My Canh’s Claypot Chicken
The Chinese constitute the largest non-native minority group in most Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam. They’re successful entrepreneurs in Vietnam, so it shouldn’t be suprising they’re successful entrpreneurs here.
I visited five restaurants for this survey: Chino Saigon, Jin Wah, My Canh, Thien Hong, and Vien Huong. The latter four had a lot in common — at least in terms of menu and approach. All are very multicultural, with similar menus in Chinese and Vietnamese, containing dishes from both countries as well. All emphasize seafood dishes and have live tanks. All seem to be run by ethnic Chinese who emigrated from Vietnam. While the food may be named the same, the quality varies wildly.
BBQ Pork Noodle Soup
Formerly an outpost of Saigon Kitchen serving terrible renditions of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai standards, I assumed that the new restaurant was just a rebranding of the old and avoided it. But in the interests of thoroughness, I decided to include Chino Saigon in this survey. Then I ate there and discovered it was actually good.
The owners are Mexican. I don’t know why this should sound so odd (though admittedly it does). We accept the gringos and farang that chef and own some of the better Mexican and Thai restaurants in town. (And you accept a whitey like me to give you recommendations.) Latinos make up the bulk of those who do the commercial cooking in this country. The owner cooked at a Beaverton Chinese restaurant for over a decade. He hired two Vietnamese cooks in addition to one Mexican cook and they do a very competent job.
The menu is enormous. There are 179 numbered items, plus another four combos. But the menu doesn’t end there; there are an additional 38 Thai items. I haven’t moved beyond the Vietnamese items.
The salad rolls ($3.95 for two), stuffed with sprouts and noodles, have large slices of BBQ pork and shrimp. Some fragrant herbs could make these better. A rather plain, but acceptable peanut sauce comes on the side. Their pho has a subtly fragrant broth and tender slices of lean brisket. There are only two choices for beef noodle soup (it’s listed in English only), normal and meatball. The noodles are cooked perfectly, neither mushy or gummy, separating easily with chopsticks. The price is great, only $4.75 for a small and $5.45 for a large. The herb platter is a little sparse with only jalapenos, lime, sprouts, and a couple sprigs of cilantro.
Other dishes have been decent as well. A favorite is the duck egg noodle soup ($6.50). The BBQ duck, skin pink a quarter-inch deep, can be gristly, but it has an anise flavor that permeates the flesh. The rich and flavorful broth is an underlying sweetness, but no strong duck flavor. The thin egg noodles are perfectly cooked, just as the rice noodles in the pho.
Nothing I’ve had at Chino Saigon has been fantastic, but it’s solid Vietnamese and one of the better restaurants serving both Vietnamese and Chinese in Portland. It’s the only one in this report serving more than just a couple Thai dishes and seems a bit out of place compared with the others, which have very similar styles and menus. Chino Saigon proves that authenticity and quality are not always directly related.
835 NE Broadway St
Pho with Beef Raw on the Side
In addition to the typical dishes most of the restaurants in this report are known for, Jin Wah is usually nominated as a PDX favorite for dim sum. They have two locations, the first in Beaverton, the other near the corner of Powell and 82nd, where competition is strong. Most of the workers seem to be Chinese. In fact, I haven’t talked to a Vietnamese there yet, although one of the waiters told me that the owners are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam.
They serve a full range of pho — all the offal bits, tendon, tripe, etc, are available, most at $5.95 for a large bowl only. The broth is very fragrant with anise and has a beefy flavor. It’s well-balanced, topped with rings of red onion and chopped scallions. The veggie platter comes with sprouts, lime, jalapeno, and basil. If asked, they’ll serve the beef for the pho tai on the side as I prefer. Their soups, including the banh mi bo kho, are among the top in this survey, though only decent compared to the best in town.
Other items are weaker. Their salad rolls ($3.95) are loosely packed and devoid of flavor, merely lettuce, some noodles, pork, and shrimp. They look much better than they taste. Their dipping sauce is hoisin-based. Salads show the restaurant’s Chinese heritage. Dressings are overly sweet, tasting more like a Chinese sweet and sour than a Southeast Asian sweet and sour. They often use lettuce instead of cabbage and top them with fried wontons. I actually like that crunchy addition, even if it’s atypical. The chicken in their salads can be dry, though.
Jin Wah does an acceptable job with their Vietnamese dishes, but aren’t worth going out of the way for. However, if you wanted to be able to order some siu mai, salt and pepper squid, and pho, they’re both the only option and a good option.
8001 SE Powell Blvd #P
4021 SW 117th Ave #E
BBQ Pork Soup
On my first visit to My Canh, I ordered more Chinese than Vietnamese. It was fine. But I saw little reason to return. As my love of Vietnamese food increased, I decided to try again, ordered only Vietnamese dishes, and was delighted by every one. My Canh was the impetus for this report and had given me hope that other Chinese-Vietnamese restaurants would be good as well. My Canh, though, is clearly the best. The mother of the owner was Chinese, emigrating to Vietnam where the owner was born and raised. It makes sense, then, that the Vietnamese food is where she triumphs.
The soups have all been excellent. My Canh has the largest, most diverse selection in this survey. Their pho ($5.50) has a meaty, aromatic broth with a touch of sweetness. The top round comes tender and still pink. Everything on the veggie platter is fresh and crisp. For seafood lovers, the house special soup ($10) is a great choice, the bowl filled with fish balls, shrimp, chicken, squid, and vegetables.
They do a superb job with salads. They start with great textures, using crunchy cabbage, carrot, peanut, fried shallot, etc, and then round out the flavors with herbs, shrimp, pork, chicken, etc, and a good dressing. My Canh is the only restaurant in this survey to use rau ram in their salads. The ingredients are very fresh tasting. The small salads ($4.50) are enough for a light meal, too. Very good values. Likewise, salad rolls have very fresh ingredients and balanced flavors, though they could be wrapped with more skill. The sauce is hoisin-based, but better than their rivals’ versions.
My favorite dishes, though, at My Canh are the claypots ($8.00). The owner is thrilled when a caucasian orders the catfish in claypot, but I prefer the chicken and ginger in claypot with its sweet and piquant sauce. Also, watch the specials board for crispy quail. Just the sight of their deep amber color, like perfectly cooked Peking Duck, should make your mouth water.
My Canh is the only restaurant in this report to compete successfully with the very best Vietnamese restaurants in Portland. I have no reservations in recommending it. There aren’t a lot of quality choices in the neighborhood and My Canh is arguably worth a trip from farther away.
1801 NE 39th Ave
Duck Noodle Soup
I have friends who swear by Thien Hong — at least for its seafood. But salt and pepper crab will have to be for a future report. This survey is about how these places perform on Vietnamese standards. On that, Thien Hong is not only the worst in this report, but the worst in any report. Several of its dishes were competing for worst thing I ate this year. I made only one visit for Vietnamese and will not return. Every item was attrocious.
The pho is so bland that the sprouts overpower it. Literally, when after dropping the sprouts in the bowl, that’s all you can taste in the broth afterwards. Plus, beans sprouts and a wedge of lime are all they give you for the broth. No herbs. None. Not even chiles to spice it up. Sometimes I think a broth is so good I shouldn’t muddy it with more flavors. But with Thien Hong’s pho, I’d consider squirting ketchup and mustard into it so it had some flavor. Furthermore, the meat is gamey and the noodles are overcooked.
And that was their best dish.
The salad rolls are almost all noodles and wrapped very loosely, falling apart in your hands. There isn’t enough shrimp to get a piece in even every other bite. There’s so little herb and lettuce they add little. The sauce is essentially just straight hoisin with some ground peanuts.
Salad Rolls: Almost all noodles. Very loose. Lettuce and a little bit of herbs. Strong hoisin sauce with a bit of peanut. Slices of shrimp.
Mi vit, duck noodle soup, is usually a favorite dish of mine. Theirs was the second worst thing I ate this year. I quote: “What makes this soup so brown? I don’t know, burnt wood broth perhaps? That’s what it tastes like, at least. Bland otherwise and overall definitely not a pleasing flavor. They couldn’t even get the duck right. All they had to do was simmer it until tender, but no, it was tough and chewy. The egg noodles had taken on the woody flavor of the broth and were overcooked and falling apart, making it impossible to eat with chopsticks. I’d much rather eat Top Ramen.”
A little off-topic, but I’ve had their standard Chinese and it’s pretty weak, too. Perhaps their seafood is good; I don’t know. But forcing people to eat Thien Hong’s Vietnamese sounds like a plotline for Saw III.
6749 NE Sandy Blvd
Vietnamese Sweet and Sour Soup
Vien Huong is a dive. But it’s the kind of dive I expected to be good. It’s on a competitive avenue of Asian culinary treasures in Portland. They have a couple live seafood tanks. And the specials on their board sounded interesting. But alas, Vien Huong sucks and did not merit a return trip.
Their pho is very plain and oniony. The beef tastes like they bought Safeway’s closeout specials and then left them to “age” in the walk-in for a week. “Gamey” isn’t the right word. “Expired” or perhaps “lawsuit-waiting-to-happen” or “Fido” might be more accurate. Really, the stuff is disgusting. It sat atop a clump of noodles that broke into little un-chopstickable pieces when you tried to lift them.
The Vietnamese hot and sour soup, a special, was better. At least it let my wife fill kill her hunger with something that just tasted poorly made, rather than tasting like something that would require a stomach pump. The shrimp tasted freezer burned, though, and the broth was overwhelmed by ketchup. Some places make specials when they’re trying to highlight something seasonal, interesting, or especially good. I got the sense with the random vegetables and other ingredients, that they were just trying to use up what was leftover.
Vien Huong’s salad rolls were even worse than Thien Hong’s. They consisted of yellowed ice berg lettuce and less-than-fresh bean sprouts. The little pieces of pork and shrimp showed little effort for putting out a good product.
Vien Huong is one case where you can judge a book by its cover. Stay away.
4820 SE 82nd Ave