South Waterfront needs a little character. Not just the kind you build with a multimillion-dollar aerial tram, but the kind that comes with dents and dings—a little tarnish on all that newly minted shine. Unfortunately, Bambuza Vietnam Bistro, located on the lower level of the towering John Ross building, doesn’t deliver on that count yet.
Opened last April by Daniel and Katherine Nguyen, the husband-and-wife duo behind Seattle’s Pike Street Bambuza, the upscale concept, menu, and bamboo decor of the PDX counterpart feel oddly corporate. The canned Asian music is a little too loud, the entryway display of Vietnamese and French foods too precious, and the menu 80-plus items just way too much.
Bambuza’s mainly Vietnamese menu offers everything from pho and noodle bowls to salad rolls and curries. Although the green papaya salad ($7.50), a Viet-standby, doesn’t exactly shine, it’s fresh and heaping. The thinly sliced papaya tossed with grated carrot and cilantro is doused in the requisite chile-spiked fish sauce and topped with four skewered, grilled shrimp.
The house salad rolls ($5.50)—other salad-roll options include vegetarian, smoked salmon and coconut-jicama—are also good. The rice-skin-wrapped shrimp, Thai basil, carrot, rice stick noodles and crunchy cigarillos of fried wonton wrapper do the trick with peanut sauce for dipping.
But the claypot catfish ($11.50) lurking in the house-specialties section of the menu, signals a turn for the worse. Served in a shallow cast-iron dish, the sauce is piping hot, but the miserly portion of catfish is just a notch above body temperature. The dish is a spill of sugar and sodium glugged in oil that even the coldest and most carbonated of Pan-Asian beers can’t cut through.
The sugarcane shrimp noodle bowl ($9.50) is another disappointment. Pinkish, overly salted shrimp paste is wrapped around small sections of sugarcane (meant to be chewed and sucked on) and steamed until dense and rubbery. For the sake of freshness the bowl includes cucumber, carrot and plain rice noodles with fish sauce.
On the bright side, Bambuza’s shareable wonton dumpling soup ($11.90) is not so heavy-handed. The mild and slightly sweet chicken broth is brimming with baby bok choy, carrots, scallions and, of course, wontons. The wontons are melt-in-your-mouth housemade pork and shrimp dumplings with long and thin bunched skins that unfurl in the deep bowl of broth.
Although there are better options for Vietnamese food in Portland—and not just on 82nd Avenue, either—Bambuza fills a niche for the SoWa office lunch crowd (everything on the menu’s $8.50 or less at lunch) and “while-we’re-in-the-neighborhood” diners. But if Bambuza hopes to attract a serious following—one not born out of necessity—it should pare down the menu, focus on a few standout specials, and, please, ditch the Asian elevator music.