Sunday, December 8, 2013
By Shonna Milliken Humphrey
Pho rhymes with "duh," and this Vietnamese beef soup claims as many legends surrounding its origin as it does American menu variations.
Thanh Thanh 2 offers homey and warm decor with a full bar. Another plus: a consistently friendly greeting and quick service, both for takeout and dining in.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
Thanh Thanh 2 is located near a takeout pizza chain on outer Forest Avenue.
Photos by Gabe Souza/Staff Photographer
THANH THANH 2, 782 Forest Ave., Portland, 828-1114; thanhthanh2.com
HOURS: 10:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Sunday
PRICE RANGE: $3.95 to $12.95, with most entrees in the $8 range
CREDIT CARDS: All major
VEGETARIAN: Yes. Nice selection of gluten-free options.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: Although the building facade is not pretty, Thanh Thanh 2 merits a trip to busy Forest Avenue for its welcoming service and authentic Vietnamese cuisine. Each entree is layered with flavor and served in ample proportion for the price, and pho seekers will not be disappointed. Add a cup of fresh coconut juice ($3) to sip on the drive home, and Thanh Thanh 2 makes for excellent takeout.
Ratings follow this scale: * Poor ** Fair *** Good
**** Excellent ***** Extraordinary
While there is no definitive pho history, many argue convincingly that the soup's name is a corruption of the French word for fire (feu) in "pot au feu," the classic boiled dish introduced to the country during Vietnam's French occupation.
Until the French arrival, Vietnamese cows were considered labor animals and typically not food, so this makes sense.
Whatever its origin, some of New England's tastiest and – although I hate the word's presumption – "authentic" pho can be eaten at Portland's Thanh Thanh 2.
Situated among the most nondescript of locations in a square white building, Thanh Thanh 2 shares a concrete parking lot with a takeout pizza chain in the traffic-heavy section of outer Forest Avenue. Nothing about its industrial facade is charming or inviting, and as a result, the restaurant feels like a locals-only secret.
Open the door, though, and watch the magic happen. First impressions include homey and warm decor with a large bar full of Asian customers during each of my suppertime visits. Matching cultural clientele is, typically, a good sign. Add a consistently friendly greeting and quick service – both for takeout and dining in – and the Thanh Thanh 2 dining experience starts well.
I acknowledge that in Asian restaurants, it's hard to mess up Cha Gio ($3.95 for two), the crispy fried egg rolls, and Goi Cuon Tom Ga ($3.95 for two), its fresh spring roll counterpart. Even when rolls are bad, they still taste OK. Likewise, it's difficult to note a five-star egg roll, and both Thanh Thanh rolls, the fried and the fresh, tasted OK.
The crispy fried egg rolls included a mixture of ground pork, chicken, shrimp, carrots, onions, rice vermicelli and mushrooms – served with a fragrant, homemade fish sauce. The fresh spring roll contained the same rice vermicelli, sliced chicken, shrimp and shredded lettuce, and the roll itself was equal parts chewy and overflowing – alongside a thick and salty peanut sauce.
For something a little different, but still accessible to a timid palate, try the Muc Chien Don Nha Trang ($12.95).
While the menu description, "squid salted and deep fried (spicy)" might be less than appetizing, these tangy sweet-and-sour pieces of breaded and crunchy-fried calamari were easily one of my favorite parts of the menu. The chili sauce cuts through any residual fryer oil taste, and the aromatic garlic had me craving the flavor of this dish long after the last piece was eaten.
Also a favorite, Goi Ga ($7.95) is Vietnamese cuisine's answer to cole slaw. This salad combines pulled chicken with shredded carrots, cabbage, fresh mint, roasted peanuts and onion in a salty-sweet dressing – further endorsement that Vietnamese fare is built on a foundation of balance in texture, flavor and scent.
Now the pho. Although pho has lost some of the "it food" trendiness it used to enjoy among epicurean personalities, it's still a major draw for Thanh Thanh 2, and a pho primer might be helpful.
Because pho originated in northern Vietnam, the dish's history gets weirdly political. In 1954, when the country was divided, northerners fleeing communism migrated south, bringing their traditionalist sensibilities with them – and these sensibilities included a purist version of pho.
"It was embellished with more of everything – meat, noodles and broth. The practice of garnishing pho with bean sprouts, cilantro, basil and lime was introduced," says Andrea Nguyen on her Viet World Kitchen website. "Diners also started adding bean sauce/hoisin sauce directly to their bowls. This freewheeling, adulterated incarnation reflected the southern Vietnamese penchant for eating wildly complicated food, and lots of it."
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