Sitting solo at the Thai Orchid on Burnside one day shortly after I arrived in Portland, I overheard two ladies-who-lunch discussing real estate and restaurants. One said to the other, “and pho. Do you know pho, the vietnamese soup? We go to pho once a week. I love vietnamese food.” I have to say, I was surprised and impressed that this blond Oregonian, who buys and sells historic homes, was so into asian food. I imagined she and her husband huddled over bowls of soup (sipping amid the slurpers) in one of those boldly ugly fluorescent lit noodle shops, out of place and loving it. But then she followed up her comment with “you know, Pho Van.”
I had been curious about this place even before I got here. I’d read about it in one of the foodie magazines, as it’s built a reputation for being delicious and fresh. I’ve also heard it called the favorite restaurant of a handful of name-dropped Portlanders. I wondered what made this place so great, as I've only eaten pho at well-known hole-in-the-wall type places. Then I saw the one in the Pearl. And the one on Hawthorne. Pre-tty shi-ny. I tried to eat there on a Saturday night, but once I wedged my way to the hostess station, who offered to call me on my cellphone when a table was ready, as the wait was about an hour. “God, that place must be great,” I thought as I walked to a wine bar around the corner. I imagined ruby red glistening slices of steak over fresh rice noodles, awaiting steaming, salty broth, and platters piled high with fresh beansprouts and maybe other vegetable surprises.
Then I ate at Pho Van. The original, on 82nd Avenue. Amidst the car lots and burnt-out neon signs on that strip, sits the restaurant’s lovely building, surrounded by luxury automobiles (Mercedes S.U.V.’s and Volvos) belonging to its customers. As I opened the menu, I realized that it’s not just pho—there are all sorts of exotic specialties served there. Huge, weightless and savory crepes filled with meat, seafood and vegetables, meats marinated in lemongrass, 7 courses of beef, fish served whole, and various appetizers. On the sweet side, there are avocado and soursop smoothies, mango juice, and an appetizer that we tried, of coconut milk, shaved ice and sweet beans (yum!). The wierdest thing was, the pho was the only thing that WASN'T good. It was bland!! Not salty enough. And the meat was cooked already--it tasted, I'm so sorry to say, RE-HEATED. It was really bad, and the anemic plate of condiments was sorta spotted and limp. So, there it is. If I want any kind of simple but tasty vietnamese food in a pleasant setting, I may go back there. But if I want hot, steaming, rich pho, with slices of beef cooked right there at your table by the anise infused broth, I'll be catching the bus way out on Sandy or Glisan, to one of those funky little places, full of customers with black hair.