Portland's first Vietnamese restaurants began popping up in the 1970s, just as America's war in Southeast Asia was winding down. Though many Vietnamese refugees who landed here moved on to the Gulf Coast, plenty put down roots in Portland, settling in the Brooklyn neighborhood and opening restaurants to feed their friends, families and gawkers like me who'd sampled Southeast Asian cuisine in California while in college.
Although the memories are vague, I know that at least a few went beyond Westernized dishes and Thai-food knockoffs by featuring cuon—pliable rice-paper rolls filled with meats, herbs and noodles that are rarely seen outside the back pages of menus at a few serious pho shops.
Vietnamese standards aside from soup have been no match for Thai food. As early as 1984, then-WW food editor Karen Brooks lamented the closure of a slew of Vietnamese places that had been open only a few years. Predictably, the new Vietnamese restaurant she was reviewing, Vietnam's Pearl downtown, has long since closed, as has its predecessor on Southeast Powell Boulevard, Thanh Truc.
Well, Portland now has its best and most ambitious Vietnamese restaurant ever. Doi Dua, Vietnamese for "chopsticks," is ready to break through thanks to chef Sarah Bui and partner-server Anna Vocaturo. I've made several visits to this Monday-only pop-up, and each time the set-price processional served in the pocket-sized Langbaan space has achieved an awe-inspiring diversity and balance of flavors, textures and colors.
If this sounds like hyperbole, be assured it is not. Bui is a rare kitchen talent: just 23 years old without any professional kitchen experience until Vocaturo, a veteran from D.C.'s Rose's Luxury (Bon Appétit's best new U.S. restaurant of 2014), persuaded her to give it a shot. Bui maintains a calm, efficient focus in the small kitchen that's so open diners might be tempted to jump in and lend a hand. But it's the consistent quality of the food, each dish an updated twist on Bui's Southern Vietnamese culinary heritage, that makes Doi Dua a must-visit.
The lotus salad that opens each seven-course meal rockets skyward like a multisensory starburst, beginning with paper-thin slices of kaleidoscope-patterned fresh lotus root and pickled stem. The composition includes shards of hot red chili, matchsticks of crunchy carrot, jicama and apple, succulent tiger shrimp and chunks of smoked honey-roasted pork, all topped with a flurry of caramelized shallot and bound with a tight, light fish sauce and lime juice dressing. Too often, salads are boring-as-hell filler for the prim. This one is a dramatic primer for the courses to follow.
Next is a triumphal trinity of Vietnamese snacks. First up, a modest salad roll in which baby anchovy—a little fishy, a little salty, a tad crunchy from twice-cooking—is the star. Also on the plate, a thick, half-dollar-sized disk of bean curd-based cha lua chay, or what Vocaturo introduces as "vegetarian bologna," its taste and texture ranging somewhere between heart of palm and artichoke bottom, topped with a thin slice of pickled jalapeño, carrot sticks and marinated maitake mushrooms. Rounding out the trio is a butter lettuce wrap, the flawless leaf piled with a square netting of rice noodles, cucumber and twists of crispy pig ear that have been brushed with rich, caramel fish sauce.
The high orbit of compelling plates continues with agreeably chewy squid or (most recently) conch paired with not-too-crunchy gnarls of black sesame seed-flecked brown rice crackers; a rice-flour pancake stuffed to a plump puck shape with garlic chives and bits of scallop, then griddled to golden; and a small bowl of faux pho, a wry presentation of soft-cooked daikon strands, bits of oxtail, browned pearl onions and a toss of nasturtium leaves, basil and jalapeño. Get it?
The meal concludes with an innovative intermezzo of herb-sprinkled soft tofu immersed in a pool of tart-juicy chopped tomato followed by dessert: fermented sweet rice cake (think al dente angel food), fresh fruit, coconut mousse and honey candy. These final courses, repeated over several trials, cemented the notion that I was witness to a rising star among Portland's densely packed galaxy of aspiring chefs.
While the food and service at Doi Dua are beyond reproach save for a nit here and there, two major challenges for Bui and Vocaturo remain. One is to make themselves heard above the din, especially as a once-a-week offering in borrowed space. The tougher nut still is solving the Portland paradox: even in a food-crazy town, finding a sufficiently large, appreciative audience for their distinctive culinary vision.
EAT: Doi Dua, 6 SE 28th Ave (inside PaaDee), 352-239-1586, doidua-popup.com. 5:30-10 pm Monday only. $55, seven courses.