Vietnamese Restaurants in Portland, Oregon. Yum!

By on October 30, 2017

By Doug Mitchell

I first experienced Vietnamese food in Los Angeles at a restaurant owned by a “boat person” who spoke perfect French. The year was 1977, and I was writing for a westside newspaper that covered the Orthodox Jewish section of L.A. There, nestled amid the Kosher salami and kreplach, was a tiny Fairfax Avenue eatery that specialized in the cuisine of Vietnam, a country we still didn’t fully understand, but one with which we had just fought a long, grueling war.

The owner, a pleasant, mustachioed man in his late 40s, had only recently arrived in the United States, a refugee who was able to rescue what was left of his family from the devastation of his native Saigon. For whatever reason, he and I became fast friends, and slowly, he taught me some of the history of Vietnam and of its wonderful people and cuisine.

Even though I had learned of the French colonization of Vietnam and Cambodia in school, it never really sank into my youthful brain. Strangely, it was through my friend’s explanation of the food that I began to realize the influence France had on the culture of the land and its people. That Banh Mi sandwich I came to love was served on what resembled a French baguette and smeared with a smooth and flavorful, (and very French,) pate, and the omelet I ate for lunch, crepe-like and filled with seafood, was almost the identical one Julia Child, The French Chef, was demonstrating to her TV audiences.

To me, it seemed as if Chinese food were suddenly shifted to Paris, but this was years before Wolfgang Puck opened his famous Chinos on Main, in Santa Monica. This international mixing of traditional flavors and ingredients was what would become known in the 1990s as Fusion Cuisine, and it would revolutionize the restaurant world and the taste buds of American foodies from Lawrence, Massachusetts to Portland, Oregon.

Among the dozens of Vietnamese restaurants that made it across the great divide to the City of Roses, is my personal favorite, Fish Sauce, in what is known as the Alphabet District of northwest Portland. Named after the ubiquitous fermented anchovy condiment of South East Asia, the restaurant sports a long, common table down its middle, bordered by traditional tables and chairs. Its non-assuming style reminds me very much of my first Vietnamese haunt on Fairfax in L.A.

The result is an inviting atmosphere that cries out home-style eating, and owner, Lauren Huynh, herself an immigrant from South Vietnam, and her family, serve up a menu of traditional and modern Vietnamese specialties to satisfy the most demanding palate.
The highest on my list of menu favorites is a bowl of hog heaven called Thit Kho, an exquisite combination of pork belly slow braised in coconut water, green onions and nuoc mam (the untranslated “fish sauce”). The stew is slowly braised until the pork literally melts, filling the broth with a delicious unctuousness that calms the soul as well as the belly. Whole hard-cooked eggs are added and left until they adopt the luscious brown color of the liquid. The resulting dish is served in a clay pot, with a mound of white rice and a side of fermented vegetables (dua chua).

According to Lauren, Thit Kho is generally a New Year’s (Tet) dish, but she makes sure it’s available through most of the year. I have never seen it on any other Vietnamese restaurant menu in town, and consider it one of the finest dishes in Portland. Worth calling for in advance.

Another stand-out specialty is a dish Lauren calls Botta’s Favorite, though I don’t know why. It’s a combination of deliciously grilled lemongrass pork or chicken and grilled shrimp served over jasmine-flavored rice and topped with two fried eggs.
Grilled meats are a Vietnamese staple and are common throughout the country. What separates this dish from the others is the addition of the eggs, fried, but still runny, creating a sauce that, combined with the grilled meats and fragrant rice, comes to the mouth in pure pleasure.

Ga Hainan, (Hainanese chicken), presents a seemingly simple plate of poached Draper Valley chicken with a fine sauce of soy, ginger and garlic. This is a main staple of Southeast Asian cooking and the national dish of Singapore with its roots in the Hainan Provence of China. The chicken is slowly poached in its own broth at just below the boiling point until it is fork tender and juicy. It is served with a large portion of white rice, the garlic sauce and fermented vegetables. The ideal dish for someone who loves chicken in its purest form.

Naturally, Pho is on the menu, and is prepared with your choice of thinly sliced filet mignon and Vietnamese meatballs or chicken. Chao Tom, sugarcane sticks wrapped in minced shrimp meat and fried, Lettuce Wraps, Vietnamese salads and the popular Banh Mi, the aforementioned baguette sandwiches in several varieties are also included on the carte. Prices at Fish Sauce are more than fair, with dishes running in the $12 to $18 range, and the restaurant offers a Happy Hour menu before and after dinner hours that offers most of the menu items at reduced cost.

There is a full bar featuring exotic drink concoctions as well as beer, wines, sake and specialty drinks. Ca Phe Su’a Da, another reminder of the French influence, is a rich dark coffee, brewed to order, sweetened with condensed milk and usually served cold. A perfect ending to a perfect visit to one of Portland’s finest Vietnamese restaurants.
Fish Sauce is open for lunch and dinner daily, excluding Sundays, and is at 407 NW 17th Avenue in Portland, Oregon. Phone 503-227-8000.

About Linda Eckhardt

Linda West Eckhardt, is an award winning journalist, food writer, and nutritionist. Her more than 20 cookbooks have garnered prizes including the James Beard prize for the best cookbook for a text she wrote with her daughter, Katherine West DeFoyd, entitled Entertaining 101, Doubleday. Their follow-up book, Stylish One Dish Dinners, Doubleday, was also nominated for a James Beard prize. Their next book, The High Protein Cookbook, Clarkson Potter, remains a best seller after 12 years. That book was designed to accompany low carb diet plans. Her ground-breaking book, Bread in Half The Time, Broadway Books, was named the Best Cookbook in America by the prestigious IACP, The Julia Child award. Her award winning radio work with Jennifer English, for a national show on the Food and Wine radio network, was nominated for a James Beard Prize for a show called, “I Know What You Ate Last Summer.”