Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Vietnamese Bistro to Love

Growing up in small-town Central Oregon had its advantages. Even in elementary school I could ride out alone on my bike to the edge of town, park it and spend hours climbing up and down the canyon walls looking for lizards without causing my mother a second of worry. In the summer I could walk or,  if forced, shepherd my two younger brothers for an afternoon in the cool blueness of the local pool.

Our food choices, however, if it was more than canned or frozen vegetables and meat, were somewhat limited. There was a steakhouse for special occasions, and an A&W drive-in where waitresses would carry out a tray with our order of burgers and root beer (7Up for me) and clip it to the driver's window. The sole ethnic food available was dispensed from a Chinese restaurant called Johnny's that featured chow mein and egg foo young—exotica to me back then.

Over the years we'd taken my folks to a Thai restaurant here and a pho place there, though when I parked outside a Japanese eatery my mother pulled me aside as we were about to walk in and said, "Now, honey, I just want you to know I'm not going to eat any of that raw fish." Though by the time we walked out she'd was smiling broadly about her bento lunch of teriyaki chicken, and I can almost swear she had a tiny bite of my sashimi…but maybe I'm making my own wishful memory.

A place we could have taken them with no qualms at all, however, is Bambuza Vietnam Bistro, a three-restaurant chain owned by Daniel Nguyen and his wife, Katherine Lam (above left). She'd grown up cooking for her large family while her parents worked two jobs to support them, so when Daniel and his mother opened the first Bambuza in Seattle, Katherine quickly learned her mother-in-law's recipes. When the couple moved to Portland to be closer to Katherine's family and Daniel's mother retired, they decided to close the Seattle restaurant and open their own in Portland.

The menu is full of the salad rolls, noodle soups, noodle bowls (top) and entrées familiar to fans of Vietnamese cuisine, with a focus on fresh ingredients made on premises. Katherine's soups are made from broths that develop their layers of flavor from hours simmering on the stovetop, though she's quick to point out that she does make substitutions for traditional ingredients like congealed pork blood that some customers might find off-putting.

The other difference is the decor, all dark wood with dramatic lighting from oversized silk lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Like I said, a place my parents would have loved. I just wish that our small town had one like it when I was a kid…between that and the lizards, I might never have left.

Details: Bambuza Vietnam Bistro. Three locations: 19300 NW Cornell Rd., Hillsboro; 3682 SW Bond in Portland's South Waterfront; 7628 SW Nyberg St. in Tigard.

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