Case in point: The first item on the menu is a rarity in Portland, a Viet-Cajun crawfish boil.
The building looks like a computer-parts outlet, and the dining room resembles a bizarro-world burger shop, with tables striped like barber poles. The lazy Susan of a location has been at various points a taqueria, a pho house and a Chinese restaurant that hosted marijuana meet-ups. It also recently sported a bar, Seeznin's, that Portland police accused of being a gang hangout (a sad story, that one.)
But goodbye to all that.
Whatever the utilitarian sparseness of its décor, Simply Vietnamese quickly feels homey as a hearth. It's as if you've been invited to someone's house for dinner after they've just moved in: There are a few boxes in the corner, and they haven't made a full grocery trip, but they're pretty sure they can whip up something for you.
The menu is, indeed, still under heavy negotiation three months after opening. Various items are whited-out and added depending on availability. On two trips, two different servers excitedly suggested off-menu substitutions.
One was a calamari-ring and onion dish that arrived steaming in tinfoil with a light chili sauce heavy on lemongrass, garlic and herb ($11), with a flavor profile that surprisingly recalled cioppino. The other was a five-spiced, medium-rare goat tenderloin ($15) topped with caramelized onion.
The goat, we were told, had been bought from a farmer in the hills near Vancouver, and freshly carved in a slaughterhouse on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. The steaks brimmed with goat's distinctive flavor, and the juicy interior was finished with a gentle char on the outside.
The five-spice seasoning was perhaps a bit light on heat, but this was remedied by a brush with the dipping sauce, made with Thai chili in a bath of salt.
Among menu items, Simply Vietnamese has a small section devoted to your basic pho or bun tom thit nuong or bun cha gio vermicelli (each $7), but these are without particular distinction. The real action is in the specialty section, which includes sweetly honey-braised quail ($13) and some of my favorite fried wings in the city, a mound of fish-sauce-spiked canh ga-chien nuoc mam ($6). The sour notes come through less than the sweetness and salt, leading to savory, kettle-corny junk food. The tart tamarind-coated wings—canh ga ranh me ($6)—popped too sweetly on first taste, but once the sugar coated my mouth and overtook my senses, it was difficult not to eat well past satiety.
The tom kho cu kieu ($7)— dried shrimp and pickled green-onion bulb—were a boldly spicy-sour assault on the senses, and so served best as a bar snack, but were eventually wearying. The onions hadn't been brined quite long enough, which in this case overtaxed the sinuses.
A highlight, on the other hand, was the de xao lan ($13), another goat dish; the slight grassiness of the meat blended beautifully with prodigious peanuts, green-onion shoots and basil.
The bar section, it should be noted, has always-available karaoke with a distinctly Vietnamese selection of tunes. On multiple visits, singers of all ages took the stage in tight rotation, among a small, familiar crowd. The woman in charge of the karaoke frequently asked if we had songs we wanted to sing. We politely declined, but almost regretted turning down the invitation. As we left on a Monday visit, we received an invitation we were much more likely to take up.
- Order this: Get their goat!
- Best deal: The $6 orders of wings are extremely generous.
- Iâll pass: Just stick to the left side of the menu. (Although, take note: We did not get a chance to try either of the massive hot pots.)
EAT: Simply Vietnamese, 2218 NE 82nd Ave., 208-3391. 7 am-10 pm Monday-Friday, 9 am-10 pm Saturday-Sunday. $-$$.