareable. Even cheaper is the lunch menu, all under $10 for an entree, rice, and soup, with serving sizes large enough for leftovers (especially when ordered with some dumplings as an appetizer).
5. The Tap List
Portlanders love their beer, and the stamped tables aren’t the only holdover from its previous life as a tap house. The beer list is admirable, with a number of local and Californian brews, and it’s perfectly acceptable to grab a seat at the long wooden bar for a pint.
6. Extra Focus On Service
Co-owner Harvey Liu describes the service at Duck House as being more familiar to American diners than the service found at most Chinese spots. For example, there’s more attention paid to courses; rather than just coming out whenever the dish is finished, the appetizers arrive at the table first, followed by entrees. Servers are friendly and as attentive as possible given the business of the restaurant, but don’t expect fine dining levels, as empty plates occasionally linger, as can the bill, especially at peak hours.
7. There’s a TV
It’s a far cry from a sports bar, but with a tap-list and large flat screen, it’s entirely reasonable to treat it like one for a night. Grab an order of dumplings and a beer or cocktail and watch one of the games played on the TV.
8. It’s Centrally Located
Downtown near Portland State University and right off of 405, Duck House’s placement is no accident. The owners selected the place not only for its casual aesthetic, but to make it easy for PSU students, downtown office workers, and the growing Chinese-American population living in the suburbs to easily access the restaurant. Parking spots, on the other hand, can be frustratingly evasive.
9. The Dumplings
Seriously, though. Get the dumplings.