by J.D. Roth

Most Chinese food — or what passes for Chinese food in Oregon — isn’t very good. There are some truly lousy Chinese restaurants in Portland. (As opposed to, say, Mexican restaurants, where you can almost always find good, cheap tacos.)

In Salem, Kris and I were fond of Tong King Garden, a little hole-in-the-wall with spotty service, cheap prices, and good food. Compared to other Chinese places, it was delicious. (It probably helped that it was the first Chinese restaurant I ever tried.)

Here in Oak Grove, I’m a fan of Imperial Garden, which sits on the Superhighway, next to G.I. Joes. Imperial Garden has the best service I have ever encountered in any restaurant. Their lunch specials are awesome: $4.50 gets you tea, hot-and-sour soup, steamed rice, two pork wontons, a spring roll, and an entree of your choice. The food is good — it’s the only other good Chinese restaurant I know besides Tong King Garden.

Except for Sungari, that is.

Sungari is in a class of its own. Using a bell-curve scale, if Canby’s Gold Dragon is a 2, most Chinese places rate a 4, and the two places I mentioned above rate a 7, then Sungari rates a solid 9. Maybe higher.

What makes Sungari worth raving about? The food is just so damn good. Dave introduced me to the place (as he’s done with so many other good restaurants — Nicholas Lebanese springs immediately to mind) a couple years ago. I was only mildly impressed. I was in a foul mood, and wasn’t focused on the food.

Last year, Kris and Tiffany and I stopped there before our tour of the Portland Underground. Though we were rushed, our dinners were good. So good, in fact, that Tiffany has been back a couple times since. And when it came time to choose a restaurant for her birthday dinner, she requested Sungari.

Last Sunday we went back — our meal was fantastic.

To start, we shared an appetizer plate of prawns, spring rolls, and five-spice beef. (The latter of which was the only dud of the evening.) For dinner:

All of these were delicious. I know many people eat family-style in Chinese restaurants. Kris and I never have. But we did on Sunday. We each tried all three dishes, and were delighted. The Sesame Beef was the stand-out: lightly breaded and fried, the meat has a crisp texture, and the sauce is sweet and savory all at once. The pork was not as crispy as the beef, though lightly coated. It had a distinct buttery first note, followed by a taste of spices, and finishing with a bit of a peppery kick.

Really, though, I could have eaten the Sesame Beef all night.

It’s also fun that Sungari is located on first, along the MAX line. In fact, the train takes a corner around the restaurant, so that one can watch it pass during the meal. It’s entertaining. It’s also entertaining to watch the heavy foot traffic nearby.

The real drawback to Sungari is that it’s expensive (for Chinse food). Whereas I could feed three people for $16 at Imperial Garden, it costs $72 to do so at Sungari. But what a meal!

Updated: 28 September 2006

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