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May 25, 2009 01:30 PM

Beyond the Pho -- Portland's Other Vietnamese Noodles

Here's my primer on non-pho Vietnamese noodles available in Portland. Vietnamese is one of my favorite cuisines, and while in this day and age lots of people know about pho, there's much more available out there. I think the depth of options here in Portland might surprise the casual observer.

One of the easiest places to start is simply by changing noodles. While the signature component of a good bowl of pho is a beefy broth, it's surprising how easily a thinner noodle changes the whole make up of a bowl of soup. Bun is a thinner, vermicelli noodle that's most often used with pork and seafood. You can find many noodle salads that use bun along with veggies tossed through with a vinaigrette, but soups are equally as likely. One of the most delicious bun noodles is available at Ngoc Han Bun Bo Hue on SE 82nd, near Division. The bun nuoc leo dish takes bits of crisped up roast pork to form the meaty backbone, while crunchy texture comes from shredded cabbage and banana blossom.

No roundup of Vietnamese noodles in Portland would be complete without mentioning Ha&VL Sandwiches, made famous for their rotating daily soup selection. Each day, a different noodle soup is made available to order, typically selling out by 11:30am! All are delicious, but particularly noteworthy is the banh canh cua, a rice noodle soup that features a wonderful silky texture from the generous heaping of crab meat. Juliennes of Vietnamese ham add a slightly salty flavor, while shrimp, quail egg and fried garlic add further complexity.

A popular dive bar stop for karaoke, Yen Ha also features quite a surprising number of hard-to-find noodle soups on their non-English specials board. One really can't go wrong throwing a dart at this specials board, but one quite unique soup is mi quang. This is an egg noodle, similar to chow mein, but the signature aspect of this soup is the deep red tomato soup as well as the rice cracker. The toasted rice cracker (bánh đa) as well as chopped peanuts give the soup texture, while shrimp (both normal-sized cooked shrimp and smaller dried shrimp) give the soup an interesting flavor to contrast the slightly tart tomato broth.

Sometimes you don't have to go too far to mix things up a bit. Pho Oregon on NE 82nd Ave is probably the best pho in Portland, but if you look further on their menu, you'll note other noodle soups as well. Most carry English descriptions to help you along, but one is translation-less. It's bun mam, and it's the kind of extra funky dish that's so far removed from a Westerner's palate that they don't even bother to describe it! It uses the same bun vermicelli noodles noted earlier, but the broth is almost entirely focused on fish sauce and shrimp paste. The slippery noodles act as a surprising counterpoint to the deep, funky, fermented flavors of the broth. In the mix as well is shrimp and eggplant. Definitely not one for the faint of heart, bun mam is understandably a dish that's hard to do well, but Pho Oregon's rendition is extremely delicious.

Pics and more:

Ngoc Han Bun Bo Hue Vietnamese Restaurant
8230 SE Harrison St, Portland, OR 97216

HA & VL Sandwich and Soup
2738 SE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR

Yen Ha
6820 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR 97213

Pho Oregon Restaurant
2518 NE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR 97220

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  1. i like Bun Bo Hue ['BBH'] very much. even got off the train in Hue [for a few hours] just to eat it LOL... unfortunately all the BBHs outside VN i've had since couldn't measure up. and still i keep trying.

    Bun Rieu Cua is another firm favourite. still remember how i enjoyed eating it on the pavement all over VN.

    heaven in a bowl, and only for 50 cents....

    3 Replies
    1. re: Pata_Negra

      It surprised me when I first visited Portland that there were a couple of BBH specialists, and that while it shows up on a couple of other menus around town, I think the original BBH Restaurant on SE 82nd is still the best and deepest flavor'ed of all of them.

      Bun Bo Hue Restaurant
      7002 SE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR 97266

      1. re: Pata_Negra

        Best in town is La Vang in Lake Oswego. Yes. . . . .Lake Oswego. The key is the broth. Their classic beef pho broth has about 18 ingredients and takes a day to make. Check it out if you do not believe me.

        1. re:

          I guess that just might be a careful choosing of words. If the town is Lake Oswego, then, ok, they are the best in town. If you mean Portland, then I couldn't disagree more. Their broth was so sweet I thought I was in Panda Express. They also don't have some common ingredients, although tripe can be requested even though it's not on the menu. I applaud that there is even a pho joint in LO, but the best? Please.

      2. Oh my yes, the crab soup at HA&VL was breakfast this morning and it was truly amazing. We also loved today's other offering, banh canh Saigon, a delicate clear broth, with the big rice noodles, and hunks of tender pork and chicken, as well as three prawns. This place is so great, the people are so nice and they open early for breakfast. Very nice for us travelers. We wish we had such a place up here in Washington. Regarding the recent thread comparing Portland and Seattle, Asian noodles is one area that Portland definitely excels.

        1. HA and VL. Hands down. Not to denigrate any of the other fine places and soups, but for sheer variety and "home cooked by Mom" taste, HA and VL wears the crown. It's incredible.

          1. I'm reposting this from a new thread into an old one in hopes of getting clues. Being from out of town, I returned to Ngoc Han Bun Bo Hue (which I've thoroughly enjoyed several times) last month to discover it was gone. In its place was Huynh Gia. We enjoyed the pho, especially since we can't get ANY Vietnamese food near home, but I was disappointed in what I tasted as an over-played star anise broth.

            We did get to Ha & VL once and found it terrific!

            I'm planning for a small group of us in November and we'll want to eat at about 4 PM. Are Yen Ha and Pho Oregon (on NE 82nd) really our good choices? Since we'll be further south, is Bun Bo Hue a good choice? Is there anything else in that neighborhood that's really good?

            Thanks for clues.

            Yen Ha
            6820 NE Sandy Blvd, Portland, OR 97213

            Pho Oregon Restaurant
            2518 NE 82nd Ave, Portland, OR 97220