Put it in your mouth

Beneath much of Portland’s downtown area lies a vast network of tunnels dating back to the mid-nineteenth century. The dark, dank underground labyrinth played a vital role in the city’s dark history of human trafficking, used to hide unsuspecting kidnapped victims before being sold into slave labor aboard trade ships setting out to sea. Southwest Ankeny Street’s Shanghai Tunnel attempts to recreate a bit of that macabre history – in bar form.

The dark basement bar, dimly lit by red Chinese lanterns and a large aquarium glowing in the corner and accented by Asian art on the otherwise black walls, achieves a strange compromise between dive bar and downtown trendy spot. Somehow, the blend between the dim light, black vinyl diner booths and trendy pan-Asian cuisine and cocktails finds a happy medium that is far more interesting than any one of its parts. Indie kids come for a step up from their usual dinginess, while spillover from the Barracuda dance club come by to feel like they’re slumming it.

While one can find the bar sparsely populated during weekday dinner hours, the late nights and weekend are usually packed, especially after the shows at the neighboring clubs end. Between the roar of conversation in the somewhat cramped space and the constantly-booming early-’90s throwback music, it can be hard to hear your friends sitting across the table.

The highlight on the food menu is, without a doubt, the noodle bowls, served with a colorful assortment of veggies. A selection of four sauces-curry, peanut, “drunk” (a mushroom, soy, and basil sauce) and “the general” (sweet and sour)-and four bases-udon noodles, glass noodles, plain rice or jasmine rice-provides enough combinations to warrant a few return trips.

The creamy curry and peanut sauces are particularly good. The $7 price tag ($2 more to add chicken or tofu) might seem a bit steep for basically glorified bento, but it’s seriously good bento.

The rest of the menu features and eclectic assortment ranging from Asian-influenced fare like the ever-trendy edamame (sea-salted soy beans) to the more standard bar food like the well sized “B.A.M.F.” burger ($8) and the “Luna,” ($6) a quesadilla filled with black beans, a blend of three cheeses and fresh salsa.

The drinks, while perhaps a bit pricier than what you might find at some other locales, are expertly mixed and, shall we say, generous. Muddled drinks like kamikazes and vodka lemonades are definitely a highlight. The bar also has an eclectic selection of beers on twelve taps, with everything from Pabst to classy swill like Chimay.

The bartenders, while often seemingly overworked, are usually friendly and always have creative drink ideas if you’re feeling adventurous. If you just give your barkeep free reign over your choice of drink, they won’t let you down. Some hidden treasures include the “Blood Orange,” a mysterious green concoction of muddled lime, black vodka, amaretto, orange juice and assorted other ingredients, or another unnamed mixture of whiskey, fresh ginger, bitters, lemon and ginger ale. For truly dedicated inebriates, the Shanghai Tunnel’s Long Island Ice Tea, while a bit pricey at $10, is pretty tasty for something with four normal drinks’ worth of booze in it.

The Shanghai tunnel also has a decent happy hour from 4-7 p.m. Monday through Friday with a few choice menu items like the burger and quesadilla at reduced prices and $1 off draft beers and well drinks.

Shanghai Tunnel makes a great place to escape the absurd pretentiousness and vacuous trendiness that plagues many of its downtown neighbors. While it would be nice if the food prices were a dollar or two less, the well-made and eclectic dishes and finely mixed stiff drinks make the Shanghai Tunnel resoundingly worthy of being put in your mouth. Just keep an eye out for shifty-looking sailors.