T.S. Eliot got it wrong—March is the cruelest month, in Portland at least (breeding head colds from the dead air, mixing seasonal depression and desire, stirring bloody thoughts with gray skies, etc.). Winter keeps us cold and wet, plugging our sinuses and clouding our brains. There's only one surefire cure: pho, the savory beef-noodle soup that's become the perceived national dish of Vietnam.
We don't know whether it's the broth, the peppers or the piles of bean sprouts, but pho rivals chicken-noodle as a treatment for colds (and hangovers). You rarely see customers leaving a Vietnamese restaurant—even a bad one—without smiles on their faces. So it's not surprising that, as Oregon's Vietnamese population has grown (to an estimated 17,800 in 2000) and more Oregonians have discovered the soup's magical healing properties, pho joints have become almost as ubiquitous—if not, fortunately, as generally mediocre—as Thai restaurants on the east side of the Willamette.
But whose pho is the best pho? Armed only with a bottomless gullet and the halfway-educated palate of a college pal who spent much of 2007 in Vietnam, I set out to rank Portland's noodle shops the scientific way—with an arbitrary point system. We sampled small bowls with unchallenging slices of eye round steak and brisket to find out which restaurant's cure-all reigned supreme. (Note: for the purposes of this study, only restaurants whose names include the word "pho" were considered.)
10232 NE Sandy Blvd., 252-1536; 1314 SE 39th Ave., 233-0715.
$5.50 small bowl, $5.95 large bowl.
I frequent the newer of Pho Dalat's two locations: just off Hawthorne Boulevard, in what appears to be an old family-style diner that last housed an unpromising Chinese buffet.
Broth: Clear, not greasy or oversalted. A strong beef flavor paired with a strong bouquet of aromatic spices: star anise, cardamom, a hint of ginger. 5/5
Meat: The steak is very thin, but tough and bland. The brisket, though, is tender and has a strong flavor. 3/5.
Vegetables: Lots of basil, a mountain of bean sprouts, jalapeño and lime, all of it fresh—but no culantro leaf (cilantro's milder Asian cousin). 3/5
Condiments: The best variety by far of any pho joint in town leaves the end of the table cluttered with soy sauce, fish sauce, sriracha (Thai chili-vinegar sauce), Tuong Ot Toi (chili-garlic paste), chili flakes in oil, hoisin sauce and pickled jalapeños. 5/5
Bonus: The soundtrack at Dalat is the worst imaginable, heavy on soft-jazz versions of pop hits and vaguely familiar Southeast-Asian interpretations of '90s R&B. A sax-heavy rendition of "La Cucaracha" is my favorite.
4/5 points overall
4717 SE Powell Blvd., 775-3170; 3120 SE 82nd Ave., 772-0089; 13227 SW Canyon Road #B, Beaverton, 626-2888.
$6.25 small, $6.75 large.
Each of Pho Hung's PDX locations caters to a different customer: The Southeast 82nd Avenue restaurant is posh in the same style as the nearby Pho Van, with lots of bamboo and track lighting; the Powell Boulevard location is housed in an old fast-food space and embraces a grungier aesthetic; the third is, well, in Beaverton.
Broth: Sweeter than the others in our survey, less beefy and heavy on the star anise. 4/5
Meat: The steak is tender, but not very flavorful; the brisket is tough and flavorless. 2/5
Vegetables: An enormous mound of sprouts, with generous helpings of lime, peppers and basil—but no culantro. 4/5
Condiments: Chili oil, sriracha, hoisin, fish sauce, soy sauce and an excellent paste of chilis in oil with an unexpectedly sweet, smoky flavor. 5/5
Bonus: Really great salad rolls.
3.75/5 points overall
6236 NE Sandy Blvd., 281-2990; 2518 NE 82nd Ave., 262-8816.
$6.50 small, $6.95 large
This favorite of Portland's foodie crowd has a large, reportedly comfortable branch on Southeast 82nd Avenue—which I've never visited. It would feel wrong to abandon the bizarre charm of the original location on Northeast Sandy, in what appears to be an old A&W. Where else can you find 1960s fast-food architecture paired with heavy granite tables?
Broth: Remarkably, almost overpoweringly beefy. There's not much here in the way of complexity, but the marrowy goodness is hard to beat. 4/5
Meat: Tender brisket with a good, strong flavor, and lots of it. There's more meat per bowl here than elsewhere. 5/5
Vegetables: Plenty of the usual suspects, plus culantro leaves. And it's fresh! 5/5
Condiments: Chilis, sriracha and hoisin—and that's it. 2/5
Bonus: The big-screen TV blaring CNN while you eat, which my companion calls "very Vietnam." Super-speedy service.
4/5 points overall
1919 SE 82nd Ave., 788-5244; 3404 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 230-1474; 11651 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Beaverton, 788-5244.
$6.50 small, $6.95 large
The largest of Portland's Pho empires, Pho Van has positioned itself as the beginner's Vietnamese restaurant. The menus at the Hawthorne location are entirely in English and contain relatively few frightening dishes (no fried blood, for instance), and the decor at all three restaurants (plus the upscale offshoot, Silk, in the Pearl) tends toward the sleek and polished.
Broth: A decent, clear broth with few onions. It's real beef stock, but nothing to crow over. 3/5
Meat: Paper-thin slices of tender, tasty beef, cooked medium-rare. The best of our survey by far. 5/5
Veggies: A tiny plate with one slice of lime, one sprig of basil and no culantro. But it's very fresh! 3/5
Condiments: A tablespoon each of hoisin and sriracha. They'll bring you the bottle if you ask. 1/5
Bonus: The best (and possibly only) Vietnamese restaurant to take your vegan pals to.
3/5 points overall
3634 NE Sandy Blvd., 235-4411.
$5.95 small, $6.95 large.
This overdecorated—think suburban strip-mall Thai, all gaudy earth tones and plastic greenery—restaurant next to I-84 wins points for its name and clip art-laden menu, and has a surprisingly long wine list. But that's about all you can say for it.
Broth: Flavorless saltwater. There's a hint of beef in here somewhere, but it's barely noticeable. 2/5
Meat: Tough and flavorless. And, with about three slices in a large bowl, hard to find. 1/5
Veggies: The usual pile of basil, lime and beans, plus culantro. Not as fresh as elsewhere. 3/5
Condiments: Sriracha, tuong, hoisin. 2/5
Bonus: Not only is there a fine stained-glass piece depicting a steaming bowl of pho—there are low-carb options, too! It's like 2004 all over again.
2/5 points overall