As much of the year is spent in a cold dreary mist, it's perfectly understandable that pho has found a root hold in the Pacific Northwest. It's cheap, flavorful, and easy to customize, not to mention ubiquitous. But there are other Vietnamese noodles out there, and it's a testament to Portland that they're available locally if you just know where to look.
One of the easiest places to start is simply by changing noodles. While the signature component of a good bowl of pho is a beefy broth, it's surprising how easily a thinner noodle changes the whole make up of a bowl of soup. Bun is a thinner, vermicelli noodle that's most often used with pork and seafood. You can find many noodle salads that use bun along with veggies tossed through with a vinaigrette, but soups are equally as likely. One of the most delicious bun noodles is available at Ngoc Han Bun Bo Hue on SE 82nd, near Division. The bun nuoc leo dish takes bits of crisped up roast pork to form the meaty backbone, while crunchy texture comes from shredded cabbage and banana blossom.
banh canh cua
No roundup of Vietnamese noodles in Portland would be complete without mentioning Ha&VL Sandwiches, made famous for their rotating daily soup selection. Each day, a different noodle soup is made available to order, typically selling out by 11:30am! All are delicious, but particularly noteworthy is the banh canh cua, a rice noodle soup that features a wonderful silky texture from the generous heaping of crab meat. Juliennes of Vietnamese ham add a slightly salty flavor, while shrimp, quail egg and fried garlic add further complexity.
A popular dive bar stop for karaoke, Yen Ha also features quite a surprising number of hard-to-find noodle soups on their non-English specials board. One really can't go wrong throwing a dart at this specials board, but one quite unique soup is mi quang. This is an egg noodle, similar to chow mein, but the signature aspect of this soup is the deep red tomato soup as well as the rice cracker. The toasted rice cracker (bánh đa) as well as chopped peanuts give the soup texture, while shrimp (both normal-sized cooked shrimp and smaller dried shrimp) give the soup an interesting flavor to contrast the slightly tart tomato broth.
Sometimes you don't have to go too far to mix things up a bit. Pho Oregon on NE 82nd Ave is probably the best pho in Portland, but if you look further on their menu, you'll note other noodle soups as well. Most carry English descriptions to help you along, but one is translation-less. It's bun mam, and it's the kind of extra funky dish that's so far removed from a Westerner's palate that they don't even bother to describe it! It uses the same bun vermicelli noodles noted earlier, but the broth is almost entirely focused on fish sauce and shrimp paste. The slippery noodles act as a surprising counterpoint to the deep, funky, fermented flavors of the broth. In the mix as well is shrimp and eggplant. Definitely not one for the faint of heart, bun mam is understandably a dish that's hard to do well, but Pho Oregon's rendition is extremely delicious.
This post isn't intended to get you to replace pho, which I still say is the perfect hangover remedy. Instead, I hope it inspires you to, next time you're in the mood for noodles, maybe step outside of your comfort zone to try something else.