The question for the new Sweet Saigon downtown: Would pho by another name taste the same?
I have come to love Pho Viet, an urban hole-in-the-wall oasis on 3rd Street. Despite being—or because it is—the kind of place where diners stuff napkins under wobbly tables, the Vietnamese restaurant holds a special place in my heart. But to tell the truth: I wasn't committed to embracing a different venue for giant bowls of steaming pho. Would it still taste the same without the laminated faded posters of animals and plastic flowers?
Tan Vo, the heavily accented Vietnamese owner of both Pho Viet and the newly opened Sweet Saigon, says the pho at his new restaurant on Wall Street (in the former Amalia's/Ciao Mambo/Hans location) is just as delicious as Pho Viet. But, he explains, the new spot offers "luxury dining, affordable to everyone."
My verdict: So far, so good.
The massive multipaged menu—the dishes of which are coded with a gibberish of letters and numbers—is the same as the Pho Viet menu, though prices downtown are from $1 to $4 higher. The plate of extra bean sprouts, cilantro and heap of limes still accompanies the pho. The chicken salad is still a perfect light lunch with its sugary, vinegary bowl of dipping sauce. The thinly sliced grilled pork marinated in honey and pureed lemongrass is still, hands down, one of the most flavorful dishes in downtown.
More proof? While we were on the phone with Vo last week, a couple walking out the door called back to him, saying, "How come the food here is better than Portland?"
And if there was any doubt about Sweet Saigon retaining some of that delightfully tacky vibe of Pho Viet, rest assured. There's plenty of carry-over here. From the fake, colorful garlands of flowers hanging in the doorways to the shimmery, shiny royal blue shirts worn by the waitstaff, this place is still Vietnam plunked down in the middle of Bend.
The luxury part, though, is a work in progress. When we visited, the restaurant's bar was limited to a couple of dozen bottles of various stock liquors, but Vo says the selection is getting better all the time.
In just a few weeks, he will launch a line of Sweet Saigon signature cocktails dreamed up by the same team that's famous for the delicate and complex flavors of the two restaurants' broths, sauces and marinades.
To tide over our interest in seeing what Vo can do with booze, we'll be getting down there this week to sample items off Sweet Saigon's new happy hour menu, launched on April 1. Check the Bent Blog at bendsource.com for our verdict.
Of particular note on the menu of $5-and-up small plates, says Vo, is the giant black tiger shrimp in hot tamarind sauce. "Our cook says, 'I've been cooking for many years'—he's 77—and this is his favorite sauce ever. [The staff] take it home and put it in the rice and cook it for dinner."
Try the lemongrass beef salad and the salt and pepper squid, which like everything else on the menu, is straight from the kitchens of Vietnam.
In an indication that Sweet Saigon might have staying power in a location that's changed hands three times in six years, we've heard that it's become a new pre-and post-shift hangout for other downtown locales servers and waitstaff, who get a free, fresh pot of jasmine tea when they stop in. We hope the service industry's good taste means Sweet Saigon has found a second recipe for success that'll keep pho within walking distance of our office for the long haul. SW
11 a.m. to close (around 10, 10:30 p.m.)
915 NW Wall St.