Second act

Veranda opens an excellent Noodle Bar
By BRIAN DUFF  |  April 14, 2010

OODLES OF NOODLES At Veranda’s additional location.

VERANDA NOODLE BAR | 14 Veranda St, Portland | daily 10 am-10 pm | Visa/MC | 207.874.9090

One of the fundamental principles of marketing is that since competition is inevitable, you might as well be your own rival. Someone is going to offer customers a version of your product that is cheaper, fancier, or just different. It might as well be you. So it was clever of the proprietor of Veranda Thai to open the Veranda Noodle Bar right across the street. It transforms the neighborhood into his own little Asian food area and raises the profile of both spots.

The question in competing with yourself is whether you extend the brand (think Coke vs. Diet Coke) or launch a new identity (think Coke vs. Tab). Veranda Noodle Bar splits the difference. Their yellow signs are nearly identical, and their dining rooms share a sort of pleasant lived-in aesthetic, with lots of dark red wood under a drop ceiling. But in focusing on Vietnamese noodle dishes the new Veranda branches pretty far from its Thai progenitor. The danger in splitting the difference is diluting the brand — whether customers might wonder if a jack of several cuisines might be master of none.

I don’t think that will happen to Veranda — mostly because, like Jesus that time he played sommelier, they saved the really good stuff for the second act. Across the street you can get some perfectly nice Thai, but Veranda Noodle offers a couple of dishes that are especially good. Generally speaking, and certainly in this case, Vietnamese cuisine is to Thai as Sprite is to Coke — a little lighter, crisper, more refreshing. It feels healthier, whether it is or not. There are fewer thick-creamy textures, less oil, more thin broths and sauces, and the ubiquitous light crunch of lettuce and bean sprout.

It’s a good sign if your kitchen is so busy it keeps blowing a fuse, and while we waited for a table among the folks picking up take-out we saw the lights go dim three times. Thanks to the crowd the service was a bit slow, but very pleasant. The owner worked the room with the collar turned up on a polo shirt the same pink color of the sugarcane appetizer we tried — a big ball of ground shrimp wrapped around a sugar stalk like a drumstick — a bit spongy in texture with a smoky grilled flavor. Fresh spring rolls had a hint of mint amid the crisp lettuce and sweet carrot. The peanut sauce was a touch too thick, and might have used some more fish sauce in the base. Fried spring rolls were filled with ground chicken and shrimp and a bit of vermicelli. The rice paper wrap had bubbled up in the oil, but the roll did not get too greasy.

We skipped the pho to try a mi soup, which mixes egg noodle with the vermicelli. The broth was rich but still light, and with a squeeze of lime elicited a healthy, nose-clearing zing. Delicate yellow wontons moistened in the liquid, and underneath slices of pork hid among the rice noodles. The best noodle dish, however, forgoes the broth for a simple bowl of thin rice noodles topped with vegetables, peanuts, and your choice of grilled meats. We opted for shrimp and pork. The dish somehow transcends its own simplicity: a nutty, healthy, crunchy, refreshingly light bowl of deliciousness, pulled together by a terrific fish sauce. Bits of lettuce, cucumber, carrot, and bean sprout mingled with the tender shrimp and the thin slices of pleasantly chewy grilled pork.

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