The coolest thing that ever happened to my mouth was a delicate, exotic salad roll made for me by my parents' friend Thoy. She was Thai, exotic and beautiful, and she catered parties. To a preteen foodie like me, she was a goddess.
She showed me how to roll softened rice papers around foreign herbs and julienned vegetables-no truckload of yellowing iceberg lettuce, bland noodles or bean sprouts. Each bite was a vehicle for her rich coconut peanut sauce, but the roll possessed layers of flavor all by itself. Now, at the tail end of summer, I have been wistfully hunting for a cool salad roll on par with Thoy's. Here's what I've found.
Typhoon (410 SW Broadway, 224-8285, and other locations): This swanky Thai chain served pretty yet soulless salad rolls. A quartet of small, three-inch mini rolls ($5.50) arrived stuffed with a few shrimp, green leaf lettuce and a few leaves of mint. Something that plain needed an amazing dipping sauce to save it, not watery fish sauce with peanuts floating in it.
Green Papaya (1135 SW Morrison St., 248-2112): Good rolls are rolled tightly and stay together when you dip them. But the $4 plate at this chic downtown spot featured rolls wrapped so tightly they were spring loaded. After one bite everything fell apart-pork, shrimp, slimy bean sprouts, black sesame seeds and a long mint leaf went cascading onto my plate. Papaya's oily, bland peanut sauce didn't help, either.
Pho Van (1919 SE 82nd Ave., 788-5244): Now, these folks understand the value of a tightly wrapped roll ($4.50): perfect cylinders of rice paper stuffed with a layer of sliced shrimp, dry barbecued pork, green leaf lettuce, a few mint leaves and even a garlicky Chinese chive in the center. Served with a thin, salty, hoisin-based peanut sauce, this was a comforting-if tame-version of the rolls I had in mind.
Yen Ha (6820 NE Sandy Blvd., 287-3698): This funky anchor of Sandy Boulevard's "pho row" makes a fine plate of rolls ($3.50) with the standard vermicelli, lettuce and shrimp ingredients, plus bonus innards like peppery rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) and tia to, a purple, anise-flavored herb. Alas, the side dish of grayish-somehow stringy-peanut sauce was just a little too exotic.
Bun Bo Hue (7002 SE 82nd Ave., 771-1141): Never mind the shabby open kitchen, this joint's rolls are the real deal. Two rolls at Hue ($3.50) come bulging with shrimp, pork, iceberg lettuce shreds, carrots and fistfuls of rau ram, mint and coriander. Although they're tasty enough to eat by themselves, the rich hoisin-peanut sauce-topped with crunchy pickled daikon salad-pushed these specimens to the top of the heap. Tightly rolled and packed with herby surprises-plus, a great sauce. So why does this place have to be way down on 82nd Avenue, practically in Milwaukie?
Portland may be "coming up" in the food world, but man, the good food is spread far and wide. Speaking of spread, I've been thinking about where to find a really good hummus and falafel sandwich.
Honorable mention to
(4239 NE Fremont St., 282-0456) for its lemongrass chicken salad roll, though it's mainly an SSD (sauce-scooping device) for delicious warm peanut sauce.