I don't know much about Vietnamese food except that it's delicious and that phở is tastier and healthier than most American soups. I've had phở cure my hangovers, stomach aches and head colds within minutes with the combination of fresh ingredients and nurturing broth. What I think I connect to the most with phở is how deceptively simple it is. On a very basic level, phở is just broth, rice noodles, herbs and a protein (or veggies, dealer's choice), but the way those ingredients are sourced, combined and infused with each other can make magic.
Phở Viet & Cafe has been a staple of the (admittedly not very large) Vietnamese food scene since 2011 when it won the Source Weekly's rookie restaurant of the year. We're checking back in with them now because A) it has been a long time since we have, but, more importantly, B) the Bend mainstay is under new ownership and management. Son Nguyen, his wife, Lisa, and sister Kim are the new faces at Phở Viet, and they're coming strictly from a place of love.
Son Nguyen discovered Phở Viet not as a business opportunity, but as a fan.
"I was a loyal customer," says Nguyen. "I moved to Central Oregon and was looking for a Vietnamese restaurant to eat at, so I googled it, and that was how I found Phở Viet. I had a P1 - the Special Combination Phở. It was so good that I called my wife Lisa. She was surprised that Bend had such a good phở place. From then on, I went in to eat every time I was in Bend. The owner Tan [Vo] eventually said he wanted to retire, so we spoke about taking it over. In the span of two months, my wife, Lisa, my sister, Kim and I bought it late December of 2022."
Nguyen and family know a good thing when they taste it because the first thing I noticed upon going in was that the menu hasn't changed much. The staples like the P1, the Lemongrass Beef Vermicelli and Pad Thai are still there (as are their mouthwatering bánh mi selections), and the flavors are most definitely still on point. "We haven't changed much on the menu," says Nguyen. "One thing we changed completely is the Chili Oil. Before it was just chili and oil, now it's actually sate, which has lemongrass, chili, oil, sugar and garlic and salt. You have to try it!"
I went with the Bún Bò Hu, a specialty from the city of Hu, Vietnam. At this restaurant, it's a spicy, salty and sweet noodle dish with tender beef shank, pork cushion and the house pork sauce. The combination of the tender beef, the fragrance of the lemongrass and the heat from the peppers cleared my sinuses and warmed my belly on one of the first cooler days we've had in a while. This, along with a hand-pressed Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da), slowly dripped into condensed milk made for a truly delicious experience.
Being that I am not very familiar with Vietnamese cuisine in general, I brought the Source's own Vietnamese food expert Ban Tat along to get his opinion. Here's what he had to say: "Phở Viet Cafe was an essential and welcome addition to Bend's culinary scene back in 2011. Today, they've become a staple and local favorite to many. With consistent traditional flavors, walking into the restaurant, you know immediately what to expect. The very essence of Vietnamese food is the use of fresh herbs, spices and aromatics. Phở Viet Cafe displays all of that and more."
Nguyen also explains what he finds so special about Vietnamese food. "One thing you realize about Vietnamese food when you come in to eat, is that we have a lot of vegetables with our dishes. For example, a bowl of phở will always have fresh bean sprout, Thai basil, cilantro and onion. And on the topic of phở, the beef broth is simmered for 20-24 hours. For me as a Vietnamese and having been eating phở my whole life, there is no shortcut to making the broth. When you taste our phở, you can taste the depth of the broth. The sweetness comes from the bone marrow, which has been slowly cooked for hours."
There's a genuine kindness to Son and Lisa Nguyen. They honestly made me feel at home in Phở Viet. There'a an openness and generosity to them that instantly made me want to support their new endeavors. "First and foremost, I want customers to leave full and happy," says Son Nguyen. "Our wish is for everyone to have a good time, great conversations and great food. And on occasion, if time permits, have a chit chat with us. We want to get to know you." This Bend staple is in very good hands.