Cheap Eats 2014: Vietnamese Food


Ha & VL

2738 SE 82nd Ave., Suite 102, 772-0103. Breakfast and lunch Monday, Wednesday-Sunday. Cash only under $15.

There's nothing better than a steaming bowl of noodle soup on a chilly day. Unfortunately, many Portland shops leave you thinking Vietnamese noodle soups consist of gristly beef lying atop stiff noodles, soaking in anemic broth that needs to be doctored with hefty doses of lime and hoisin.

Not true. Ha & VL's crab-flake soup made me forget that condiments existed. It was one of the best noodle soups I've ever had, with large, silky rice noodles, perfectly cooked quail eggs, mushrooms, shrimp and shredded pork, all suspended in a thick, flavorful pork broth. While they also serve decent banh mi, these magnificent soups are the real reason people drive from all over Portland to cram into this tiny, lime-green dining room plastered with clippings. Ha & VL serves two soups daily, almost all $8, and most days they run out by 1 pm—by noon on weekends. 

Omnivores can't go wrong, but picky eaters should be cautious: If you're allergic to shellfish or don't like seafood, stick to Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays (they're closed Tuesdays). Still, the best soup Sunday is the special turmeric noodles, with shrimp cake, shrimp, pork, ground pork, ground shrimp and peanuts. It costs $1 more than the usual daily selections and is totally worth it. Top off your meal with coffee and sweetened condensed milk. Like everything else here, it's one of the best I've ever had. 

The shop opens at 8 am, and if you call ahead, they'll reserve an order for you to pick up. But if you forget about your order and take it from someone who actually drove there to eat it, I will personally hunt you down and sew an "I'm A Dick" patch to your forehead. It's that good. ADRIENNE SO.

An Xuyen

5345 SE Foster Rd., 788-0866, Breakfast, lunch and early dinner Tuesday-Saturday, breakfast and lunch Sunday. 

This Southeast Foster Vietnamese bakery and banh mi shop is our dark horse candidate for Portland's best low-key Saturday brunch. An Xuyen opens at 7 am, when you'll find breakfast-ready sammies built from over-easy eggs on the house's own barely there bread. Or, grab a half-dozen fresh-fried, sugar-coated doughnut balls and a cup of the sweet and nutty Vietnamese iced coffee. In later hours those banh mi get well-seasoned shreds of meat, while staying far below $5. No matter the time, it's hard to leave without at least one thing from the long dessert case stuffed with rich and oft-creamy glazed fruit tarts, bon-bons and cakes. MARTIN CIZMAR.

Best Baguette

8308 SE Powell Blvd., 788-3098; 3635 SW Hall Blvd., 626-2288, Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

There's a brisk functionality to Best Baguette extending well beyond the flagship location's drive-thru window (or the brightly lit, featureless interiors that argue its merits). So long as bakery ovens keep humming along to a commuter's pace, each banh mi seems guaranteed to start life encased in a fun-sized French loaf as spongy and crispy as the cafe's name suggests. Foundational freshness enables a blessedly delicate interplay of flavors too often subsumed within the clamorous tang of overpickling. Veteran connoisseurs of Vietnamese sandwich shops might wish to avoid somewhat dullish staples like the pork roll ($2.95) in favor of the savory confections like the Saigon Bacon ($3.25). The daunting menu rewards exploration and even the diciest selections—an eponymous special ($3.25), say, featuring pork, pate, and head cheese—diffuse disparate tastes with a taut efficiency bordering on grace. JAY HORTON.


Bun Bo Hue

7002 SE 82nd Ave., 771-1141. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

Asked what was in Bun Bo Hue's signature bun bo Hue ($7.50), the waitress doesn't beat around the bush: "blood and pig meat." The "pig meat" is muscle, fat and bone sitting at the bottom of the broth. Greedily dipping for it, you'll quickly forget that chunks of what looks like red tofu are actually coagulated blood. With seven variations on the signature dish and a broth that strikes the right balance between spicy and sweet, it's unclear why bun hasn't yet replaced pho as the prime Southeast Asian noodle dish—oh, right, the blood thing. Still, Bun Bo Hue can turn you into a soup vampire. RICHARD GRUNERT.

Lela's Bistro

1524 NW 23rd Ave., 719-4744, Lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday. 

In a 'hood with almost no good, cheap food, Lela's has become a de facto lunch counter for the WW office. It has solid pho, noodle bowls and kimchee, but stands apart for fresh takes on the French-Viet banh mi (grilled portobello with ginger-garlic-sesame sauce, $6.50), on chewy baguette from the excellent Binh Minh bakery and sandwiches (6812 NE Sandy Blvd., 257-3868). Try also the lemongrass chicken banh mi ($5.99), stacked with moist, slightly sweet chicken pieces, sticks of lightly pickled carrot, cilantro, thinly sliced cucumber and, if you want it X-rated, thinly sliced raw jalapeño. MARTIN CIZMAR. 

Pho An

6236 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-2990, Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

At the start of your visit to Pho An, the wonderfully flaky and steamy cha gio (fried spring rolls) are delivered via wheely cart. Next, you get the pho dac biet (the house specialty,), with balanced and beefy broth infused with tender, lean flank, brisket and tripe, accompanied by a generous plate of crisp greens. And take note of the Vietnamese couple nearby: they have a particularly systematic way of extracting the meat from the broth before eating. The owners might not devote their attention to the restaurant's ambiance and décor, but look no further than their meticulously prepared dishes to see where their priorities lie. HALEY MARTIN.


Pho Hung

4717 SE Powell Blvd., 775-3170; 13227 SW Canyon Rd., Suite B, 626-2888, Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily. 

With the number of pho restaurants in this town, it takes a good deal of confidence in one's brand of the titular Vietnamese soup to not use a goofy pun or otherwise distinguish yourself from the pack. Pho Hung's beige-colored building on Southeast Powell Boulevard blends into the background but the place still gets packed out even on a random Sunday. That's partially because it serves up some of the biggest, richest bowls in the city, but they're also smart enough not to subsist on noodles and broth alone. The tau hu ki, for instance, is an intriguing respite from the usual egg and salad roll starters, a fried tofu wrap stuffed with fish, shrimp and crab. Its specialties include the bahn xeo ($6.75), a rice flour cake stuffed with shrimp and flavored with turmeric that's basically a dinner omelet, and the chao long ($6.75), a porridge of pork offal. And don't leave without a to-go cup of the taro bubble tea: thick and vanilla-sweet, and loaded with what my dining companion refers to as "delicious goo-balls." MATTHEW SINGER.

Pho Oregon

2518 NE 82nd Ave., 262-8816. Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

If you're here, you're here to eat pho, and pho is what's on the menu. Behind a few perfunctory salad-roll appetizers and meat curries, you'll find several pages' worth of fragrant noodle soup combinations with anything from tendon and tripe to meatballs and pizzle (yes, penis), accompanied by a little dish of bean sprouts, sawtooth herb, lime slices and an enormous sprig of Thai basil. You eat your soup, you pay your bill up front and you leave. Be it known that a "large" size ($8.45-$8.95) is more than enough for two people, leaving a few extra bucks for pastries and cookies at Lanvin French-Vietnamese bakery in the back parking lot. (Try the cinnamon sticks.) MARTIN CIZMAR.

Yen Ha

6820 NE Sandy Blvd., 287-3698, Lunch, dinner and late night daily (closed for lunch Tuesday). 

From glass-bead curtains to the muted strains of Vietnamese-language cha-cha-cha, Yen Ha's faded glamour matches its status as a grand dame of Portland's Little Saigon. In the 1980s, owner Duc Tran's nieces played in the low-ceilinged restaurant; now they're doctors, and Duc keeps photos on hand to prove it. Yen Ha's four-fold lunch menu of traditional Vietnamese dishes—including stir-fried frog legs, rice-stick noodle soups and the requisite pho (a classy vegetarian version available)—generally hover around $10. A medium bowl of bun bo Hue, a spicy beef soup from Duc's hometown, will set you back just $8.50 but includes generous extras like salad greens (place in soup), pickled cabbage and hot-pepper fish sauce upon request. RAMONA DeNIES. 


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