Zen Chinese Bistro
You can get hot and sour soup most anywhere. It’s at the mall food court, doctored with MSG. It’s at that crappy Chinese joint you visited as a kid, where cheap plastic buddhas sat gathering dust near vinyl booths. It’s always decent, but for most people, nothing special. But it just so happens to be my favorite thing about takeout: it’s warm, comforting, tangy, and textured. And Zen Chinese Bistro does it exactly right.
It might seem odd to focus on such an expected dish when Zen offers so many unique delights (a fresh stir fry of lobster tails and vegetables stands out in my memory), but often I find these standard dishes to be a great indicator of whether or not Ill be coming back a second time. From the first spoonful of Zen’s bright and complex soup (so different from the flavored mush I enjoyed as a kid) I was hooked. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that it was the sweet mango cocktail that hooked me, and the soup that sealed the deal. Either way, Zen Chinese Bistro is worth a visit, and a second, and a third, too.
What sets Zen apart from the pack is its commitment to great ingredients and healthy eating. Not only does the menu offer a variety of well marked gluten-free and vegan options, but every dish, even those rich with savory bites of beef, tastes crisp and wholesome. One dish included perfectly fried pieces of tofu, crunchy on the outside and silky soft on the inside. This was paired with nearly intact heads of baby bok choy. The bulbous greens had a nice bite at the base, yet their green tops were wilted and tender, a great vehicle for the spicy, salty sauce. Even the dumplings, which are never really the most healthy items to order, were rich with flavor without the telltale sheen of grease. Served steaming hot with a mild dipping sauce, they provided just enough decadence to offset all my tofu consumption.
Another bright spot in our meal came from my companion’s dish, which he kindly let me finish. Staff photographer Sean Thomas ordered the organic wide rice noodles, which came with succulent pieces of beef and slightly charred scallions. The dish was delicious, and when served in Zen’s open and welcoming dining room, it felt like something very special, indeed. While Zen does offer takeout, you should put down the phone and pull on your boots. Slide up to the bar and order a cocktail, or find a table upstairs, where the decor is minimal and leafy plants perch on every spare space. It’s enough to make you briefly forget the slushy, brown mess outside. Especially once you add that mango cocktail.
45 Danforth St. | Portland | 207.775.6888 | zenchinesebistro.com