In an era when every facet of consumption feels like it’s been engineered in a lab for maximum marketability, Sunshine Noodles comes off as the exact opposite—and effortlessly cool.
But that makes sense: The pop-up-turned-restaurant is a reflection of head chef and proprietor Diane Lam. Best known as the chef de cuisine at Revelry, the buzzy late-night go-to for Korean drinking snacks, Lam had to pivot when that business closed during the pandemic. She’s helmed two temporary kitchens since then: first, Sunshine Noodles and then Cambodian-style fried chicken project Prey + Tell—both out of Psychic Bar on North Mississippi Avenue. Now, Lam has taken over the former XLB location in Slabtown to relaunch the noodle bar as a brick-and-mortar, making it all her own.
Stepping into the space, you’re greeted with neon lights and pink tiles inside the industrial concrete and metal building—creating an aesthetic that is, as Lam puts it, “Hello Kitty meets Blade Runner.”
There are, of course, plenty of tables, but the best seats in the house are at the countertop if you’re rolling solo or a party of two. That’s where you can watch Lam and her team working the wok station, tossing delicate water spinach into the pan for a quick wilt before it’s then served with garlic and oyster sauce. You’ll eat the appetizer using brightly colored, mismatched chopsticks—one pink, perhaps, the other maybe yellow.
It’s loud and it’s fun. And beyond that, the focused menu has some real hits.
The standout is not actually a noodle dish, but the catfish spring rolls ($12). The fish is blackened, then rolled into rice paper with herbs, vermicelli noodles, a thin slice of watermelon radish, and then topped with a citrusy nuoc cham sauce that’s a mixture of bitter, sweet, salt and funk.
Lam, who grew up in a Cambodian American family in Monterey Park, Calif., says the rolls are a riff on a holiday meal, where the fish was served whole and then rolled by each individual at the table with the ingredients of their choosing. Get at least one order to split between two people, and repeat every single visit.
A bowl of phnom penh noodles ($15), served “dry,” or not as a soup, is billed as the house special. The lacquered egg noodles are sourced from El Monte, Calif. (“the next city over” from her hometown), and served with a few pork wontons, shrimp, ground pork and crispy wonton skins. It’s also recommended to add a dash of the housemade chile oil, which is more smoky than hot.
There’s plenty of spice to be had on the menu, from a tomato-based beef brisket noodle stew ($16) that demands sips of cool water between bites or, more interestingly, in Lam’s fish sauce spaghetti and meatballs ($16). Al dente pasta is bathed in a chunky tomato sauce and fish sauce, which imparts depth, not fishiness, and has a serious kick of pepper and chile. Three beef-and-pork meatballs rest on top with shreds of basil.
“Hands down my best dish,” Lam says.
Vegetarians don’t have a lot of options on this tight menu, but those that are listed are well executed. Besides the charred winter greens ($10) and a handful of salads ($10-$11), the strongest dish is the lort cha ($14)—rice pin noodles, locally made Ota-brand tofu, mushrooms and a slightly sweet egg omelet. It has the best texture of any Sunshine Noodles entree thanks to the chewy noodles.
A few items need some small adjustments—the lime pepper wings ($14) are texturally perfect, coated in a gluten-free batter that leaves them crisp on the outside and succulent with each bite. But the balance of flavors was off during our visit, veering overly salty. The jungle brisket curry ($16) that appeared briefly on the menu was tasty, but the thin noodles in the dish failed to stand up to the sauce.
Bar manager Josh Whinnery has pulled together an inventive set of drinks, including a take on the (once again) popular espresso martini ($12), with Viet coffee and brown butter rye, as well as a lemongrass fruit punch with vodka ($12). Don’t skip the lemon go-bang sundae ($7) for dessert, a twist on a lemon meringue pie, with the fluffy topping toasted to order with a blow torch behind the bar.
Sunshine Noodles is still just shy of two months in business, and Lam continues to tweak the menu frequently. As of last week, she announced the launch of a three-day-a-week lunch service, which will include a Cambodian-style meatball sub with papaya pickles.
Overall, it’s a promising start.
EAT: Sunshine Noodles, 2175 NW Raleigh St., Suite 105, sunshinenoodlespdx.com. 5-9 pm Monday-Thursday, 11 am-3 pm and 5-9 pm Friday-Sunday.