It isn't usually a great sign at a Vietnamese restaurant when you order "pho tai nam" and your server has no idea what you're talking about. That soup—pho beef noodle with lean brisket—is perhaps the most common order at American Vietnamese eateries. But at comfortably upscale Hem 23 (1514 NW 23rd Ave., 971-352-6138, hem23.com) in Slabtown, from Saigon-born owner Tuan Lam of suburban chain La Sen, it's unlikely that many patrons will order dishes by their Vietnamese names. More than a month in, it's even less likely they'll be understood if they do.
Like fellow cocktail-happy westside Viet spots Fish Sauce and Luc Lac, Hem 23 is a design-happy ambassador to Southeast Asian flavor. Dressed up in the costume of a Saigon back alley, complete with motorbike, corrugated aluminum, nests of decorative electrical cords and branded "graffiti," Hem 23—literally "Alley 23"—offers both an ambitiously broad menu and a somewhat temperate palate, absent the aggressive fish and funk that can characterize much of the cuisine. Those searching for the trademark pig's feet, tendons and iron-rich blood cubes in Hem's version of chili-red bun bo Hue noodle soup will search in vain, in part because Lam finds the blood cubes unhealthy.
But even if the food seems ready-made for the soft palates of Northwest Portland, that doesn't mean there aren't rich flavors to be found here. And much of the food at Hem 23 is genuinely beautiful—as Instagram-ready as the décor. Lemongrass-chili wings form a glistening tent atop green-lettuce garnish. Sampler platters arrive as a starburst of sugar-shrimp sticks and whole, carbonized salt shrimp meant to be dipped in bright green jalapeño-birdseye chili sauce. Sweet-sticky shortribs pile high as a quarter-rack in Texas.
For bright counterpoint, look to the cocktail menu, including a silly but fun Davy Jones ($11) mixing hot, clean, stirred liquors with the fruity pop of strawberry pearls. Another high point is the simple lime leaf sour ($10) swirling gin and palm sugar with citrus to make a light and herbal take on a daiquiri. Nonetheless, for best results, get the cocktails only at dinner, when the A-team is behind the stick; lunch tipplers will do best with a $6 beer menu that includes Breakside IPA, Pfriem Pilsner and Wayfinder helles.
The proteins on Hem's menu are far-flung, with rarely seen dishes like delicate-boned quail, frog legs and carbonized shrimp meant to be eaten whole in dipping sauce. But even with adventurous proteins, it's often the most familiar flavors that fare best. The lemongrass-chili wings ($12) may lack the explosive funk of Ike's fish sauce wings at Pok Pok, but for that they arrive with crispness and sweet heat, which go down very easily at $6 happy-hour prices. Those shortribs ($16) make equally good on their beefy promise, while fatty frog legs come with a pleasant charge of chili spice. The soft-shell crab is also delightful, its oft-jarring textures ameliorated by a light crusting of tempura and the brightness of sweet chili dipping sauce.
Most of all, in a year when stalwarts Pho Oregon and Pho An seem to have slipped off their perches, the oxtail pho at Hem ($13) is my favorite beef noodle broth I've had this year, unctuous without being oily, beefy and singing with an anise-filled Southern sweetness. Floating within are the bones from two cow butts—tender oxtail whose meat must be teased from its marrow-rich housing and whose richness rewards the effort. The WW offices are a mere block from the restaurant, allowing the bowl to already become a fond addiction. The lean brisket pho fares similarly well, though not nearly so rich and a little too chewy on the beef: A fatty brisket option would be appreciated.
But there is no fatty brisket in yoga-pantsed Slabtown. Likewise the pho ga—chicken pho—contains only the less flavorful, less fatty white meat. The mi quang turmeric noodle soup is also a flabby cousin of better versions at Mekha or Ha VL, the broth too sweet and lacking depth.
Those dishes' failings highlight a strategy to follow at Hem 23. Order the options whose savory depths back up the menu's predilection for straight-ahead sweetness and heat—whether shortrib or frog leg or bo luc lac "shaking beef," not to mention the umami of beef broth.
Though seekers of wilder flavors might be better off looking to Portland's eastside, not everyone wants to jet out to 82nd Avenue for delicate snail soup, bone-in whole chicken or wild-spiced blood-cube broth at Ha VL or Teo Bun Bo Hue. Consider Hem 23 a Southeast Asian analog to the Tex-Mex of crowded Casa del Matador up the street—a curated experience of Vietnam that never leaves the borders of American comfort.
GO: Hem 23, 1514 NW 23rd Ave., 971-352-6138, hem23.com. 11 am-10 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-11 pm Friday-Saturday, 11 am-9 pm Sunday.