As much as Portland, Maine, has become an unlikely destination for Thai food, ramen, and sushi over the past few years, I continued to mourn the city's absence of good Chinese food. But it was only a matter of time before that changed.
The Empire actually had a previous life as a Chinese restaurant back in the first half of the 20th century. (The retro signage on Congress Street suggests as much.) But it's only been since September that Theresa Chan and Todd Bernard took over and revamped the downtown space and launched Empire Chinese Kitchen. Hemingway might have described it as a clean, well-lighted place; like many neighboring restaurants, its interior is big on windows and wood and cool light fixtures. It's no dive.
There's plenty familiar about the menu, which sticks largely to Cantonese cuisine, particularly dim sum favorites like fluffy barbecue pork buns, shu mai, meat- and mushroom-stuffed pockets of sticky rice, and har gow, translucent shrimp dumplings. But the kitchen also takes some ownership of its food, tweaking dishes to reflect local ingredients and, frankly, its own preferences.
Case in point: The Lobster Longevity Noodles ($19). Lobster is actually a traditional (if upscale) protein option for this dish, and makes perfect geographical sense on this menu. Serving it in the shell makes the presentation impressive but also messy. Be prepared to get in there with your hands to get the meat out of the shell, which is battered and lightly fried before being coated with a garlic- and scallion-heavy sauce that's faintly sweet with tequila.
Oddly, Empire's take usually swaps out the usual pleasantly chewy wheat-egg noodles, a Cantonese variety known as yi mein that's popular for birthday celebrations (hence the "longevity" tag), for fresh rice noodles. It just so happened that the day I went, they were out of the rice noodles and subbed in thin, egg noodles that more closely resembled the usual strands. They were a bit too delicate but still springy and tasted great.