Sunday, September 21, 2008

Pho Van 82nd

Another phenomenal meal on Saturday night. Pho Van on 82nd.

I had eaten here once before, right after moving to Portland. It was less refined than it is now, with bistro-style seating and a more..."Styrofoam box to go" sort of flavor. I had heard from the H-man that it was one of his favorite places to eat, so I had to give it a try again. I'd been hanging out with a seasoned food critic that day, and they agreed to give this place a thorough once-over for dinner.

On arrival, I notice that parking is awkward all the way around. Oh well. That's what I get for removing power steering from my truck... The front desk could be any asian restaurant anywhere. We were seated in a booth below some faux-rice-paper shades, which were actually grass-patterned plexiglass light covers. It was a good solution for lighting and made the whole place more pleasant. It's a rather open building with high ceilings and a semi-courtyard feel to everything. I liked that I couldn't hear any music playing, or if it was it was so non-offensive that I didn't notice it. Recently, my asian dining experiences have been made less pleasant due to the piercing drone of traditional instruments combined with the semi-nasal singing in languages I don't comprehend. All of this is usually played at too high a volume. Sometimes there will be a beautiful piece played, but that seems all too rare.

After poring over the menu, my dining companion and I decided to try the "7 Course Beef" in order to try a broad range of dishes at a reasonable price. The menu says it serves two, and it does, but these are not the sort of dish you can take home if you don't finish it all. I elected to get chrysanthemum tea in order to avoid caffeine that late in the day. It was aromatic and delicious, with a strong flavor of sticks.

Our seven course meal started with a salad. Oh, what a salad. Shredded Daikon, baby celery (I think?), onions, fried scallions, and succulent strips of beef. It had a slightly spicy vinegary dressing and the whole dish had tremendous depth of flavor. I could have eaten just a mountain of that salad for dinner and been extremely satisfied. There were puffed rice-crackers on the side, which added some different texture. I am so glad that I came back here, because they are only about 5 minutes from my work! Whoooooo!

Once we had killed the salad, the waitress started bringing out dish after dish of odd things:

  • One plate of cooked cold vermicelli noodles, with some chopped green onion on top
  • One plate of rice paper triangles
  • A slotted ceramic tank of hot water to soften the rice paper
  • A portable stove, with a bowl containing broth with scallions & other tasty things floating in it
  • A plate of thinly sliced raw beef with onions and scallions sliced on top
  • Little bowls of a bizarre and wonderful sauce
  • A giant tray of fruits & vegetables & greens:

    • Spearmint
    • Cilantro
    • Lettuce
    • Small chilis
    • Lemon Balm (or a close asian relative...)
    • Bean Sprouts
    • Daikon
    • Carrot
    • Green apple
    • Pineapple
    • Cucumber

Our server referred to the whole shebang as the "Hot Pot" and once she had them all set up, we were walked through making our own rolls. Obviously a pro, she lit the stove and grabbed a rice paper triangle. Dunked it in the slotted ceramic hot-water holder and dropped it on a plate. She promptly grabbed some fruits and veggies from the plate, topped them with an assortment of greens, and threw some noodles on top. The water was boiling by this point, so she dumped the onions and scallions from on top of the beef into the pot. She gave it a minute or so to cook, and then grabbed a slice of the beef. I think these are the same little slices of beef that you get in your Pho. She cooked it to medium, about 10 seconds. Once the beef was cooked, she put it on top of the pile of veggies etc. and within seconds had a marvelously shaped roll. Unfortunately, it didn't end up on my plate but now I could a similar roll for my own. Which I did. Again, and again. After the beef was gone, we experimented with combinations of veggies and also grabbed the cooked scallions from the broth on the stove to add to the flavor.

The waitress showed up again, this time with a plate full of (suprise!) more beef.
Three different kinds of rolls, two of each style. Also, a mound of something resembling hamburger. They also included four more puffed rice crackers.
Two of the rolls were basically rolled up strips of beef, fried with different sauces or seasonings. The whole set were delicious and amazing to my mouth. I ate part of each as an ingredient in a roll to break up the meatiness of it. The third roll was basically the same components as the hamburger mound, but shaped and fried.

The water in the vase began to cool, so the rice papers weren't rolling as well. I finished this course by eating some of the remaining fruit.

Towards the end I was slowing down a bit, because all of the flavors (and all the meat) overload your brain. Fruit in a roll is brilliant and it was very novel for me. I also enjoyed the wide variety of greens. The variety of flavors I got to encounter in this dinner was astonishing and exciting for me.

I also ate here for lunch today. Pho #3. Fatty brisket, round steak, and flank.
Good, deep, savory broth. Not too broad a flavor profile, but it was still very tasty. My opinion of the meats wandered a bit, with the fatty brisket being more cow flavored bubblegum and the other two ranking right up there with the other meats I had on Saturday. Their vegetable plate for this soup isn't terribly generous. You get a handful of bean sprouts, a lime wedge, one medium branch of basil, and a couple slivers of jalapeno. I would have liked more chili to spice up the ocean of broth, but it all worked well together. $7.00 for a bowl of soup bigger than your head, plus $1.50 for a pot of chrysanthemum tea? Wow, now THAT'S a lunch!

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