Lunch at Pho An Sandy (Portland, OR)

The rain, or more accurately the showers, had been coming down off and on starting with our visit to the Washington Park Japanese Garden. There wasn’t going to be anymore walking around outside today. Before checking into our hotel in Jantzen Beach, we headed over to a popular Vietnamese restaurant in the northeast part of Portland, in the wedge between the Willamette and Columbia Rivers and  located along a part of Sandy Boulevard that at one time was called Saigon Boulevard for all the Vietnamese businesses along here.

chilesOur anticipation started to build when we were presented with the extensive menu, including many uncommon items alongside standard ones such as pho and bun. Curiously, the condiments tray on every table included chiles that I normally associate with Thai restaurants. I wondered whether these are common on the Vietnamese table.

Rather than ordering pho, which many people regard as one of Pho An’s specialties, today we ordered Banh Mi Bo Kho (Beef stew with French bread) and Bun Rieu (rice noodle soup with tomaotes and crab). The banh mi terminology might be confused with a kind of Vietnamese sandwich, but in fact it more correctly refers to French bread. Technically speaking, then, it is called a banh mi sandwich.

In many Asian countries, it is common to serve cuts of meat that a Westerner might not appreciate. While an American might expect most of the fat and other “inedible” parts to be removed prior to cooking, it is not all that unusual for Asians to consume, even relish more than just the muscle for the flavor and texture that these parts provide. The beef stew, for example, came with big chunks of beef with noticeable amounts of fat and tendon still attached, which was not entirely to my liking, my wife even less so. The loaf of French bread, while it looked lightly toasted, was extraordinarily chewy, difficult to pull apart, as if it had been microwaved. We’ve had better Vietnamese beef stew broth, too. While it was flavorful enough, it was thinner than many we’ve enjoyed and was full of pieces of star anise and sections of fibrous lemongrass, which had to be fished out before finishing the broth.

Beef stew
Bun rieu was more successful, though it took some getting used to. An impressive amount of fresh condiments, more than enough for two people, came on a plate, which included mint and perilla leaves, bean sprouts, jalapeños, and finely shredded cabbage and banana blossoms. The broth of the rice vermicelli noodle soup, which I first tasted at a friend’s house several years ago, is made from tomatoes and crab paste, which gives it a strongly briny taste, not unlike a stock of boiled shrimp shells. There were also rectangles of fried tofu and a single crab cake made with eggs, dried shrimp and crab paste. The soup also included two triangles of congealed pork blood and, on the side, a small plastic tub of malodorous shrimp paste, in case I wanted more authenticity (I didn’t). This was a good soup, after I adjusted my taste buds to its intense flavor.

Bun rieu

Pho An Sandy
6236 NE Sandy Blvd
Portland, OR

Washington Park Japanese Garden (Portland, OR)

Moss is your friend.

At least, that’s what I try to tell my friends who’ve been battling to remove it from their Seattle lawns. I have long since given moss full sway in my front yard rather than covering it with sod. I’m allergic to grass anyway. After many years of inattention, there is a luxurious moss carpet underlying mature cedars and rhododendron plants and providing a home for ferns, salal, Oregon grape and periwinkle that would do a Japanese garden proud.

And so it is with the Japanese garden in Washington Park. It seems that mosses cover every square inch of this beautiful garden, considered one of the most authentic outside of Japan. I recall coming here with my family many moons ago without the reaction both my wife and I had today. The garden has greatly matured since our last visit and there has been added a beautiful gravel footpath beyond the entrance gate that is a preview of what treasures lay inside and an alternate way to the ticket booth from the parking lot. Otherwise, a shuttle can take you the long way.

We noticed the very mature Japanese maples, many of them very tall, which signifies significant age since they grow so slowly. The laceleaf maples, many of them quite old, have been beautifully shaped and maintained. A stunning specimen was just outside the pavilion whose leafy, domed canopy can be enjoyed from the veranda or whose spectacular twisted trunk and branch structure can be admired at ground level. Doubtless that at the peak of fall color, the garden will be ablaze in red and orange hues. In a different way, the colors must be spectacular at the peak of rhododendron, azalea and camellia season, too; only a few specimens were still in bloom today.

Otherwise, the garden can be appreciated for its sense of tranquility and design of spaces defined by trees, shrubs, water, rocks, changes in elevation, even man-made structures like footpaths, teahouse, bridges, shelters or stone pagodas. Also admirable is the meticulousness with which every aspect of the garden is maintained, from the careful pruning and snipping of plants with tiny trimming shears to the hours required to rake and shape the rock gardens.

And, of course, there is the moss.

Even if the weather was inclement, we were very impressed. I thought Seattle’s garden was nice, but Portland’s is vastly superior, so striking is the difference.

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