People love to tell stories about the therapeutic powers of soup. Whether it’s invigorating, supposedly immune-boosting Chinese bird’s nest soup; thin cabbage soup that mysteriously helps dieters melt away pounds; or even the soothing cure-all, “Jewish penicillin” (really just chicken soup, preferably with matzoh balls), we see our broths as more than the sum of their ingredients.
I had no idea there was anything curative about rich, beef-based pho until my third visit to Huong’s Vietnamese Restaurant, when our server stopped to talk with a sniffly couple at the next table. “Pho is the best thing for you when you have a cold and you can’t breathe. Just put all the jalapeño, basil and lime in there,” she said, while sliding the condiment caddy into the center of the table. “And add lots of this hot chili sauce. Your sinuses will clear up right away. Pho is magic.”
That’s goes double if you’re talking about a bowl of chef/owner Huong Le’s aromatic noodle soup. According to her daughter, manager and fellow cook Trinh Le, Huong arrives at her St. John Street restaurant by 6:30 every morning to start preparations for three separate slow-simmering broths: chicken, beef and vegetarian. The meat-based broths begin with parboiled, marrow-filled bones, yellow rock sugar, cloves and star anise. But the most important element in all three is charred aromatics – onions and ginger whose carbonized exterior punctuates the clear broth with a thousand invisible exclamation points of bitterness and smoke.
Stir some long, sawtooth culantro, bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime into the white meat chicken pho ($7.95) and you’ve got a bowl of soft rice noodles and broth that lights up every corner of your mouth with bright flavors. If you’re in the mood for something a little more mellow, the pho with credit-card thin slices of eye round and pleasantly chewy meatballs ($7.95) adds an extra dimension of heartiness. Huong’s even manages to pull off wonderful, if unorthodox reworkings of the classic Vietnamese soup, like a completely vegetarian pho ($7.95), or a seafood version ($7.95), heaving with squid, fish balls and slices of abalone.
As good as Huong’s pho is, her round rice noodle soup ($9.95) is every bit its equal. A romaine lettuce-topped concoction of chicken broth and chubby, translucent rice noodles tracing long squiggles alongside shrimp, slices of pork and crispy fried onions, this is a chunky dish that stubbornly resists sipping, demanding instead that you shove a napkin into your collar and slurp.
“Don’t worry about the mess,” one of Huong Le’s daughters (her family runs the front-of-house) laughed on one recent visit. “I can see how much you enjoyed it.”
In truth, she had much the same reaction after the six of us finished passing around several shared appetizers, like golden, brittle-skinned vegetable egg rolls ($4.95), filled with savory mushrooms; and crunchy, deep-fried tofu triangles ($5.95), the texture of a stucco ceiling.
We were much tidier with the plump, slightly tacky fresh vegetarian and shrimp spring rolls ($3.95/$5.95) that we dipped into two sauces: one made from soy and peanuts, the other a sweet, vinegary dip, laced with umami-rich fish sauce and a little red chili. Be forewarned: These fat little parcels of rice noodles and herbs are more filling than they appear.
The same rice vermicelli used in the fresh spring rolls forms the foundation of bun (which rhymes with “moon”), a classic Vietnamese noodle salad that miraculously tastes healthy and comforting at the same time. On a base of finely chopped lettuce, mint and mung bean sprouts, Huong Le layers springy white noodles, then meat or seafood that has been marinated in oyster sauce, garlic and sugar and finishes with a drizzle of scallion oil and a generous handful of crushed peanuts. You can order a totally debauched bun topped with chopped egg rolls and shredded pork ($8.95), but the simple grilled beef ($9.95) and shrimp ($10.95) versions are better (and undoubtedly better for you).
Even Huong’s less successful dishes are perfectly decent. Like undersauced South Asian lo mein with vegetables ($8.95), made with carrots, broccoli and egg noodles similar to rough, twisty linguini – overall, a little dull. So too, an inoffensive, but too-loose Vietnamese vegetable fried rice ($8.95) that left me full but wishing I had ordered bun.
The craft-store chic dining room isn’t much to look at, either, with long lace curtains, several bouquets of fake flowers and a utilitarian tiled floor. Décor and atmosphere are not a priority at Huong’s, and perhaps that is as it should be. Instead, during the past two and a half years in the restaurant’s current location, and more than a dozen on Cumberland Avenue, Huong Le has opted to spend her time refining and revising her menu. Her approach to preparing Vietnamese for a rapidly evolving city has never stopped adapting.
“When my mom first started, it was really not so easy. But now people here are interested in tasting new things, lots of Vietnamese foods, not just pho. They’re excited to do it,” Trinh Le said.
To accommodate Portland’s ever-more-adventurous palate, the restaurant now offers weekly specials, as well as a few surprises on the regular menu, like a spicy, bracingly tart and minty green mango salad ($15.95), funky from fish sauce and dried shrimp and large enough to share among three people.
Then there’s Huong’s take on dessert: an array of fruit smoothies (all $3.50) including soursop, green tea, avocado and my favorite, durian, a spiky fruit that tastes like the love child of a gym shoe and a banana. As weird as it sounds – and it does – a cold durian shake, with its oniony overtones and creamy fruitiness, is a phenomenal way to end a meal full of spicy heat and punchy herbal flavors. If you’re not feeling quite so daring, the strawberry smoothie is also a lovely option.
On a recent visit, I skipped dessert altogether, preferring to savor the cactusy prickles of peppery heat on my lips as I drove home. They had long since faded into memory by the time I sat down at my desk, and I wondered when I might make it back to Huong’s. But that same evening, right before bed, I felt the start of a winter cold coming on – and rather than reach for the vitamin C, I called a friend and made lunch plans.
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: