Portland’s Old School Chinese-American Restaurants

When Portland’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant, the Republic Cafe, opened in 1922, people in China weren’t loading their forks with egg foo young and sipping old fashioneds in bars strung with fringed lanterns. No, they were negotiating famine and political unrest in the country’s first republic after centuries of imperial rule. Their bowls held very different meals.

But in the United States, it was the age of Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu. Asian-inspired motifs permeated fashion, movies, and decor. Flappers donned red silk pajamas. Movie houses showcased Anna May Wong’s latest films. And Americans demanded “Chinese” food. By the time the Republic Cafe. opened its doors, the Chinese-American restaurant had become as much of an icon as the diner.

In Portland, this era has been slipping away with the closures of the Pagoda, the Golden Dragon, Lung Fung, Tigard’s Hi Hat, and others.

Nearly every longtime Portlander has a story about a late night at the now-closed Hung Far Low. However, a few bastions of first-wave Chinese-American cuisine remain, among them the Republic Cafe. and the Canton Grill.

The Republic Cafe opened in what’s now known as Old Town Chinatown — which was once one of Portland’s three main neighborhoods for Chinese immigrants from the Guangdong province, the hub of Cantonese China and the origin of what generations of Americans have considered Chinese cuisine. Although the Republic Cafe. survives as Portland’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant, it isn’t its first, by far. The Royal Canton Grill at Park and Alder, for instance, served chop suey as early as 1909 before its building was razed and goods auctioned off in 1917.

For years, the Republic Cafe. was the city’s “go to” Chinese-American restaurant. Its location and late hours — open until 4 a.m. on weekends — made it a favorite with traveling entertainers, including Henry Fonda and Danny Kaye. Harry Belafonte enjoyed cocktails in the restaurant’s Ming Lounge. Jewish families lined up for takeout for the Sabbath. The restaurant was booked solid on Mother’s Day.

As Portlanders’ tastes changed, the Republic Café stuck to its guns. Its current owners, Cantonese natives Wing Wei Mui and Sue Lie Mui, took over the Republic in 1997. Their son, Ivan, born just after the Muis immigrated in 1991, works as host.

When asked what changed when his parents assumed management, Ivan responds, “Absolutely nothing.” His father added a few items to the menu but kept the old favorites, including the restaurant’s signature ABC Salad with stir-fried jumbo shrimp, chicken chunks, and ham. The cocktail menu certainly looks original, with its long list of classic cocktails. Regulars will warn you that the naugahyde benches might well be original, too. Watch out for springs.

The Ming Lounge does a good business, but customers today are more likely to order a bourbon with a beer back than an elaborate postnightclub cocktail. Video poker machines flicker in the adjacent room. Here, too, the décor has faded, but the brass lotus-shaped lamps and peeling wallpaper depicting stylized Chinese gardens are still romantic.

Ultimately, the wise diner eats at the Republic Café not for its haute cuisine, but for comfort — a taste of the familiar and generous portions of it.

Across town on 82nd Avenue, Fred Louis opened the Canton Grill in 1944 with the support of other members of the Cantonese community. The restaurant has been in the family ever since. Today, Fred Louis Jr. runs it with the help of his daughter, Cindy Louis.

Fred Jr. remembers the restaurant as it was in 1955 when he was assigned to peeling onions in the alley at the age of 14. “Legs of veal hung in the kitchen. Whole halibuts were delivered. We had all fresh vegetables and got some of them from neighbors. Of course, we had a lot of help. Labor was cheaper then.”

As with the Republic Café, the Canton Grill’s menu has stuck to the Chinese-American standards, including chop suey, egg foo young, chow mein, and fried rice. “Combinations two, three, and four haven’t changed at all,” Cindy says. The Canton Grill’s customers depend on a familiar menu year after year, and generations of families have passed through its doors demanding the same cocktail upon being seated and the same dinner to follow.

That said, over the years, the restaurant and its Dragon Lounge has adjusted with the times, from installing a piano bar (“The piano bar is now in my dad’s garage,” Cindy notes) to a disco ball (“It got destroyed one New Year’s Eve when someone thought he should swat it down,” Fred Jr. says) to karaoke and the inevitable video poker machines.

Fred Jr. attributes the disappearance of the Cantonese-style Chinese-American restaurant to a few factors. First, running a restaurant is hard business — something second-generation Chinese-Americans might not want to take on. “The parents open the restaurant, and the children go on to become doctors,” he says. “Chinese restaurants have paid a lot of college tuition.”

Also, when Portland’s first Chinese restaurants took root, there weren’t many Chinese Portlanders, and laws discouraged immigration. Since 1950, Portland’s Chinese population has quintupled, and Portlanders have become more food savvy. Many favor a more authentic style of Chinese food over the cultural mishmash that Americans have long considered to be Chinese. East Portland has blossomed with restaurants that reflect China’s varied provinces and cooking styles in a more representative way.

Cindy is not sure she’ll carry on the Canton Grill after her father, now 75 years old, retires. Fortunately for fans of old-style Chinese-American food, he shows no signs of slowing down.

Every August, to celebrate another year of business, the Canton Grill sells the Honolulu cocktail for a dollar. The Honolulu has been a tradition at the restaurant for as long as Fred Jr. remembers, and he gives credit to Jimmy, a longtime bartender in the Dragon Lounge, for starting the tradition in the late 1940s.

Republic Café 222 NW 4th Ave, Portland 503-226-4388 • republiccafeportland.com

Canton Grill 2610 SE 82nd Ave, Portland 503-774-1135 • canton-grill.com

Angela Sanders writes about food, culture, and history from Portland. www.angelamsanders.com