For the first few months of the pandemic, I avoided noodle soups when ordering takeout.
There's something about a giant piping hot bowl placed on the table in front of you that can't be replicated when served out of a plastic container. Often you're faced with soggy noodles and lukewarm broth.
The only thing harder to capture in a to-go box? Haute cuisine, with its foams, intricate plating and the whole indulgent experience of sitting in a finely appointed room and having a glass of expertly selected wine poured by a pro. Wasn't that lovely?
So when the kitchens at Vietnamese fine-dining upstart Berlu and Thai prix fixe legend Langbaan both pivoted to making à la carte noodle soups for the winter, I felt these might be the exception to my self-imposed rule. Both spots are using their fine-tuned attention to detail on their bowls, and it turns out that's exactly what a good soup to go really needs.
The soups at chef Vince Nguyen's Berlu are the more elusive of the two shops'. He's making two per week, one with meat and one vegan, available for pickup on Fridays at Southeast 6th and Morrison. Ordering goes up on Berlu's website at noon on Monday, and the soups sell out within minutes.
On a recent Friday, I collected orders of bun mang ga and bun mang chay in returnable takeout containers neatly nestled with a list of instructions on how best to heat and prepare your bowl at home. (Hint: You'll need a stove and a pot. Also, do not overcook those noodles.)
The bun mang ga—made of shredded organic chicken breast, chicken hearts, bamboo, sprouts and herbs—was deeply rich and gingery, with medium-thick rice vermicelli noodles. Nguyen's care for the craft meant the chicken arrived still pink, so that it didn't overcook as you heated the soup. All it needed was a small dollop of the accompanying chile to kick it into serious cold-busting territory. It is, as Nguyen writes in the instructions, a warm embrace by way of noodle soup.
The vegan bun mang chay, with maitake mushroom, roasted Brussels sprouts, greens, bamboo and herbs, failed to reach the same level—instead, it was more like a bracing tonic. I could have also used a bit more in the topping department: Each soup is $18, and if I had just eaten the vegan soup, I'd have needed a snack not long after. Fortunately, Berlu is also operating as a bakery on weekends, and you can add treats like a pandan waffle or a slice of mango roll cake to your order.
At Langbaan, owner Earl Ninsom rebranded to Thai drinking snacks and noodle soup, meaning you can (and definitely should) add bites like its famous scallops with coconut cream (two for $9) and supremely flavorful fried fermented short ribs ($12).
But the real stars are the seven soups, including a hearty beef noodle curry topped with grilled short rib ($24), with pickled cabbage providing a kick that keeps the soup from becoming too heavy. The beef perches above thick egg noodles like a ship adrift on the tastiest ocean, and you will wind up very full if you try and eat it all in one go. Which, you know, go for it—YOLO and all that stuff.
Boat noodles ($16), a Thai menu standard bearer, gets cheffed up as well, arriving in a rich stock of oxtails, filled with more oxtail, beef meatballs and egg noodles, and a black cod rice soup ($18) is a soothing ginger embrace.
The standout is undoubtedly the seafood dumpling soup ($21). It's like an ocean in a bowl: This baby's got shredded king crab and two fat shrimp swimming in a garden of seaweed, with islands of plump dumplings filled with halibut. I eat a lot of noodle soups, and this one was a first, achieving a depth of flavor that most seafood-based stocks could only dream of. It's very salty and slightly spicy, with a ton of herbal infusion. Unlike the far less subtle beef curry soup, this one kept me guessing with each bite, and filled me up without driving me to the brink of explosion.
Langbaan and its sister restaurant, Paadee, have limited sidewalk seating, so you can enjoy the soups in person. But the care the chefs put into packaging and preparing these soups means that you're going to do just as well at home, which is where we all belong anyway.
Five Other Awesome Noodle Soups in Portland
Super Bowl A at Good Taste
18 NW 4th Ave., 503-223-3838.
This is probably the largest bowl of soup in the state of Oregon, but none of the additions are unnecessary. Good Taste starts with a wonton noodle soup—fat wontons with whole shrimp in each, along with bok choy and egg noodles—then heaps BBQ pork and roasted duck and pork on top in the name of decadence.
Dac Biet at Pho Oregon
2518 NE 82nd Ave., 503-262-8816.
Pho Oregon's house special is the finest example of this Northern Vietnamese special that I've had the pleasure of slurping in Portland. There are many fine bowls, but the rich, not-too-sweet broth, along with the finest balance of fatty tendon, chewy tripe and perfectly rare slices of beef and brisket make this my favorite.
Mi Quang at Rose VL
6424 SE Powell Blvd., 503-206-4344.
This is the soup. Rose VL is open during the pandemic and putting out its meticulous, James Beard Award-nominated soups in some of the most thoughtful to-go packages around. Available on Saturdays, Mi Quang is the one to order, with a crisp rice cracker sail gliding through a turmeric broth loaded with goodies.
Vegan Tonyu Red Ramen at Marukin
609 SE Ankeny St., Suite A; 126 SW 2nd Ave. (inside Pine Street Market); marukinramen.com.
This is a plant-based satisfier, based on soy milk for richness, with plenty of mushrooms and tofu to bulk it up. If you're not a vegan, add an egg for ultra-luxe completion.
Bun Bo Hue at Tèo Bun Bo Hue
8220 SE Harrison St., #230, 503-208-3532.
Respect to any place that just names itself after its signature dish. Tèo nails this central Vietnam staple (and its pho is excellent, too), right down to a precise level of spice, and that famous blood cube.