Ha VL is probably the worst-kept secret in Portland. Sure, the tiny banh mi shack is tucked almost invisibly into the back end of a Southeast 82nd Avenue strip mall, and its exterior looks a bit like an inner-city smoke house. But its rotating menu of meticulously crafted Vietnamese soups, two each day, has become legend.
The meaty, herbal, elegant compositions of turmeric noodles, snail meatball soup and shrimp-cake vermicelli will indeed shock your taste buds like licking a 9-volt battery, but the story behind the place is just as shocking: Christina Ha Luu founded the shop while William Vuong was in prison for helping the Americans fight Communists during the Vietnam War.
Luu and Vuong now run sister restaurant Rose VL on Powell Boulevard, passing on Ha VL to son Peter Luu—who makes every broth and ingredient fresh each day, lending to the soups' famous aromatic richness. "I don't serve people leftovers," Luu told us with a shrug.
Among can't-miss soups, the bun cha oc snail soup served Thursdays is an innovation off the traditional whole-snail original, morphing the dish into lemongrass-scented snail meatballs to help bring out the flavors. Saturday's bun bo hue is the original one served at Ha VL, with three cuts of meat providing textural dynamics: pork meatloaf has a smooth and even texture, thinly sliced beef round steak is somewhat tougher and pork loin is luxuriant. But maybe the best is the mi quang turmeric soup served on Sundays, made of a riot of pork, shrimp and spice that William Vuong described this way: "Twelve ingredients cooked over low fire for three hours. No one else can make it right."
Ha VL, 2738 SE 82nd Ave., 503-772-0103. 8 am-4 pm Wednesday-Monday. $.
Pro tip: The restaurants don't have websites to tell you which two soups are served each day at Ha and Rose VL. But a local good samaritan maintains a website devoted to doing so. It's at mrgan.com/havl.