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Monday, September 12, 2005

Sizzling Vietnamese Fajitas

The sizzling fajitas of Vietnamese: banh xeo, a crispy crepe

Pho Van has three locations: one in the Beaverton burbs, one in the chic Pearl District, and, the original, on the Asian-dominated 82nd Ave. I haven't been to the Beaverton location, but I understand that it emphasizes pho and grilled dishes. The Pearl District only has one version of pho on their menu, but a plenitude of other items, including a selection of fancy Western desserts. The 82nd location just re-opened after a re-modeling, both of the decor and their menu. The menu still has a full selection of pho and grilled dishes, but also includes hot pots and the seven courses of beef, great for family or friends to share. They also added some of their popular Pearl dishes, such as the lotus and banana blossom salads.

I prefer the Pearl location, Pho Van Bistro. The execution and service surpasses the 82nd location. The menu at the Bistro is also a little more upscale and interesting. One of their signature dishes, available at both locations, is banh xeo, a large Vietnamese crepe filled with shrimp, scallops, bean sprouts, and mung beans ($10.50 for lunch, $12 for dinner). It's served with a side of lettuce and herbs and a salty/tangy sauce. The crepe itself is enormous and often hangs over the plate. The dish advertises itself, like sizzling fajitas in a Chili's.

Another signature dish is the goi bap chuoi (banana blossom salad), a combination of shredded banana blossoms, tender shredded chicken, jicama, grapefruit, rau ram (a Southeast Asian herb), and toasted sesame seeds ($6.50 for lunch, $7 for dinner). It's served in a large banana blossom "petal" and dressed with a salty-sweet-tangy sauce. It's a perfect balance of flavors and textures that captures the best features of Vietnamese food in one dish.

Before I started this series of explorations, I remembered Pho Van's beef noodle soup as somewhat bland, always squirting the hoisin and Sriracha into the bowl before chowing down. But it's not bland. It's subtle. And there is a difference. The necessary aromas are there -- ginger, anise, cinnamon -- but none dominates and none overpowers. Pho Van Bistro serves their pho ($8 lunch, $8.50 dinner) with hoisin and Sriracha on the side, the way purists demand, each filling half of a small round saucer so that the eater can dip their meats without ruining the subtley of the broth. Each cut of beef is high quality and tender. Slices of round are often still a little pink.

Pho Van is a midscale Vietnamese restaurant, like San Francisco's Slanted Door, that cares about more than just the superficialities of their food. Sure, the bistro will be filled with yuppies and the prices will nearly double some of the cheaper places in town, but the quality of the ingredients, consistency of the execution, attentiveness of the service, and pleasantness of the interior make up for that discrepancy. And don't forget to order dessert. The banana bread pudding with coconut milk and tapioca sauce is a personal favorite.

Pho Van Bistro
1012 NW Glisan
Portland, OR 97209

Pho Van: The Street Foods of Vietnam
1919 SE 82nd Ave
Portland, OR 97216

Pho Van Vietnamese Noodle Soups and Grill
11651 SW Beaverton Hillsdale Hwy
Beaverton, OR 97005
Pho Dalat

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