"The food is just plain good," the letter says. I've gotten dozens just like it--sincere missives from concerned readers. They all want Willamette Week to review their favorite place, secure in the belief that it serves the "best" food and I'd just love it.
I usually just toss them. It's not that I don't care what readers think--it's just that the letters usually don't say much. But this letter is different. The author, a woman named Pat, wants to keep a restaurant called Mi Wa open, and she makes a convincing case. She and her husband were the sole diners one night, and she worries the Vietnamese restaurant, one of several along a stretch of Northeast Sandy Boulevard, might close.
Pat describes several of her favorite dishes, notes that the prices were reasonable, and is honest about a couple of things she didn't like. I decide to go.
Mi Wa is empty when I walk in. There's a giant television on in the corner, but I'm greeted warmly by a young man who must be Tommy (Pat had tipped me off in the letter: Tommy's mom does the cooking, he works the dining room.) I order a rice noodle combination and watch the news.
Bun chao tom thit nuong ($7.50) comes in a deep, wide bowl. The bright rice noodles--bun--are surrounded by evenly spaced little piles of sliced green onion and topped with crispy fried shallot and chopped peanuts. Grilled pork, removed from its skewer and sliced, wraps around one side of the bowl. On the other side is the crispy torpedo called chao tom. It's made from fresh shrimp, chopped fine, blended with sugar and salt and a little oil to form a sort of mousse, then shaped into an oblong ball and wrapped around a piece of fresh sugar cane. Grilled until the outside turns brown and crispy, chao tom is shrimp on a stick all grown up.
There's a small bowl of nuoc mam cham, the sweet-hot dipping sauce made with fish sauce, chile paste and lime, and I pour it over the bowl of noodles. The first few bites deliver singular flavors. The sweet chao tom, crispy grilled pork and bland noodles tinged with the pungent nuoc mam cham each taste wonderful. As I dig deeper, I hit the bean sprouts and shredded lettuce flavored with fresh mint and basil, and before long it all melds together into the contrasting couplets of hot and cold, soft and crisp, spicy and sweet.
Pat, I'm thinking, is onto something here. I've been going back and working my way through the menu. Here's what I've liked so far:
The appetizers described as "sweet and sour vegetables" are lightly pickled carrot, cabbage and daikon radish ($7.25 small, $9.25 large). Three different variations offer combinations of shrimp, pork and more exotic ingredients such as baby lotus root, all topped with chopped peanuts and crispy fried shallots.
I think "beef stew served with French bread" ($5.50) might be like a daube, the meat simmered in red wine with root vegetables, another cultural artifact left from the long French occupation of Vietnam. Banh mi bo kho turns out to be a deeply flavored stock, tinged with hints of vinegar, black pepper and red chile, and filled with thin slices of onion and beef that's mostly fat and connective tissue. But the flavor is too good to pass up, so I take it home, fish out the fatty chunks, pick the shreds of meat off, and save it for lunch.
The banh xeo ($5.50) hides a mound of bean sprouts, onion, sliced pork, and shrimp under a paper-thin, rice-flour crêpe. You eat it by wrapping pieces in lettuce leaves with cilantro sprigs and dipping them in a sauce of soy, lime and chile. The pepper salted squid ($9.75) have that thin, crispy coating spiked with coarse salt, and the platter is mounded with lightly cooked onion and fresh jalapeño. More pedestrian but still good is the Chinese-influenced stir-fried beef with black bean sauce ($6.75).
The food is far from perfect. Some dishes are marred by a tinny, preservative flavor that comes from using pre-chopped garlic out of a jar.
Mi Wa, as Pat wrote, is not "fancy, trendy, in the 'right' neighborhood, or expensive." But the menu holds more than few gems, and they're all less than 10 bucks.
Pat ended her letter with a plea. "If...you have a bad experience," she wrote, "please don't give them a bad review. Just forget all about them and send me back my letter, and I'll eat it, with nuoc mam." Don't worry, Pat. Save your appetite, and the nuoc mam, for Mi Wa.
6852 NE Sandy Blvd., 493-7460. 10 am-9 pm Monday and Wednesday- Friday, 9 am-9 pm Saturday - Sunday. $ Inexpensive
Rice noodle combination, sweet and sour vegetables, beef stew, pepper salted squid