Vien Dobui’s journey started with coffee, but Vietnamese food was always his destination.

Dobui, the chef and co-owner of Portland’s new noodle restaurant, Cong Tu Bot, got his start working as a brewing trainer at Blue Bottle Coffee, first in California then in New York. At Blue Bottle, he and his wife, co-owner Jessica Sheahan, befriended Cong Tu Bot’s current sous chef, Joseph Zohn, as well as Will and Kathleen Pratt, with whom the couple moved to Maine to start Tandem Coffee Roasters.

“But I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to open a Vietnamese restaurant. So pretty much whenever I could, I’d stage (intern) or train in restaurants on weekends,” Dobui said.

Along the way, he wove together his perspectives on food and coffee, finding them more similar than not. The result is a clear linearity of thinking that suffuses Cong Tu Bot, from the succinct list of dishes – four entrees, three appetizers, two desserts – to a no-tipping policy that equalizes the compensation of all the staff.

When asked how he describes Cong Tu Bot, Dobui said, “It depends on who I’m talking to. For most people, I just say it’s casual, with a simple menu. But, if they’re into food, I tell them it’s like Palace Diner (the upscale, unpretentious Biddeford diner where Dobui worked for a year), but for Vietnamese food.”

With their slim menus and sharp focus on high-quality ingredients, the two restaurants do feel like distant relatives. But their kinship goes further. Connections pop up unexpectedly, like pressed flowers that slip from the pages of an old book. One, the surprise appearance of revered former Palace Diner server Mel Shapiro, who worked a few shifts at Cong Tu Bot last month, made me do a double-take when I saw her out of context.

Or the banh pandan ($7) – a lilypad-green pound cake, sliced and browned on the flattop – that echoes the presentation of Palace Diner’s dense banana bread almost gesture-for-gesture. I laughed as I asked Dobui tentatively if he had noticed the similarity. “Absolutely. Are you kidding? One of my prep tasks was to make the banana bread at Palace. It definitely was an influence.” And it’s a brilliant move, tempering the strong nutty flavor of pandan with a buttery, caramelized richness.

Yet even as it makes culinary references to its peers, Cong Tu Bot manages to produce something wholly original. Take the pho ga ($13), a chicken-based soup bowl teeming with flat, fettuccine-like rice noodles and irregular shreds of tender chicken meat. Dobui and Zohn intentionally construct their version of this classic using techniques borrowed from Japanese ramen shops. Just as a ramen-ya might, they prepare each of the soup’s components separately, from pressure-cooked chicken stock simmered with charred onion, ginger and toasted spices, to the seasoning sauce that they winkingly call “pho tare,” a blend of sugar and fish sauce, steeped in a little XO sauce for depth. Right before service, the kitchen even cuts the broth with dashi and adds back a spoonful of chicken fat. It is both delicate and decadent – and phenomenally good.

So too, the goi cai bap ($6), a salad of Napa cabbage and endive, tangled together with mint, cilantro, bird’s-eye chilies and slivers of raw red onion. “It’s a great reset after eating some of the heavier food,” Dobui said. It might not be a date-night dish, but it is undeniably bright and fresh, thanks to a vividly acidic dressing of lime juice, rice vinegar, sugar and fish sauce. It works especially well to offset more savory dishes.

Two, in particular really demand a little counterbalance. The first, rau cai xao ($8), a side dish of slow-roasted delicata squash stir-fried with preserved black beans, peanuts, mustard, green onion and fermented tofu, is too salty, even when eaten in tiny bites with a scoop of steamed rice (com, $2). Similarly, the com chien ($13), fried rice with peas – prepared “Make it like Mom”-style with slices of red hot dog, canned pineapple, scallion and XO seafood sauce – is also sometimes over-salted, though never enough to keep me from identifying it for what it is: proper hangover food.

On one recent visit, I followed up my com chien with a soothing order of the che khuc bach dessert ($6), a “Jell-O” salad featuring three varieties of vegan agar-thickened cubes. That night, I spooned mung bean, sweet potato and coconut blocks from a loose, cold-brewed Jasmine tea “broth” infused with shiso syrup and pandan. Dobui calls it an acquired taste, and he’s got a point – it is not very sweet, and the tangy, floral flavors of the broth seem less like they belong in a dessert than in a beverage.

Bun Cha features cold vermicelli noodles with caramel pork patties, peanuts, herbs and a fish sauce for dipping. Staff photo by Gregory Rec

Whether it appeals to you or not, che khuc bach is emblematic of changes to come in Vietnamese dining in the United States. “Right now, we are where Italian food was in the ’80s. Everyone knows pho and banh mi sandwiches, and we’re finally at a point where people are ready to see more esoteric dishes and regionality. Now is the time to explore that,” Dobui said.

Another example is Cong Tu Bot’s northern Vietnamese take on bun cha ($15), a rice vermicelli bowl served with lettuce, herbs and pork sausage patties that Dobui and Zohn agonized over. Without a char-grill to lend smokiness, they tinkered with alternatives, eventually figuring out that bacon, burnt Vietnamese caramel and mushroom powder gave their patties the savory depth of flavor they wanted – just enough to anchor a lettuce-wrapped bite dipped into a shallow bowl of tart and ultra-garlicky fish-sauce broth. “It took a lot of iterations, but that’s the coffee nerd in us. We’re used to brewing the same cup 30 times,” Dobui said.

More than any other dish I have eaten at Cong Tu Bot, I am happiest to have been introduced to hu tieu xao ($12), a sweet, sticky and insanely spicy dish of chewy flat rice noodles that curl at their edges when they are heated in a volcanically hot wok along with Chinese broccoli, bird’s-eye chilies, jalapenos and cabbage. “We wanted to have something that you wouldn’t eat every day. It’s pretty much a vehicle for sugar and brown sauce,” Dobui said. Yet despite that, the dish is never too sweet. In no small part, that’s due to one key ingredient that brings out a sawtooth edge of bitterness in the brown sauce – one that slices cleanly across all the sugar and spicy heat. No surprise: It’s coffee.

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:

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Twitter: @AndrewRossME