Thai Binh

6700 NE Broadway 252-7710

I admire Gargamel. Not only did Schubert's "Unfinished Symphony" accompany him around the forest, but here's a guy who will never give up on his Sisyphusian quest to find and eventually cook and consume the ever-elusive Smurfs. Sounds like a true chowhound to me. Not unlike Gargamel, I tirelessly seek out little Asian restaurants; the main difference between the bungling Gargamel and myself is that I manage to successfully consume my found treasure.

Thai Binh, a Vietnamese place in the Rose City neighborhood, lies in a tiny, enchanted Asian village within the monotonous forest that is middle-class Northeast Portland. If you can find it (the best way to get there is via Halsey Street), you'll be treated to a cheap, delightful pleasure even more scrumptious than a plate of young, plump, charbroiled Smurfs.

Of the many storefront Vietnamese pho parlors in Portland, this one is my favorite. The pho is better than most, and is distinguished from its peers by its superior, fragrant rice noodles and its accompanying plate of herbs and bean sprouts. The sprouts, basil, mint, and weed-like Vietnamese cilantro are impossibly fresh and without blemish. That, to me, speaks volumes--kitchens that put out brown, soggy sprouts and mild-mannered basil sprigs are telling you that they simply don't care about the details. On my second visit, I ordered clear rice noodle soup with crab and shrimp. Mostly noodles and broth, there were but two shrimps (both large and tender) and one little crab claw inside. I liked the soup well enough, but wished there was more to it. Or maybe I was distracted by my order of spring rolls, which at $2.50 were not only bargain-priced, but also the best I've come across; even better than those of Pho Van in the Pearl. They came with an enormous platter of garden-fresh romaine lettuce (for wrapping around the spring rolls) and a mountain of some purple mystery herb that tickled my palate with the thrill of newly discovered flavors.

Emboldened by my previous victory with the spring rolls, I ventured into the unknown territory of # 61: "BBQ & Shredded Pork and Stuffed Omelette with Steam Rice." Now, when dealing with authentic Vietnamese street food, it's hard to predict what the dish you order will actually look like. The omelette was more of a kugel, only a highly un-kosher kugel made from minced pork and egg, pressed into a dense cake. Next to it was a pile of sweet, mouthwatering grilled pork slices, a less-than-mouthwatering mound of dry shredded pork and chewy tripe, and some lightly spiced kimchi that was sweeter than the usual Korean versions. All of the above lay on a bed of sticky, tiny-grained rice, the likes of which I hadn't seen before.

All this smurfy food will set you back only $4.75! Wow. As a side note, there is no banh mi (a Vietnamese sandwich) on the menu. But a block away at 6814 NE Broadway next to the Laundromat, is a coffee shop specializing in them, called the Maxim Bakery. If you're able to communicate with the non-English-speaking counter people, you can score what may be the best banh mi in the Northwest. The secret to banh mi heaven is the bread, and here it's baked on the premises and can hold its own against the baguettes at the Pearl Bakery downtown.