The Paper Bridge Brings Northern Vietnamese Dishes to Light

Handmade rice noodles play a prominent role on the menu.

The Paper Bridge (Brian Brose)

Consider the rice noodle: understated, underappreciated, often an afterthought in a bowl full of other flashier delights. She’s the acquaintance you see a few times a year but always forget her name.

Not at The Paper Bridge. Here, the rice noodles are handmade and featured prominently on a menu dedicated to lesser-known dishes from Northern Vietnam. Opened in November in the same Southeast Portland building as Bar Casa Vale, The Paper Bridge is the first restaurant from Hanoi native Quynh Nguyen and her husband, chef Carlo Reinardy.

While you’ll find several variations of phồ, including one with roast duck leg, the majority of the menu revolves around street food and other regional specialties that you’re not going to find at Portland’s many other Vietnamese restaurants.

The menu itself is a literary journey. I could simply rely on its elaborate descriptions of each dish to write the rest of this review. When pondering an order of the signature bún chả ($22), for example, you’ll learn that this is what Anthony Bourdain instantly decided to eat with President Obama when the two met in Hanoi, sharing a beer while sitting on low blue plastic stools. (There’s even a section of The Paper Bridge where you, too, can eat at those tiny tables like in Hanoi. I prefer the front of the restaurant, where you sit under dozens of paper lamps.)

To quote The Paper Bridge’s menu regarding its bún chả: “No dish connotes ‘Hanoi’ more than this humble yet harmonious combination of various char-grilled pieces of pork in a fish sauce broth with papaya and carrots, a plate of cold rice noodles, and an array of herbs for dunking.” To quote my taste buds: It’s a mighty fine bowl—the char on the pork offsets the salty fish sauce, and those noodles are grand, soft but with ample chew, and so much better than the dried variation.

Sheets of phở noodles are also involved in my two favorite picks from the medium-small plates section of the menu. First, every visit should involve the phở chiên phồng ($16), rice noodle squares that are fried till they puff up, and covered with a stir-fried beef with a light gravy. It’s crunchy on the outside, chewy within, salty and herbaceous.

Secondly, grab an order of the phở cuốn vịt quay ($16). This time, the sheet of phở noodle is uncut and rolled around roast duck with herbs and lettuce, with a soy dipping sauce. It is the salad roll of your dreams: fatty duck, toothsome noodle wrapper and bright vegetables.

From there, feel free to roam: Two people can easily share four or five plates, depending on the size. Cocktails make a nod to Southeast Asia—a gin fizz ($14) made with calamansi juice and egg whites is refreshing, while a non-alcoholic lime snow ($8) was a sweet and citrusy confection with lots of ice. There are extensive tea and coffee options, including the TikTok-beloved cà phê trứng ($10), which blends potent imported Vietnamese coffee topped with sweetened condensed milk frothed up with egg yolk.

Simple plates like morning glory leaves ($8) get a little extra something here—the tender greens are wok-fried with three kinds of garlic: fried, sautéed and pickled. Another deceptively simple but perfect plate is the hand-baked mini bread rolls ($15), made like bánh mi, cut open and stuffed with pork liver pâté, then roasted again and topped with housemade spicy chili sauce.

The Paper Bridge runs more expensive than your average phở shop, reflecting the care that goes into the dishes. The only time I regretted this was a lunch time order of Hanoi-style grilled half duck for two. Spice rubbed and grilled over charcoal, it arrives as part of a grand presentation with glass noodles, bamboo that’s both pickled and served in a consommé, with more herbs. The sides were great, but sadly the duck was chewy and not ultimately worth the $65 price tag. Go with the chả cá lã vọng ($55) instead, the iconic Hanoi turmeric fish served over a low flame.

It’s no surprise that owners Nguyen and Reinardy tackled the finicky art of perfect handmade rice noodles. Each of their dishes would be just fine with little effort, but with the extra understated touches–a hand-pickled bamboo shoot here, a dollop of perfect housemade hot sauce there–it becomes indispensable.

EAT: The Paper Bridge, 828 SE Ash St., 503-265-8105, 10:30 am–2:30 pm and 4–9 pm Thursday–Monday.

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