Over the last decade, the name Veranda has become synonymous with Asian food in Portland. Hai Pham and Sonka Nguyen launched their empire in East Deering with two restaurants that stare across the street at one another: Veranda Thai and the Vietnamese-focused Veranda Noodle Bar. The husband-and-wife team then moved into Woodfords Corner, where they opened Veranda Asian Market (and Chinese BBQ) in 2012, and late last year, a fourth business in the Old Port, Veranda Noodle House. Throughout, they say their expansion across the city has been driven by one purpose: to expose more people to the cuisines they adore.

Shrimp Sugarcane

Shrimp Sugarcane. Shawn Patrick Quellette/Staff Photographer

Veranda’s new outpost, in the nearly unchanged, exposed brick space formerly occupied by the Salt Exchange, takes this goal seriously by serving a vast menu whose length and breadth rivals that of a diner. Comprising what Nguyen described as their favorite dishes from the original two restaurants, the 100+ item menu (not including a few dozen lunch specials), includes dozens of Thai dishes that require complicated sauces as well as an equal number of simpler Vietnamese dishes that, because of their long cooking times, are every bit as time-consuming to prepare. Such an ambitious menu creates a frantic urgency for the kitchen. “We make everything ourselves. Right now, with all the Vietnamese and Thai dishes – especially the appetizers – it’s already keeping our kitchen crazy busy,” she said.

So busy that everyone, including front of house staff, is occasionally enlisted to help out with prep work: “When you have any free time, or if it gets slow, you go [make] dumplings for the next day. It’s a lot of work,” Nguyen said. “But is all so good, we didn’t want to leave anything out.”

If the quality of the steamed Thai dumplings ($6) is an indicator of how well that strategy is working, it may be time to reconsider. While the ground pork, ginger and chopped napa cabbage filling was beautifully seasoned and portioned well, the dough wrappers were sticky, thick and downright stodgy.

The calamari puffs ($8) also reflected a lack of careful attention. Too heavily battered and barely warm when they arrived at the table, this appetizer tasted strongly of not-so-fresh fryer oil – all the more surprising given that we arrived to a nearly empty restaurant at the very beginning of dinner service.

Luckily, we also ordered the fresh Vietnamese shrimp spring rolls ($7), light, rice-paper wrapped soft parcels stuffed with cooling layers of carrot, lettuce, rice noodles, mint leaves and a single, bias-cut scallion stem instead of the usual chives. When dipped into the accompanying sweet-sour fish sauce, these highlighted chef Pham’s ability to build complex flavors and improve upon classics through very small alterations.

This same skill was evident in the Shrimp Sugarcane & Viet Ham vermicelli salad ($14), a dish that brought together smoky grilled skewers of ham and shrimp paste, slippery rice noodles and cucumber to create a stellar Vietnamese bun. The kitchen slices the crispy shrimp and pork off their sugarcane skewers where they are sweetened naturally during grilling, and presents them garnished with loads of cilantro and mint. When excellent street food and traditional home cooking meet, it looks and tastes exactly like this.

Crispy Bird Nest

Crispy Bird Nest. Shawn Patrick Quellette/Staff Photographer

No Vietnamese dish reveals a chef’s skills better than his or her pho, a beef soup made by charring aromatic ingredients like ginger, onion and star anise, and simmering them for several hours in a beef bone stock. It’s a process that takes patience and hard work, as the soup must be skimmed regularly until it loses all traces of cloudiness. Veranda’s rare beef and flank pho ($12) was a solid, respectable version – a bit heavy on the star anise, but ultimately perfectly satisfying when mixed with the accompanying fresh herbs, jalapeño and squeeze of tingly acidity from the lime wedge.

The quality of these two mains helped counteract our table’s disappointment at one of the evening’s weakest dishes, the Spicy Basil Haddock ($18). There is no getting around the fact that our haddock fillet was ruinously overcooked, steamed into a rubbery plank and then topped with stir-fried red and green bell peppers, mushrooms and onions. The basil seed paste that made up the base of the sauce lent it a lovely aroma, but all other flavors were muted and pushed into the background by sugar and hot chili pepper – even at a spice level of two out of four stars.

Our server (who would recommend to us only dishes that were “what people usually order” and not what she personally enjoyed eating) encouraged us to us try the Drunken Noodles with tofu ($12), explaining that they get their name because they get drunk in the sauce. Nguyen later explained further, “When you cook it, you don’t have to soften the noodles beforehand. They take in all the flavor and get soft as the chef flips the wok.” Built on a foundation of broad, flat rice noodles and embellished with pan-fried vegetables and cubes of firm tofu, this plate alone of all the Thai dishes we ate struck a decent balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.

PORTLAND, ME - APRIL 21: Fresh Spring Roll at Veranda Noodle House Thursday, April 21, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Fresh Spring Roll at Veranda Noodle House Thursday, April 21, 2016. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The stark contrast between the largely successful Vietnamese offerings and the hit-or-miss Thai dishes is worth paying attention to, especially in a restaurant where understaffing creates significant problems. Nevertheless, it’s a straightforward problem to solve: A much shorter menu with a tight focus on Vietnamese classics would highlight Veranda’s considerable strengths. It would also give Pham and Nguyen more of a platform to really engage with their passion to share the very best of the food they love with a city that is always hungry for more.

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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