Cully Central is something unique in Portland: a Lao beer bar. Co-owned by the people behind the Khao Niew food cart in Happy Valley, the bar turns out dishes you can't find anywhere else, in particular a subtle khao piek sen chicken noodle soup often eaten for breakfast in Laos, with thick and chewy rice noodles and a light cinnamon and pepper broth.
Mauritius, an island 2,000 miles east of Africa, is best known as home of the now-extinct dodo—a forever emblem of human cruelty. But if you let him, Mauritian chef Shyam Dausoa can be just as cruel. Mauritian food claims influences from France, Africa, India and everything in between, and his delicate mine frire yakisoba or mee foon rice noodle plates are spiced with a warm, earthy mix that feels like all the world's comforts have been pok pok'd in a pestle. But ask him to make that mine frire "very spicy," and he'll spike the addictive cilantro chutney with a dose of habanero and ghost pepper, two of the hottest substances on earth. The combination of the heat and your own compulsion to taste more noodles will quickly make your taste buds extinct. But like any addict, all you'll want is more. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Among the many chopstick-thick, fresh-made noodles at Northeast Broadway's Shandong, the best by far are the simplest. Judy's Noodles are a mix of spinach and scallion greens, garlic and jalapeño—a spicy, savory showcase for the chewy splendor of the noodles themselves.
Snail soup at Ha VL, $10
2738 SE 82nd Ave., 503-772-0103. Served Thursday only for breakfast and lunch.
Ha VL is the Vietnamese soup shop that shipped a thousand articles in the food press. The family makes just two soups a day, every day but Tuesday, forever. Each is prepared daily, from only fresh ingredients. Most of the soups can also be found at founders Christina Ha Luu and William Truong’s Rose VL on Southeast Powell Boulevard, from complex turmeric-laden mi quang to peppery pork ball noodles (for an itinerary, see mrgan.com/havl). But when son Peter Vuong inherited the original Ha VL on 82nd Avenue, he introduced an innovative take on bun cha oc snail noodle soup. Traditionally, this pork-bone-broth soup contains whole snails, but Vuong boosted the flavor with an invention of his own: a lemongrass-scented snail meatball. The hearty soup is deepened further with pork loin and pillowy fried tofu, with the acidic bite of tomato. It is a marvel of soupcraft.
The improbably named Taipei Noodle Haus—neither Taiwanese nor German— makes thick, irregular to the point of ugly, but toothsome hand-pulled noodles. Get the Korean-Chinese jja jiang mian—a wealth of black-bean ferment found nowhere better than here.
Black bean noodles at Frank's Noodle House, $10.95
Inner Portland’s Chinese noodle game has improved in the past few years, with a host of new restaurants that have their own twist on hand-pulled and chewy dough. This old two-story house on Broadway has its up days and down days, but thick, twisty, rugged noodles bathed in a rich black bean sauce remain one of the city’s purest comforts. The sauce is sticky but not sweet, an umami-dense and tangy bath that pairs so perfectly with the dough under it. This is comfort food in every sense, and if you want some spice, you’ll have to ask for the chili oil.
In Tokyo, Marukin ramen spots are like Xanax for the salaryman, so old school they’re almost nostalgic. Though Marukin’s 2-year-old east- and westside Portland locations are a bit sleeker and streamlined, they already fill much the same role. Every broth served at Marukin is excellent—spicy, miso, shio, whatever— and each bowl contains a stew of garnish, from deep-green spinach to kikurage mushrooms, bamboo shoots, a molten-centered egg and tender chashu pork. But it’s all about that deep, hazy, porky tonkotsu shoyu bone broth. Light for its style, it remains buttery in its depths, a rich cradle for gently springy noodles. It feels impossible in both its delicacy and its depth, digging deep into the marrow of comfort. MATTHEW KORFHAGE.
Pho ga at Teo Bun Bo Hue, $11.50
8220 SE Harrison St., No. 230, 503-208-3532. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Almost no one alive makes soup with the love, delicacy, meticulousness and beauty Teo Bun Bo Hue applies to the two soups it serves. Both are the best of their kind in Portland, a town already known nationwide for Vietnamese soup. The namesake Hue beef noodle soup—a swirl of pork blood and chili oil—is a lip-smacking flavor wallop backed by a tour of textures from blood cake to trotter. But it’s the delicate take on pho ga—pho with chicken stock and bone-in chicken—that is a marvel of modern Portland, eschewing the anise-filled southern sweetness for light floral delicacy and a relentless purity of chicken flavor. It’s as if someone had injected chicken with chicken, fed the result to a chicken and then cooked it into broth. The flat pho noodles are thinner than usual, and the sides are idiosyncratic: ginger sauce, rau ram, frisee. Teo’s pho ga is its own world of pho—a world that will soon expand when Teo adds beef pho to its menu this spring. But for now, take one sip of the rich chicken broth and say “Fuuuu….”
Pappardelle at Gumba, $12
Cart pod at Northeast 23rd Avenue and Alberta Street, 503-975-5951.
An opulent plate of thick, hand-pulled pappardelle pasta swimming in a thick, rustic shortrib sugo and sprinkled with a garnish of toasted breadcrumbs and edible flowers seems more "special occasion" than "casual lunch." But at Gumba, a wood-laden little cart parked in a barren lot on Alberta, one of Portland's most satisfying pasta dishes runs a scant $12.
Here's a secret about Portland: The best bowl of pho changes seemingly every six months, a victim of roller-coaster changes at spots like Pho An and Pho Oregon. A reputable source recently informed me that Sandy Boulevard dive Yen Ha is suddenly making some of the best in town, and Teo Bun Bo Hue (see pho ga, above) will make some soon. But the best beef pho broth we've had in Portland this year is this bowl at this somewhat upscale new 23rd Avenue "street food" spot, Hem 23, outfitted with a parked motorcycle and a mock tangle of wires to mimic a Saigon back alley. But the pho is no gimmick; though the noodles might come still tangled from their packaging, the broth is deep, richly blooming with anise, sweet but not oversweet. Floating within are the bones from two cow butts—tender oxtail whose meat must be teased from their marrow-rich housing. Though Tuan Lam's restaurant has been open little more than a month, this bowl is already a fond addiction.
The Taiwanese beef noodle soup is a beast, managing a difficult balancing act between hearty and light and between noodle soup and beef stew, with chunks of fatty, tender braised beef floating in one of the most warming and rewarding broths in Southeast. Even without the hand-pulled, thick wheat noodles, it'd be a knockout.