Comfort Zone

A Congee Crawl Through Portland’s Jade District

Want in on the porridgey goodness? You just have to know where to look.

By Amy Lam Photography by Celeste Noche Published in the March 2020 issue of Portland Monthly

A deep bowl of congee from Kenny's Noodle House

Image: Celeste Noche

On most days, Master Kong’s big Division Street windows are steamed over from the hungry crowd crammed into a tight dining room spooning into bowls of congee. The unassuming rice porridge, with Chinese roots dating back to at least the Han dynasty, spans many Asian countries and their diaspora, Filipino arroz caldo to South Indian kanji. It also happens to be incredibly popular in Portland’s Jade District, where it’s a standby for 82nd Avenue’s Chinese and congee-loving residents, who seek out familiar flavors on chilly Portland days.

From top left, clockwise: Master Kong owners and siblings Kang and Amy Zhu; black chicken congee with green onions, cilantro, egg, and chile oil; the restaurant’s menu and exterior; prepping dough and filling for Master Kong’s handmade dumplings

Image: Celeste Noche

Begin your congee tour with Master Kong (8435 SE Division St), opened in 2018 by siblings Kang and Amy Zhu. The pair modeled their namesake restaurant (Kong is the phonetic pronunciation of Kang’s name) on memories of their parents’ restaurant in South China’s Taishan, where the family sold congee and noodles for over a decade. Before opening Master Kong, the Zhu family made congee at least three times a week and would eat it “sometimes all day,” says Kang. The restaurant offers variations like clam, black chicken, and salted pork rib—all made with from-scratch stock.

Rock cod congee and pumpkin congee with sides of Chinese doughnuts and Chinese broccoli at Kenny’s Noodle House

Image: Celeste Noche

Both cantonese restaurants may be better known for plump wontons and egg noodle soups, but many return to So Good Taste Noodle House (8220 SE Harrison St) and Kenny’s Noodle House (8305 SE Powell Blvd) just for the congee. Families, young couples, and elders pack the tables here like they do in Hong Kong’s neighborhood spots. “We have a regular who is heartbroken when we are out of roasted duck congee,” says Yeners Ma, a server at So Good Taste, where the broth base is delicately spiced with ginger. The rich, salted rock cod congee is the runaway hit at Kenny’s, according to kind, patient nine-year veteran server Corina Wang. Kenny’s crispy Chinese doughnut (a.k.a. youtiao) is made for dunking into the bowls of thick porridge. (For congee cravings at dinner, call to make sure they haven’t run out.)

From left: A full cart of fried and baked dim sum delights at HK Café; a busy Sunday morning; dunking a Chinese doughnut into a bowl of preserved egg and pork congee surrounded by a spread of dim sum; and emptied congee bowls

Image: Celeste Noche

Although dumplings and buns get all the love at dim sum brunch, HK Café (4410 SE 82nd Ave) and Ocean City Seafood Restaurant (3016 SE 82nd Ave) serve congee alongside pushcarts teetering with shiny metal and bamboo steamers—there’s nothing better than biting into a freshly steamed har gow between belly-warming spoonfuls of the stuff. These dedicated dim sum eateries have a limited variety of congee, but they regularly stock the rich, universally loved preserved egg and lean pork version.

Portland native Lucy Li, 39, grew up dining at HK Café. Her retired father, like many elders in the community, socializes over tea and dim sum. “Places like HK Café are usually where they come on their day off or, if they are retired, come to find their friends,” explains Li. “It’s their hangout spot, a place that sounds and feels familiar.”

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