In a gauzy dream sequence, I am beckoned to a remote area of town to check out a dingy, under-the-radar ethnic joint where every dish is a stunning success of bright, bold, exotic flavors. I'm the only non-native there to enjoy the demonstration of unblemished culinary artistry. "Everyone should know about this place," I think. But dreamtime ends with an alarm clock's jangle, the identity of the joint lost behind the wall of wakefulness.
Reality at Fish Sauce, a 6-month-old Vietnamese restaurant on a quiet corner just west of the Pearl District, departs at an acute angle from the dream ideal. It's not remote, most of the clientele sports a distinctly pale skin tone, and the food is up and down. Chosen carefully, there are enough attractive offerings to make Fish Sauce a worthwhile stop. The word is out, too, and the joint has been jumping whenever I've dropped in for a bite.
Two memorable appetizers highlight the menu's opening khai vi section. Freshly constructed, warm bò bía (jicama rolls, $7) get crunch from the namesake ingredient and a fermented-meat baritone boost from sweet Chinese sausage. The other star starter is bánh bèo ($6), a disc of rice-flour batter steamed until firm in a small, shallow bowl, then topped with a choice of yellow bean paste, minced shrimp, bits of crisp-fried pork belly, or a chicken and mushroom mixture. At four to an order, try all the variations at once and spoon liberally from the bowl of boisterous chili- and palm sugar-enhanced fish sauce at the center of the serving platter.
Among main courses, the best I sampled were gà chiên ($10 half, $17 whole), deeply bronzed, crispy-skinned fried chicken that was moist throughout. Accents came from small but ample sides of Sriracha, flaming sambal oelek and a mix-it-yourself dish of salt, pepper and lime. A second top choice: Korean-style crosscut kalbi short ribs ($16), grilled simply and imbued with a sweet-garlicky flavor. The meat is tender, with just enough chew to keep things interesting and the portion fair-sized for the price.
On the two-item dessert menu, order the bánh mè ($2), a deep-fried, sesame-coated sphere of rice dough filled with a yellow bean paste and coconut and served with honey for dunking. Skip the chuoi chiên ($5), a rice-paper-wrapped fried banana that arrived a goopy mess in a puddle of coconut milk, tapioca and never-admit-it Hershey's sauce.
Several deficiencies remain at Fish Sauce, but for the most part fall into common (and remediable) categories. The chao tôm appetizer ($8), ground shrimp pressed around a segment of sugar cane and fried, lacked any discernible seasoning; broth for the pho ($11) was assertively flavored though I strongly suspect short cuts were taken to avoid the long process of reducing beef bones, spices and water down to a pure, rich distillation; and the gà Hainan (poached chicken in a southern Chinese style, $9) with a gingery soy and fish sauce dunk was fine, but the customary accompaniments of chicken stock-enhanced steamed rice and chicken broth were missed.
Unlike the dreamscape, Fish Sauce is pleasantly designed. Sit at comfortable tables for two, stools at the bar or at kitchen counters that are arrayed along either side of a 15-foot-long, repurposed wooden beam. Clever light fixtures rely on Mason jars and wooden pallets. A large chalk drawing high behind the bar illustrates the journey from fish in the sea to fish sauce in the bottle. I imagine the fishing boat bobbing, silvery fish schooling, and the smell of sea salt and the cosmic funk of months-long fermentation. Reality yields again to the dream world and another chance to glimpse potential fully realized.
- Order this: Kalbi barbecue beef ($16) and bÃ¡nh mÃ¨ (sesame balls, $2).
- Best deal: BÃ¡nh bÃ¨o (steamed rice cakes, $6).
- Iâll pass: Chuoi chiÃªn (fried banana, $5).
EAT: Fish Sauce, 407 NW 17th Ave., 227-8000, fishsaucepdx.com. 11:30 am-2:30 pm Monday-Friday. 4:30-10 pm Monday-Saturday. $$-$$$.