Last October, two new restaurants opened blocks from each other in the Lloyd District, each offering regional Chinese specialties, popcorn chicken and fries.
Before last year, Lloyd wasn’t exactly known as a Chinese food destination. Besides Frank’s Noodle House, a beloved hand-pulled noodle and zhajiangmian joint in a converted Northeast Broadway home, options were mostly limited to old haunts such as Chen’s Dynasty, orange chicken kiosks at the mall (the unconquerable Chicken Connection) or trips to Shandong or Chin’s Kitchen in Hollywood to the east.
Wheat Bay (1618 N.E. Sixth Ave.), which also goes by Uniquely Chengdu, is the second location of a Sichuan restaurant near the University of Oregon campus in Eugene. Qiao Noodle House (1409 N.E. Weidler St.) specializes in Crossing the Bridge noodles, a one-of-a-kind hot pot/noodle soup hybrid. Each is interesting in its own right. Together, they help deepen the bench for Chinese food in Lloyd, and Portland generally.
We visited both over the past month, once each for dine-in and, after COVID cases began skyrocketing in January, takeout. Here’s what we found:
As you might have figured from the original’s campus-adjacent location, Wheat Bay’s menu is affordably priced, reasonably fast and consistently hot. Hungry students can pick up popcorn chicken, “spicy wavy fries” (spice-dusted potato wedges) or a bag of barbecue pork buns for $9 or less per dish. Thin-sliced beef wrapped in scallion pancakes drips with sweet hoisin sauce. Noodle soups are fiery and filling.
You can fashion an elaborate meal at Wheat Bay, perhaps built around the whole grilled fish buried in red peppers ($43). But you’re more likely to come away with noodles. Wheat Bay delivers with a dozen options, including early favorites including the BBQ pork, spicy hot pot and sauerkraut beef broths, each with a choice of thick wheat- or rice-based noodles.
The menu reminds me of Miàn, a noodle-focused spin-off of Chengdu Taste, the noted Sichuan restaurant in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. So while Wheat Bay might not have the breadth or polish of suburban Seattle imports such as Beaverton’s Taste of Sichuan or Southwest Portland’s Szechuan Chef, it does know its way around ma and la, the hot and numbing pillars of Sichuan cuisine. Mapo tofu — one of the better versions in Portland — swims in a slick red gravy dotted with ground pork. Ordered to-go, it comes separated from its white rice bed by a little wall of steamed broccoli. With apologies to Duck House, the Sichuan specialists near Portland State University, the last time the central city had dumplings in a chile oil this bright, spicy and fragrant was during Lucky Strike’s run at the Hawthorne Theatre.
There are a few misfires. Dan dan noodles arrive with ground pork suspended on a lettuce leaf above a tasty but surprisingly mild broth, a la Japanese tantanmen, a ramen style inspired by the Sichuan original. A mystery order of “steamed vegetables” turns out to be a big bowl of the same steamed, under-seasoned broccoli that came with our mapo tofu.
But there’s enough here to keep things interesting for a meal or three. We’re looking forward to testing the waters on the Chengdu meat steam, and diving deeper into the dessert menu, which includes black sugar ice jelly and petite, pleasantly chewy sesame-crusted, pumpkin-stuffed mochi pancakes.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, 1618 N.E. Sixth Ave., 503-822-5383, wheatbayportland.com
Qiao Noodle House
A hungry student also plays a role in the house specialty at Qiao Noodle House, another new restaurant less than half a mile up Northeast Weidler Street from Wheat Bay. According to legend, the wife of a scholar studying for his imperial exams on an island in the middle of a lake in Yunnan Province would bring her husband his favorite rice noodle soup each day. But by the time she crossed the bridge to reach him, the broth would be cold, the noodles soggy.
One day, the industrious wife figured out a hack: Packing the broth separately keeps it warm thanks to the protective layer of chicken fat developed at the top, and prevents the noodles and other toppings from overcooking.
Dubbed guoqiao mixian, or Crossing the Bridge noodles, the dish has since spread across the globe, though this is the first version we’ve found in Oregon. The restaurant comes from chef Li Shu Yao, who also owns Pot & Spicy, the Sichuanese dry hot pot parlor on Southeast 82nd Avenue. Li moved to Portland in 2015 after living in New York, where she worked under a Crossing the Bridge noodle master at Yun Nan Flavour Garden in Brooklyn’s Chinatown.
At Qiao (”Bridge”) Noodle House, you’re asked to pick a broth (the tomato base and golden versions are our favorites) and meat (from thin-sliced hot pot-style curls of beef to intriguing rinds of fried pork belly that plump when you cook them). The soup arrives still bubbling in its black cauldron — no need for that protective fat layer — with imported Chinese rice noodles and toppings arranged in little bowls on a tidy tray.
You’re told to work quickly now, sliding in the pink meat and quail egg before the broth cools, followed by as much as you like of yellow corn, black fungus mushrooms, thin-sliced Spam, tofu strips, herbs, peanuts and pickled greens you might mistake for spent tea leaves. Thick noodles go in last, so as to preserve their springiness. (Vegetarians take note: The mushroom broth arrives with egg and Spam unless otherwise requested.) For that quick work, you’re left with a warm, nourishing noodle soup perfect for a cold winter’s day.
Cold and spicy cucumber, tofu skin and pig ear salads, Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken and traditional curly fries round out the short appetizer menu. Takeout orders come with the noodles separated, but the rest of the ingredients dropped in the warm broth. Considering how much plastic packaging is back in play these days, that’s probably for the best. The scholar might not thank you, but the Earth will.
11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, 1409 N.E. Weidler St., 971-319-6159, qiaonoodlehouse.com