The downtown Arts District has recently become a hot spot for Asian noodle soup. It offers a chance to try both a classic pho at Huong’s Vietnamese, and a transcendent contemporary take at Pom’s.
|Pom’s | 571 Congress St, Portland | 207.772.7999 | 11 Am-9:30 Pm|
Huong Vietnamese Restaurant | 349 Cumberland Ave, Portland | 207.773.4882 | Mon-Sat 10 Am-8 Pm
Huong’s has the feel of a scrappy immigrant venture of the best sort. The Huong family, at least the women, gather at the central table eating their lunch and talking excitedly if not quite arguing. A preteen works the phone and translates into Vietnamese for the adults. A five-year-old watches true-life ghost stories on the television while a high-schooler takes your order. When some boys from school stop in to flirt she tells them sharply to sit at tables so they look like real customers. Teen lust: probably multiculturalism’s most potent fuel.
There is no better centerpiece for a table than the crowded tray of sauces you find at Huong’s — browns and reds of various sizes, each with the residue of improvisational eating. But the pho, which arrives in a big bowl about a minute after you order, does not need much tinkering. A squeeze of lime and touch of chili perfected the thin beef broth, which was just a bit sour and tangy. The soup tasted of ginger and onion, cooked to lose their sharpness, and of the ample scallion floating on top. Three kinds of beef lurked below with the thin rice noodles: grayish slices of flank, thicker fattier pieces of beef, and slices of squishy beef meatballs. Mixing in bits of basil and bean sprouts, fiddling with the sauces, digging out pieces of meat, and slurping the noodles, lunch at Huong’s becomes completely absorbing, even meditative.
At Pom’s new location on Congress Street, you do not improvise but rather plan ahead. The soup menu guides you through five steps, choosing a broth, a noodle, a meat, a heat, and if you want peanuts. The new space looks elegant in all-white — if a bit austere. The bustle warms the place up a bit, with Pom herself working the room hurriedly while running the kitchen and setting up some sort of photoshoot.
Despite all the soup choices it seems very hard to go wrong. I have come to think of Pom’s as the best Thai around, but with these noodle soups in huge bowls she has outdone herself. The vegetable broth was thin, light, and clean and tasted of celery. Very thin noodles were toothsome but not chewy, and provided a neutral platform for the other ingredients, including big tender slices of beef. The tom yum broth offered a sweet sourness and a bit of chili. We tried it as recommended with the ground chicken, which allowed you to get a bit of tender meat into each spoonful.
Best of all was the dark, complex, and delicious five-spice broth. It had a tang and the not-quite-sweet flavors of cinnamon and anise. We tried it with a crispy duck, since five-spice and duck go well together. There was more sliced duck in the huge $8 bowl than you might get from a $25 entrée at a French restaurant, and the skin was crispy even after 10 minutes of soaking. A chewier wide noodle went perfectly with this bolder broth. At least until summer, the five-spice soup with duck is the best lunch in Portland.
Brian Duff can be reached at email@example.com.