Brunch in Portland is an event. Choosing a place, deciding whether the wait is worth it, picking a dish off the often expansive menus. So I always appreciate finding restaurants that aren’t packed and have smaller menus where every dish looks like a star.
Such was the case when, on a sunny Sunday, Jonah and I decided to walk to Expatriate. Usually a bumping late night cocktail spot with Asian-influenced small plates, the vibe is a bit more laid back during their weekend brunch. For just four hours on Saturdays and Sundays you can start your day with what was, in my opinion, one of the tastiest and most unique brunches I’d had in quite some time. There was no huge laminated menu, just seven dishes whose descriptions all made my mouth water.
The show-stealer for me were the the hash browns, “covered and smothered” in pho sour cream, cheddar, aromatics, thinly sliced eye of round (like every good bowl of pho), and hoisin tamarind sauce. These were crispy, saucy, and packed with flavor, so much so that I had a hard time sharing! But splitting dishes was worth it because the rice waffle and hot fried chicken strips were easily the best variation of the now-ubiquitous dish. The rice waffle was exactly how I like my waffles: airy and crispy and not too sweet, and it went perfectly with the lightly spicy chicken. The honey and chili butter swirled together, melting in the pockets of the waffle and perfectly smothering the chicken.
I may be biased, but between the Asian-inspired dishes, the proximity to my house, and the somehow-secret status of this brunch, I will most certainly be back for Expatriate’s brunch.
The time has come (the walrus said)! I want to tell you more about our trip to Vietnam, specifically the things we ate, before I forget all the details. Wouldn’t that be sad? Yes. It would. But first, I’ll tell you a little bit about where we went.
When we started planning this trip, we initially thought about going to Thailand. Then we thought about going to Cambodia. Eventually we settled on Vietnam. Why? While Vietnam is certainly a touristed country, Thailand is even more so, and we wanted something a little less traveled. To give you an idea, in the months before our trip, I know three separate people who visited Thailand, and none who went to Vietnam. After looking into Cambodia a bit, there wasn’t enough for us to want to do to warrant spending 10 days there – we would have wanted to tack it on one end of a longer trip, but we also didn’t want to pay for airfare once we were in SE Asia. So we decided to focus on northern Vietnam. I had been to Vietnam before, about 5 years ago, and had spent a small amount of time in the north, but we made sure to visit places I hadn’t been before. Travelfish became our good friend, and we were constantly reading new articles they were posting. Our itinerary ended up looking like this:
Day 1: Arrive in Hanoi
Day 1-3: Spend in Hanoi
Day 4: Travel to Thac Ba Lake
Day 4-5: Spend at Thac Ba Lake
Day 6: Travel to Sapa
Day 6-8: Spend in Sapa
Night 8: Travel back to Hanoi
Day 9: Travel to Cat Ba Island
Day 9-11: Spend on Cat Ba Island
Day 12: Travel to Hanoi
Day 13: Travel back to Portland
While 2-3 days in one spot can seem like not enough, we were perfectly content with what we chose to do. We certainly could’ve done more trekking in Sapa, or more outdoor adventures in Cat Ba, but we got a great taste of what each town had to offer, and we felt like we used our time very well. And while we did spend a fair amount of time in transit, it’s actually how we met some interesting people, had some daring adventures (read: life-threatening rides that we didn’t know how they’d end), and saw a lot of the beautiful countryside. Now, let’s get to the food!
Jonah and I both love Vietnamese food, particularly because of the light, bright flavors, and the use of fresh ingredients. There are lots of greens, fruits, fish sauce, and dipping sauces, but nothing is heavy or overpowering. While we were determined to be thoroughly adventurous eaters, it took us a little bit to get comfortable eating the street food – ordering is hard when it’s so hard to communicate. The best example of this was when we sat down at a Bun Bo spot, and were simply handed two bowls of food. It was fantastic – no misinterpretations (which, trust me, happened a lot), no making fools of ourselves – they pretty much knew what we wanted. But the street food was certainly the best food we ate (except for the food at our cooking class, which was incredible). We learned that a lot of the Vietnamese food you find in America is from South Vietnam, because they are the majority of the people who fled during the American War and the reunification. Also, warning, there are some things I ate (and pictures of it below) that may be less than appealing to you, so if you have a squeamish stomach, brace yourself.
Probably our favorite discovery was Bun Cha (forgive my lack of accents here). Grilled pork served in a bowl of a sweet, fish sauce-based sauce, with a plate of vermicelli noodles and greens/herbs. The broth is more of a sauce, and you fill your bowl with the noodles and greens, and everything gets drenched in it, and it’s so flavorful and delicious. We learned how to make it in our cooking class, and recently bought some pork at the farmer’s market so we can attempt it on our own. Once we perfect it, you can bet the recipe will be coming to Serious Crust. Other favorites included lots of delicious pork spare ribs – the best were at La Vie Vu Linh, our eco-lodge at Thac Ba Lake – and the sticky rice at Xoi Yen, a suggestion from my little sister who studied abroad in Vietnam.
There are a lot of “bia hoi ha noi” spots, which are kind of the Vietnamese equivalent to beer halls. These places have tiny plastic tables and chairs/stools that spill out into the street, and they serve the lightest beer I’ve every tasted (bia hoi), which is often made in the morning and served the same night. Each table comes with a bag of peanuts, but some stalls have menus, and we ordered some awesome food from these spots. Because everyone is drinking, and will often be there for a few hours, people certainly get friendly. We were heckled by more than a few old Vietnamese men when we found a bia hoi spot where we were the only white people, and later met a very nice Australian expat at another.
We also ate: some form of rice dough rolls stuffed with minced pork and mushrooms, shrimp and sweet potato fritters, bun bo (bowls of vermicelli noodles, slices of beef, greens, herbs, and a light sauce), sticky rice with corn, some really good pork spare ribs, buffalo jerky, banana blossom salad, lots of spring rolls, crepe-like pancakes, and more than our fair share of Vietnamese coffee (served with a layer of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom that you stir in). Jonah refrained from trying the roasted sparrow and the duck embryo that I tried, though I couldn’t manage to eat either like a local. But hey, points for trying, right?
The other day, after a trip to the library and a few hours in a coffee shop attempting to plan our trip to SE Asia (we’ve gotten a little further, at this point, and have narrowed it down to northern Vietnam, and have even booked tickets), Jonah and I were hungry. Very very hungry. We were near the library in downtown Portland, and needed something relatively quick and relatively cheap and completely delicious. It was a cold sunny day, and Jonah wanted pho. I started thinking noodle soup, and Boxer Ramen popped into my head.
It’s not pho, but it is really good ramen. The restaurant is inside the New Union way shopping arcade, so it’s pretty much what one would call a hole in the wall. A few larger tables, a few deuces, and a bar, all with stools, line the brightly colored space. And there are 4 options (well, 6, if you count the sides). Sometimes I hate when there are so few options – I feel like I don’t really have any choice at all. But here, it seems to work. There’s the standard, the spicy, the mushroom, and the vegetarian curry. Jonah went for the spicy red miso, and I went for the standard tonkatsu-shio. We decided to skip the sides, though I have heard good things about the okonomiyaki tots.
The food came within about 5 minutes, and we immediately started slurping down our noodles and broth. The soup was rich and warm, and so perfectly what we both wanted. The ramen noodles were really light and tender – not as stiff as some I’ve had in the past. The broth was perfectly savory, a tiny bit almost creamy, and felt perfectly viscous, not too thin, but not too thick. There was a delicious slab of pork belly floating in the soup, which was a nice textural addition, as well as lots of green onion.
As far as ramen in Portland goes, this place is definitely the tops. I can imagine if I worked downtown, this would be a go to lunch spot (though my guess is that there’s a line at lunch time), and it makes a great pre-Living Room dinner too. I can’t wait to go back.