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Taste tests

Chinatown eatery closes culinary gap between Guangzhou and Portland

They don't advertise and trees block their rather unassuming sign, but Good Taste Restaurant is packed daily for lunch. The customers lined up for a table aren't just the local business crowd, but owners, chefs and workers of some of Portland's well-known restaurants who come for the pork, duck and honest, well-prepared Cantonese fare.

Not to be confused with In Good Taste, the Pearl District foodie Mecca for wine, classes and kitchen paraphernalia, Good Taste Restaurant is a mere 25 yards from the Northwest Fourth Avenue gateway into Chinatown.

Stepping into the restaurant, the first thing you notice is the hanging ducks. Beaks on, caramel-colored barbecue ducks let the diner know that Good Taste restaurant is not catering to the tourist crowd.

Behind the hanging ducks and barbecue pork is the chopping block, a special round of wood sent annually from Oakland. Joe Chen, the owner's son, washes his hands, grabs a duck and, with the heft from a large cleaver, deftly chops up a duck into bite-size pieces.

The barbecue pork is what Good Taste is best known for, and it is perfect. They start with fresh pork raised in McMinnville. Then, instead of marinating it, they soak it overnight in brine, a saline solution, maybe a little sugar, and perhaps some saltpeter. (Saltpeter keeps red meat red.)

Both the duck and pork are roasted in a special, custom-made oven more than 6 feet tall designed to cook tall items hanging at a high temperature, sealing in the flavor without drying the meat. As a result, the pork crackles with flavor, and every bite is moist.

Ann Cohen, co-owner of Hungry Tiger at Southeast 28th Avenue, is a big fan, eating at Good Taste weekly: 'They make the best barbecue pork and roast pig in town. If I need a roast pig for a big family celebration, I give them a call.'

Good Taste Restaurant serves more than 250 ducks a week. Like the pork, the ducks are quick-roasted in the special oven and end up crispy and glistening, with the juices sealed in.

The rice plate with roasted duck arrives with the skin slightly crackled and when you bite into it, the juice drips down your chin. Duck has a much meatier flavor than chicken and, for the adventurous eater, is a real treat. The meal is a great value, served over rice with steamed bok choy.

Also excellent is the wonton soup. Each wonton is handmade daily and stuffed with a mixture of pork, shrimp and garlic and the slightest amount of star anise. There's a shrimp in every one! Order it 'dry' and the meal comes with the stuffed wontons on a plate, and the broth on the side, perfect for dipping.

Oon choy with bean cake sauce is another surprise. Also known as tubular or straw vegetable, oon choy is a hollow leafy vegetable. The tang of the bean curd offsets the oon choy's oxalic acid Ñ the same acid in spinach that causes your tongue to tingle.

Pepper and salted fresh squid is a difficult dish to do well. The chef must have a hot wok to brown the squid properly without burning it. Dredged in rice flour, the same flour used in tempura gives it a nice crust. The result is squid that is crisp and chewy at the same time, exploding with flavor. Served on a bed of wok-fried onions, scallions and jala-pe–os, the pepper and salted squid is a reason to return.

The food at Good Taste is not greasy and doesn't leave an oily film in your mouth or on your plate. This is because they are not afraid to use high heat when cooking, which seals the flavor in and doesn't allow the small amount of oil to absorb. It takes a masterful chef to cook with such high heat and not burn the food.

The place has a simple interior Ñ white walls, white suspended office ceiling and mirror on the back wall to make the place seem twice as stark and clinical. The entire restaurant is exceedingly clean, even the kitchen during midday.

Annie Cheng-Chang, a local banker and frequent diner, says, 'Good Taste is not the high-end place to celebrate but the place that reminds me most of good cooking back home.'

Owner Cenian Chen came from Guangzhou, China, settled down in the San Francisco Bay Area for a short time, then moved his family to Portland. Here his style of cooking stands out from other local Chinese restaurants.

It is rare that non-Asians seek out the place, and it can be intimidating if you're the only person not speaking Cantonese, but Chen and his family make all guests feel welcome.

Just don't expect a fortune cookie Ñthat's an American tradition.