While former Danwei Canting chef Kyo Koo was growing up in Portland, his family would frequent the old school Chinese restaurants that once proliferated the area: Southwest Macadam’s Shanghai Noble House, as well as Lin’s China Jade and Chen’s Dynasty in Beaverton, all three now closed. Koo is Korean American, and he grew up eating Korean food more frequently at home. But when they went out to dinner, they went to Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese restaurants, seeking out dishes like potstickers, barbecue pork, and the almond chicken dish known as war su gai — what he calls “vintage Asian food.”
Now, after closing Danwei Canting, Koo is back, but instead of opening a Beijing-style Chinese spot like his previous restaurant, he’s focusing on the nostalgic, eclectic Asian cuisines of his childhood. “I wanted to open up a place that isn’t just inspired by those places, but brings back those memories of eating at those restaurants,” Koo says. So, collaborating with brother-in-law and Hong Kong expat Alvin Wong, Koo opened Warsugai on January 31, taking over the former Taqueria Nueve space on Southeast Washington Street with dishes like sizzling black pepper beef short ribs alongside mai tais and banana daiquiris.
The menu will shift periodically, but the opening menu at Warsugai includes Koo’s versions of several dishes from restaurants he visited as a kid, often alluding to them directly on the menu. Noble House Pork Potstickers references the dumplings his family ordered at the John’s Landing restaurant upon every visit, which he calls “the best handmade potstickers that (he) ever had.” The restaurant’s Kampong Shrimp, in the style of the Korean Chinese sweet-and-spicy fried shrimp dish kkanpung saeu, is Koo’s rendition of the shrimp dish once served at Lin’s China Jade, a favorite among his family. “I got to test it out on my uncle and my aunt,” he says. “I said, ‘What does this remind you of?’ and they said, ‘It reminds me of China Jade.’ I was like, ‘Fuck yeah.’”
But the restaurant’s menu also includes some Pacific Northwest-ified versions of these dishes, as well. The char siu, also known as Chinese barbecue pork, relies on a 48-hour brined pork coppa, which gets a hoisin gloss made with chicken stock; it’s finished with crushed hazelnuts, a nod to the now-closed hazelnut-finished pork producer Tails & Trotters. The crab rangoons use Oregon Dungeness and creme fraiche, and the chicken wontons get their earthy fragrance from black truffle. Ota tofu makes several appearances on the menu: fried, braised, and served soft with black vinegar and ginger pickles.
Even the war su gai, his take on Chen’s Dynasty’s, starts with Mary’s chicken and a batter that Koo describes as something between a beer batter and a tempura batter. The sauce starts with chicken stock, simmering with alliums, bay leaf, and peppercorns overnight until it’s strained and combined with almond milk. “It was one of the dishes growing up where I’d go, ‘Oh, I’m craving that right now,’” Koo says. “I wanted to do an ode to that. ... Super crispy, but really light.”
Koo says the space itself was inspired by the aesthetic of Chow Yun-fat movies — think A Better Tomorrow — with a red neon glow and a relaxed atmosphere. “We’re going for the retro Hong Kong vibe inside,” Koo says. “We want you to come in and be comfortable.”
Warsugai is now open at 727 SE Washington Street.
Correction: Thursday, February 8, 2024 at 2:23 p.m.: A previous version of this story misidentified when Danwei Canting closed.