Ride Along is a new occasional series where I head out with friends/acquaintances/strangers to share a meal at a restaurant that best embodies their home country's cooking. If you're an immigrant or first-generation Portlander and have a place to share, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org! (P.S. If you sound creepy and/or own the restaurant in question, I won't be returning your query.)
IMMEDIATELY UPON sitting down to eat at Quán Linh Asian Bistro, my friend Yen turns to me and says that for our meal to feel any more like her childhood, I'd have to hit her with my chopsticks and yell about her life choices, just like her mom.
Yen is a friend of mine, a graphic designer with an impeccable sense of style and a baller culinary sense. She's also a Chinese Vietnamese immigrant who moved here from a Chinese refugee camp in 1981 with her mom and older sister. Yen's a killer cook; I've tasted, I know. But she says that when it comes to the soul food of her youth, she usually leaves it to the experts. Among her top picks: Quán Linh.
It's a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant in a strip mall off SE 82nd, a long narrow space with basic tables and little in the way of decoration—exactly the kind of place I wouldn't hit without a good recommendation. Quán Linh's nine-page menu is filled with everything from standards (like salad rolls and seafood fried rice) to dishes that intimidate even adventurous eaters (I don't know if I'll ever dig pork kidney with macaroni).
We sat down to hot tea and got down to business. Up first was canh chua ca, a Vietnamese hot and sour soup ($13.50). It arrived in a massive metal bowl, with large hunks of catfish, tomato, bean sprouts, pineapple, and bac ha (taro stem), an extremely crunchy, cellulose-y vegetable that is best described as a mix between celery and daikon. It soaks up the piquant broth while keeping its bite, providing a refreshing pop of texture. A plate of fish sauce and diced Thai bird chilies for dipping upped the saltiness.
The soup is meant as a palate cleanser to be supped throughout the meal, Yen explains. Its bright flavors served us well as we rolled through the next two dishes, ca kho to (braised catfish, $11.95) and thit heo kho trung (braised pork belly and egg, $11.95), both versions of kho, or clay pot. Clay pot dishes are cooked slowly, to avoid cracking the vessel, and also to aid in the rich, deep caramelization of meat that makes kho so damn good.
Americans love pho and bun, Yen explains, but they're like the hamburger of Southeast Asian cuisine: delicious, but not for everyday consumption. Kho, however, is blue-collar soul food. This was a staple served at Yen's childhood home a few times a week, she says. Both clay pot dishes—sublimely layered, rich umami-packed stews—arrive in a thick mixture of caramelized fish sauce, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and other secret ingredients.
Yen explains that the clay pot, a traditional meal, becomes more important during lean times—or more specifically, post-war times. Each pot is meant to pack a lot of flavor with little meat and a lot of sauce, supplemented with cheap, bountiful rice. To that end, we are handed a large bowl of white rice, with crispy spots on the bottom from the rice cooker.
The fourth plate we order has a pungent fishy essence that slams my nostrils the moment it is set down on the crowded table. This was steamed pork with salt fish ($9.95)—ground pork and pieces of dried, salted mackerel pressed together into a large patty and served straight up in an even saltier broth. Its flavor is overpowering, and this was the one dish I abandoned pretty quickly.
As Yen reminisces about the time her mother surprised the family and butchered a live chicken for Chinese New Year in their small Southern California apartment, the owners drop off some black bean, rice, and taro pudding with the check. They pack our leftovers, and send us home with warm handshakes—not quite like Mom, but close enough.
Open daily 10 am-10 pm. Soda, tea, and water are the only beverage options. Call ahead for large parties.