The word “revival” is getting thrown around Northwest Portland’s re-re-gentrifying Slabtown district. “Love a revival?” asks the LL Hawkins condos, while a development across the street promises a “vintage revival.”
What’s being revived is unclear. Northwest 23rd and the surrounding neighborhoods have gone, over decades, from hippie enclave to trendy shopping district, and now are rebranding as a semi-bougie condo hub, with the food and drink scene to match.
For instance, Hem 23, a hip new Vietnamese spot on 23rd is next to, well, a not-so-hip old Vietnamese spot. Not that the two are exactly in competition—Lela’s Bistro is a counter service lunch spot with a mom-and-pop feel in an old house. Hem 23, meanwhile, feels huge: high-ceilinged and airy but painted in dark black and blues, comfortably in the Portland sweet spot between over-branded and unfinished. There’s a manufactured slickness to the whole affair—like a big, drippy “HEM 23” faux-graffiti’d across one wall—that undercuts personality and feels just a hair too gastro-bro for comfort.
It might be the influence of the design, but Hem 23’s food feels like it was probably described as “elevated” in a pitch meeting. It’s not mind-blowing, but it’s adventurous enough to invite some serious menu exploration. Happily, each dish is also good enough to inspire another visit—and big enough to require one.
After appetizers or salad, the ox tail pho—maybe the best soup on a soup-heavy menu—is easily big enough for two. With three fist-sized bones covered in tender meat that’s ready to slip off at the slightest poke from a chopstick, grabbing mouthful after mouthful of noodles feels like Mary Poppins going through her bag ($13).
The non-roll or -salad starters are also enticing. The quail is an easy recommendation based on both quality and quantity—we’re talking two whole birds for $12. Shiny and sticky with a sweet, salty, and lightly spicy glaze, they stand out even on a menu with an awful lot of items pushing the boundary between meat and candy. If you’re craving crunch, soft shell crab might hit the spot—fried and fairly lightly seasoned, served with chili sauce ($13).
Non-soup main courses are all over the place, but don’t go looking for vegetarian options: beef, pork, seafood, and even frog legs are on the menu, but literally nothing comes without an animal on the plate.
The standouts for me are the slightly more adventurous dishes. The frog legs feel light and appropriately jumpy with a smack of lemongrass, served over rice ($14). Meanwhile, the “full moon crepe,” stuffed with prawns, scallops, and vegetables, is a fluffy, overstuffed mess, ready to be doused in fish sauce—another instance of almost unseasoned seafood made to shine with after-the-fact saucing, Hem 23’s secret weapon ($16).
Happy hour is offered seven days a week, including discounted well drinks, drafts, and wines; a few starters and soups at a discount; and three bucks off the gingery, lemony Fernet-and-whiskey cocktail called a Shift Drink, the hallmark of a menu designed by libation luminary Jacob Grier.
The rest of the cocktails all wink at Vietnamese flavors. The Menta Iced Coffee is boozed up with Brancamenta (a sweet, pepperminty spin-off of Fernet Branca), Plantation O.F.T.D. rum, and a rusty red Angostura whipped cream ($12). It’s not the only colorful cocktail, either, with the Taro Reader’s cachaça and coconut cream tinted a lovely lilac by an addition of—duh—taro ($11). Some nice Alsatian and German wines complement the food if liquor’s not your scene, and if you’re not into alcohol, mango juice, peach iced tea, and even sea-salt-whipped-cream-topped iced coffee, milk tea, or matcha ought to hit the spot.
Though it’s open by 11 am, there’s no cheaper lunch menu, and with portions pushing the limits even at dinner, it’d be nice to see a lunch menu appear. But for Lela’s Bistro’s sake—the sake of the neighborhood’s balance between homey and hip—maybe we shouldn’t hope too hard. Perhaps its almost clubby “cool” vibes are just ahead of the curve for the new Northwest, but for now, Hem 23 is a solid 23rd Avenue option that—at least as of yet—doesn’t have a line out the door.