A new front has opened in Bellevue's ongoing battle to win over fans of Sichuanese cooking: Three of the city's leading restaurants have established Portland locations in the past year.
"The Portland area is really lacking in more authentic Chinese," says Dietmar Schimmel, who owns Bamboo Garden with his wife, Stacy Zhong. "So if you focus on authentic, you can really attract a following."
Last September, Schimmel and Zhong opened Taste of Sichuan in the Portland suburb of Beaverton; they opted not to reuse the name they'd chosen in 2007 as a reference to the restaurant's decorative bamboo (not realizing a Lower Queen Anne restaurant was already operating under the same name). "We thought about Bamboo Sprout, like an offshoot, but we said 'This is too silly'," Schimmel recalls.
But there wasn't anything silly about tapping a new market. Soon after Taste of Sichuan opened, Spiced moved into Beaverton and Szechuan Chef opened a location in Portland proper.
"The Chinese community is pretty close-knit, so nothing stays a secret," Schimmel says. "A delegation from Spiced was there to check us out on opening day."
The Oregonian's Michael Russell raved about Taste of Sichuan in a May review, calling the restaurant "a tiny bit of heaven." "Taste of Sichuan has quickly become one of the most exciting, satisfying, and best Chinese restaurants in the metro area," he wrote. Russell was less impressed with Szechuan Chef, which he reviewed August 24. He faulted the spicing and compared the restaurant's greens to dishwater, but charitably concluded, "Still, Szechuan Chef is more interesting and ambitious than 90 percent of the Chinese restaurants in Portland. If you've ever bemoaned Portland's lack of good Chinese food, it appears someone has been listening. And they live in Washington."
Although Schimmel and Zhong have succeeded in Beaverton, Schimmel doesn't think many more of Seattle's Chinese restaurateurs will follow them down I-5. Although he describes Beaverton as demographically similar to Bellevue, he isn't sure how many Sichuanese restaurants it can support. "Too many places open, you're going to reach a saturation point and one of them is going to go down," Schimmel says.
The menus at Bamboo Garden and Taste of Sichuan are nearly identical, but Schimmel says the restaurants' chefs have slightly different seasoning styles. And since Taste of Sichuan is located in a former Marie Callender's, there's room for xiao long bao production.
Xiao long bao is flypaper for food lovers, but Schimmel says Beaverton diners were enthusiastic about the restaurant even before they knew it would serve Chinese food. "It was a really unique experience because when we started renovating, people were coming by to ask when we'd open," Schimmel says. "The whole area is under-served."