I have feelings about salad rolls. So often they’re bland, and the thin rice paper roll shreds as you try to eat the unseasoned shrimp, tofu, or pork packed within. Or the ratio of vermicelli noodles is too high, or it’s served inexplicably with sweet and sour sauce.
A good salad roll, however, is a thing of great beauty. Done well, these Southeast Asian wraps (you’ll find them most often at Vietnamese and Thai spots) are a perfect, fresh-as-hell light lunch or dinner with flavors way more exciting than another chopped salad. I order them whenever I see them, in search of perfection.
After years of dedicated nibbling through the boring and the bad, here are the top five most transcendent salad rolls I’ve found in Portland, in ascending order:
5. MeKha Grill
A chef pal on Twitter turned me on to this Southeast Division Vietnamese grill. The meats inside are given a good char before being rolled together with mint, cilantro, vermicelli noodles, chives, and lettuce. It’s a very good version, and my only wish is that the rolls were a little bigger so I could eat more, and be a little more full. There’s chicken and tofu, but go for the Thit nuong cuon, the grilled pork. Chicken, tofu, or pork is $6. 4912 SE Division, mekharestaurants.com/mekha-grill, Mon-Sat 10 am-9 pm
4. Farmhouse Kitchen Thai
You can add shrimp to Farmhouse Kitchen’s rolls for $2, but it’s really not necessary. These rolls arrive so very appetizing in vegan form—sliced into sharable pieces, bursting with Ota tofu, greenery, and sprinkled with black sesame seeds in a sea of chili peanut oil—that you won’t miss the shellfish. These rolls aren’t quite robust enough to order as a light meal on their own, but they’re the perfect palate cleanser to start a shared meal for eaters of any persuasion. Vegan tofu rolls are $8.95 at lunch, $9.95 at dinner (add $2 for shrimp). 3354 SE Hawthorne, farmhousepdx.com, Mon-Thurs 11 am-2:30 pm & 5-9 pm; Friday 11 am-2:30 pm & 5-10 pm; Saturday noon-10 pm; Sunday noon-9 pm.
3. Fresh Roll
I mean, if you name your whole restaurant after fresh rolls, you’d better deliver. Downtown’s Fresh Roll does, making some of the city’s best salad rolls with definitely the best variety. And they’re smart, serving the chicken, pork, tofu, and nem (Vietnamese grilled sausage) versions premade and individually wrapped, meaning you can add them to an order of pho, or get two or three for a full meal. My favorite is the nem and the tamarind hoisin dipping sauce (peanut sauce and fish sauce are also options), and when I’m feeling super fancy, I spend $9 for a salad roll with deep-fried softshell crab with avocado, its crispy legs bursting out of the top like an edible party popper. Chicken, pork, nem, and tofu: one roll $3.50, two for $6, or three for $9. Softshell crab with avocado is $9; shrimp tempura with avocado is $8. 600 SW 4th, eatfreshroll.com, Mon-Fri 11 am-8:45 pm, Sat noon-6:45 pm
2. Rose VL
Like the original, the second outpost from the founders of Ha & VL is known for its two mind-blowingly good soups served each day until they sell out. But unlike the first, Rose VL also has a few other menu items—and they’re given the same meticulous attention as the soups.
The pork and shrimp salad rolls at Rose VL are the Platonic ideal of a perfect salad roll: freshly made with still-soft rice paper, just-cooked shrimp, and tender pork, they’re bursting with herbal flavor. There are no vermicelli noodles added to this roll—which I think are usually what makes a salad roll bland and gummy, since rice noodles and rice paper is just too much. Instead, owners William and Christina add crisp strips of red and yellow bell pepper. Even when I go alone, I have to add an order of two rolls—one for now, and one for later. Shrimp and pork rolls are $5. 6424 SE Powell, open Mon-Sat 9 am-5 pm
1. WokShop Kitchen
I’m moving out of the neighborhood near WokShop Kitchen, so I’ve decided it’s okay to tell everyone about how fucking amazing their salad rolls are. So: The chicken salad rolls are FUCKING AMAZING, and I’ve been eating them at least once a week for three years and still haven’t tired of them. The secret? They take whole grilled chicken thighs and place them in a roll with lettuce, a smattering of rice noodles, a good helping of crispy eggroll skin, and—here’s the kicker—pickled matchstick cuts of daikon radish and carrot.
The chicken is hot and moist, the pickled veg adds depth, and the crispies add just the right touch of not-too-healthy. They’re $6 for two, served with peanut sauce that I skip in favor of adding a dollop of sriracha before each bite. They make other varieties, but if you eat chicken, that’s the one to get—although my vegetarian friend regularly makes a half-hour round-trip drive just to get the tofu. WokShop, located just down Northeast 82nd from Madison High and next to a Plaid Pantry, may look like a sketchy video lottery joint, but this place is legit. Chicken or beef, $6; tofu, $5.50; shrimp, $6.50; and nem (grilled Vietnamese sausage), $6. 2120 NE 82nd, wokshopkitchen.com, daily 11 am-9:30 pm