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There's an odd number of similarities between



Pho Van Vietnamese Bistro

, which share the crown of Restaurant of the Year 2002.

Both the Cuban Pambiche and the Vietnamese Pho Van represent cuisine from Communist countries once so feared by the United States government that their demise consumed the Oval Office. Iraqi lahma bi ajeen, anyone?

Both restaurants are located in key spots in important, evolving sectors of Portland. Pho Van Bistro flanks the streetcar line in developer Homer Williams' Utopian Pearl District cityscape, while Pambiche looks lovingly down Northeast 28th Avenue, where an insurgent group of buccaneer eateries is forming a new, affordable Restaurant Row.

Both Pambiche and Pho Van, with their midrange to low prices, have thrived despite an economic nose dive that has felled many other ventures in the past year, including scene stalwarts L'Auberge and Doris Cafe.

These resemblances may tie them together, but it's something extra that makes them Restaurants of the Year.

The most important thing that Pambiche and Pho Van Bistro have in common is that they offer dynamic, intriguing, lively food that's unmatched for their cuisine type in this city. Eating at both restaurants offers surprises and indulgences that have created a legion of loyalists. For this, they win our highest praise and unabashed adoration.


VAN DRIVERS: Clockwise from upper left: Son Van (brother); Vinh Wong (manager); Lam, Elizabeth, Hong and Khiet Van.

So it goes like this. At the end of the battle, Khiet Van--an officer with the losers on the southern side of Vietnam--found himself in jail as a prisoner of war.

Two years later he was sprung, and he went to work pretending he was getting into the fishing trade so he could get a boat.

In 1981, the Van family boarded the vessel and made their escape in the dark of night. They dodged pirates at sea and marauding Malaysian military on land. More than a year later, they found themselves in Portland.

"My first month in America, I hated it," Lam says. The speed of life was foreign, and so was everything else. Slowly but surely, the Van family--Khiet, his wife, Hong, their son Lam and his four other siblings--acclimated. They bought a convenience store in the late 1980s. "At the time, we never thought we'd go into the restaurant business," Lam says.

After the store was robbed (by a teen to whom the family had regularly given candy as a child), they decided to move into a new line of business. "I said, 'Mom, your broth is really good, why don't we do something with it?'" Lam recalls.

In 1992, the Vans bought their first restaurant, a nondescript former fast-food joint on 82nd Avenue. The family's plan was to attract the younger Asian set to their noodle house. Hong went to work creating her lineup of broths and sauces.

"At the time, we didn't think non-Asians would even be interested," Lam says. Oh, but they were. Word soon spread that there was a place on 82nd Avenue where you could get huge bowls of steaming, aromatic broth waiting to be filled with hunks of meat, handfuls of noodles and bunches of basil, all for a few bucks.

By 1998, business was so good they decided to expand and upgrade the restaurant. The Vans moved up the street into an exquisitely remodeled and roomy space.

Ever the enterprising lad (he earned a business degree from Portland State), Lam began to think about expansion again. He and his wife, Elizabeth, bought a condo with their two children in the Gregory, one of the swankiest new high-rises in the Pearl. "We looked around and said, 'This place is going to boom-boom,'" Elizabeth says.

A ground-floor space opened at the Gregory, and they pounced. "We wanted the same concept, different presentation," Lam says. That vision came alive when Pho Van Bistro opened last winter.

It's all about the details at this restaurant. From the graceful bamboo stalks that act as table centerpieces to the servers' Vietnamese robes called ao ba ba and the coconut-wood chopsticks that rest in a woven case at each place setting, the Bistro goes beyond pretty--it transports you to a dream vision of an ever-evolving postwar Vietnam.

Fans of the 82nd Avenue pho will be pleased to know the Bistro offers Pho Van's signature soup, ready for slurping. But adventurists know the Bistro's real draw is the dinner menu, regally presented on a scroll that's sheathed in a bamboo husk, that makes all the difference.

A contrast to the clear broths on the pho menu is a set of rich soups available for dinner. The canh khoai, made with the purple Vietnamese spud, is unlike any sweet-potato soup you've enjoyed stateside. This thick brew, the color of a summer storm cloud, is flecked with pieces of pork and shrimp that lend another layer of sweetness to the still-savory concoction.

Claypot dishes are some of the best picks--the stews are cooked at a high enough temperature to caramelize the sugar in the sauce and turn the meat or fish into a tender, sweet piece of protein. Ca kho to is a fillet of catfishlike Mekong basa cooked with shallots and a husky chili garlic sauce; the tender white fish seems to be swimming in its intended waters.

Desserts here play along with the rest of the menu's studied wrestling with tastes and textures. Crème bržlée, the ubiquitous egg custard, is spiked with ginger, adding a tender slap. The banana bread pudding is a funhouse of tactility: The moist dough is surrounded by a moat of tapioca balls, which burst against the roof of your mouth.

Although it offers far fewer options than its more humble counterpart across town, Pho Van Bistro still continues to offer surprises and delights. You may actually be able to eat your way across the menu: Start now.


Owner-chef John Connell Maribona and his wife and partner, Hada Salinas.Pambiche

When John Connell Maribona starts speaking with a Cuban accent, it's hard to finger him for a native Portlander. The 35-year-old can put Ricky Ricardo to shame with his Havana suave. But it's no lampoon.

Maribona's maternal grandfather was the Cuban consul to Oregon, working on overseas trade; he and the Maribona clan were living in Portland when Castro's revolution took hold of his native land. They had no choice but to stay put.

Even though John's mother married out of the Latin tribe, his Cuban heritage was something he was unwilling to part with, even in a city where assimilation is as much a part of the culture as the absence of sales tax. He got a degree in Latin American studies from Portland State University and spent long stretches studying abroad in the Dominican Republic, with hops to Cuba for visits.

The passion Maribona displays for his Cuban heritage he harbors equally for food. As a young teen in the early 1980s, he started working at his Cuban godmother's Latin restaurant. After many stints as a pastry chef--including a tenure at Portland dessert palace Papa Haydn--Maribona landed at the Greek Cusina as a chef working for Ted Papas, one of this city's most vociferous restaurant personalities. "He built an environment for himself where he can be Greek," Maribona says. "That's what I wanted."

After graduating from PSU (he doesn't believe in culinary school), Maribona started a wholesale bakery/catering company with his wife, Hada Salinas, and former workmate Roseanne Romaine. Soon they decided to make the jump to the world of restaurants. They found an open storefront on Northeast Glisan Street that had possibilities. "It was a dump," John says. "But the bones were there."

Pambiche opened for business on Valentine's Day 2000, with newly painted scarlet arches standing guard outside to reflect the hues of the island. With restaurant equipment from auctions and furniture scrounged up from friends and from the partners' own homes, the place didn't have the pristine feeling of a shiny new restaurant. But despite the ragtag accoutrements, it became so popular that Maribona and company didn't have time to breathe, much less decorate. "It took us a year to catch up," he says. Even now it's hard to get a table during prime time, and waiting seems to be part of the experience.

"Pambiche" is how Dominicans pronounce Palm Beach, and Maribona's inspiration for it as a name comes from an Americanized version of merengue called Merengue Pambiche.

This creolization of dance reflects Maribona's vision for cuisine. He cringes at the word "fusion," because he doesn't see what he's doing as offering foods from different cultures spliced together unnaturally. He does offer cuisine from different ports--Valencia, Santo Domingo, Veracruz--on the same menu (as is common in Cuba). He also notes Cuban cuisine itself has been heavily infuenced by many parts of the world. Desserts he calls apambichao take an authentic Cuban dish and translate it for American palates (turning a traditional sweet-potato paste dish into a sweet-potato cheesecake, for example).

While Maribona proudly makes concessions to the American culinary way, he is steadfast in his commitment to keeping the culture of the restaurant Latin; all front-of-the-house servers must be able to speak Spanish.

And even though Portland's Cuban and Caribbean community is tiny, it's the members of this tribe who seem to hover perennially in Maribona's peripheral vision. He switches into his Cuban-American accent to give these expats' perspectives--"Eh, John, why do you fry the yucca? You should boil the yucca." Clearly, he loves telling these stories; they're proof he has done what he set out to do--create a place where he can be Cuban.

If you have elastic-waist pants, you might want to wear them to Pambiche. The pre-Castro-sized portions are enough to make anyone question the indulgences of a free-market society, but the beyond-reasonable prices for many of the dishes put the shine on capitalism.

When the season's right, the fried, ripe plantains are a must. These sticky, black slices of the bananalike fruit look like something you'd find stuck to your shoe, but they're sweet and chewy, and when you dump the chunky salsa on top, the sharply acidic tomatoes and onions tango with the mellow, caramelized plantains.

Most dinners come on an oversized plate, every inch crammed with different tastes. A good example is the rabo encendido ("oxtails on fire"), a platter of bony cow's tail braised in a red-wine sauce. It's not quite as spicy as the name implies, but it's got a kick and the rich savor of boeuf bourguignon. A molded mound of rice, here served wet and loose to mix with the wine sauce, takes up one corner of the plate. The other is filled with ensalada caribe–a, a zingy, bright salad of red and green cabbage strips tossed with grated carrots, lime juice and parsley. Nestled on the sides are light and crunchy corn fritters that clean the palate between tastes. All this for $11.50.

Pambiche's tweaked Cuban desserts hew closest to Maribona's vision of culinary apambichao. A seemingly endless, uniformly enticing assortment of dramatic pies, cakes and custards awaits you in the front dessert case. A perennial favorite is la banana borracha--spongy banana rum cake that's layered with custard, topped with a creamy icing and served with fruit salsas on the side.

Maribona has recently opened another Cuban outpost with his brother Joe (see Ca–ita listing, page 25), and the success of his business has afforded him the opportunity to buy the building that houses Pambiche. And unlike some restaurants that become popular and then decide they can skate by with less effort, less hospitality and less care, Pambiche has only rolled this cigar of an eatery even tighter.