Sellwood’s newest Taiwanese restaurant, Wei Wei, sits unassumingly tucked within the SE 13th mini strip mall. Burrowed between a nail salon and a corner bodega, it’s easy to mistakenly pass without a second glance, but that would be profoundly foolish.
Should you find it and make it through their doors, you’ll be greeted with an unexpectedly bright, fresh space. The minimalist interior comprises a wall-sized hand-written chalkboard menu, stark white tables, and cheery pops of bright yellow. The small, but applicable space hosts only a handful of tables: three 2-tops, two 4-tops, and a counter that seats 4. Peak-time lunch and dinner hours fill up fast, but you can always order take-out if you can’t score a seat.
You’ll almost certainly see Judy, the owner, making her rounds in the dining room. She’s the one talking to the regulars, offering menu advice, and scurrying to and from the kitchen. The restaurant is named after her. Wei Wei (pronounced way way) is the endearing nickname her family and friends call her, stemming from her Chinese name Hsiao-wei. Food and cooking have always been a primary part of Judy’s life. Her parents have been in the restaurant business since she was a child, allowing her and her siblings to “simply learn from the very best from a very young age.”
Judy’s parents also helped her open Wei Wei, coming out of retirement to do so, and can often be spotted in the kitchen. “Am I ever grateful,” Judy notes. “They are the main reason our food has been so well received.” Together, they curated a menu based on the nostalgic Taiwanese cuisine they remember before coming to the states. “The main focus of our food is Taiwanese street food and homestyle cooking, specifically the old-time flavors from back in the 70’s and 80’s.” But a lot has changed since then, Judy explains. “Our version of the beef noodle soup is becoming increasingly more difficult to find in Taiwan as the flavors have evolved so much since we moved away.”
The menu, much like the decor and overall focus of the restaurant, is simple, clean, and concise. There may be an appetizer or dessert special, such as punchy cucumber and Sichuan pepper salad or fragrant coconut-lime cookies. There will certainly be their infamous steamed bao buns, skillfully-presented grilled squid, and crispy, layered scallion pancakes. Bao comes in two variations, dependent on your mood: as palm-sized sliders filled with beef, chicken, or pork belly, or as pan-fried beauties stuffed with pork and vegetables. These are the epitome of Taiwanese street food, and there’s no better place in Portland to try them than here.
If you didn’t fill up on bao (although we wouldn’t blame you if you did), your main dish can be enjoyed in either bowl or plate. Wei Wei’s soups are generous vessels of house-made noodles in either broth or dry form. The soups feature wheat or glass noodles, with options including pork, beef with pickled mustard greens, or a vegan-friendly fried tofu. Perhaps their most popular soup, the Spicy House Noodles, is an old, rare recipe that’s even hard to find in Taiwan. Judy’s parents, however, could make it in their sleep. The dry noodle soup is laced with soy-braised pork, water chestnut, shiitake mushrooms, and nutty sesame oil. The spicy component comes in the form of a personalized squeeze bottle of chili oil that puts you in complete control of the heat.
Next, there’s the rice plates. With only two options (chicken or pork chop), the crowd-favorite seems to be the pork—and for very good reason. The thick, bone-in pork chop is marinated overnight in a house spice blend before beingdredged in gluten-free flour and deep-fried to order. This popular Taiwanese dish took Judy months of trial-and-error to perfect. “We ate a lot of pork chop,” she laughs.It was worth the wait. The crispier-than-average chop is perfectly cooked and tender, with a surprisingly delicate, tempura-like crunch. Spicy soy vinegar (found at the help-yourself corner condiment table), is a fine match for the meat. Plates are served with equally flavorful mixed grain rice—the “cherry on top” being the sauce, made from braised pork belly, spices, and soy sauce. Seasonal vegetables and a hard-boiled soy-braised egg outfit the lovely, tasty accessories.
Other menu components include seafood (wine-finished shrimp, mackerel, and grilled saury) and inspired vegan dishes such as sautéed wild yams. There’s several gluten-free options, too. Take your time with the tea list. The catalog is carefully curated and offers both hot and cold options. A stern suggestion, especially for sticky summer heat, is the iced winter melon tea. This favored Taiwanese drink, made from a giant, watermelon-like gourd is pleasantly sweet and refreshing.
If you’ve never experienced Taiwanese fare, Wei Wei is a perfect place to start. The family-friendly space is inviting, the menu is not overwhelming, and the flavors are delicious by any translation, and subtle in their heat. The communal-style service ensures you’re always attended to, but be patient while the small kitchen prepares your meal. Oh, and be sure to say hello to Judy for us.