Traditional Asian and Indian restaurants in North West Portland are pretty much mediocre, or dedicated to lunchtime cash flow. You never see every table covered at the Thai, Chinese, or Subcontinent joints regardless of the time of day and their trade appears to lean heavily on tourist walk-ins. With the sad exceptions of Indian and Thai cuisine, however, there is very respectable Vietnamese, Korean, and Chinese fare to be had outside of traditional venues in two Alphabet District restaurants that are in reality nice bars that also serve good food.
Telephone: (503) 227-8000
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Rostra rating: 4
Fish Sauce is a cookie cutter post-industrial Rip City gastropub that dishes out Vietnamese cuisine leavened with some Korean faves. The staff is friendly and helpful, while the seating is very, very communal. There are a couple tables for two, but the real choices are between the long central table, the bar, and a short chef’s counter. The choice of inebriants covers most predilections whether you want interesting cocktails, whiskey and other liquor flights, beer, wine, or carefully chosen sake. No, Fish Sauce does not have 100 taps, a wine list masquerading as a spread sheet, or a galactically acclaimed mixologist—but each category has been stocked with care and an eye to how the booze goes with the food.
With the exception of the shrimp chips, Team Mago has yet to order a dud at Fish Sauce. You could do a lot worse than order the bespoke pickles and kimchi along with superb greaseless Chả Giò (crispy rolls) with your first round.
Standouts include anything containing pork belly, particularly Thịt Kho, which is clay pot braised pork belly and eggs in coconut water, fish sauce, green onions, and black pepper.
The three soups offered are all very good, MagoGuide’s current favorite is Bánh Canh (udon noodles with fried shrimp balls, poached shrimp and pork).
Bánh Mì sandwiches are often served with way too much bread and indifferent ingredients that have languished for almost too long in the fridge. But Fish Sauce’s versions are savory, correctly proportioned flavor and texture bombs. I am getting around to acknowledging a growing addiction for the one made with Vietnamese bacon, pork roll, and pâté—kind of a non-kosher version of Ken’s Special at Kenny and Zukes Bagelworks (because of which I have already done a stint in pastrami rehab).
Mago Tip: The soup servings at Fish Sauce are large, but for a dollar more you can split one and still have room to sample other dishes.
Telephone: (503) 208-2173
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Rostra rating: 4
Less than a ten minute walk away from Fish Sauce, Kung POW! consistently delivers way above average Szechuan-themed drinking and food. MagoGuide is pleased to announce that we are upgrading Kung POW! to 3.5 rostras since chef/owner Henry Liu’s kitchen has overcome at least some of the problems we identified in our initial review (see Kung POW! Does not Pack Much of a Punch). The pot stickers are still disturbingly big with a jarringly imbalanced stuffing-to-wrapper ratio, but the mu shu pancakes now arrive fresh and warm and the cabbage-to-all-the-other-stuff mix in their spring rolls has likewise improved.
Unfortunately, cost of food considerations will probably keep flank steak as Kung POW!’s go-to beef ingredient, but economics also puts pork belly front and center on the menu. Like Fish Sauce, you cannot go wrong with pork belly at Kung POW! be it in a clay pot braise (an excellent and spicy contrast to Fish Sauce’s rich and mild version illustrating why this preparation is ubiquitous yet different across the length and breadth of Asian cuisine), swaddled in muu shu blankets, as a protein insurgency in otherwise vegan dishes, or as a chow mein main stay.
Service at Kung POW! has not burned out over time and remains friendly, (culinarily) passionate, and knowledgeable. The bar provides even more exotic cocktails and rotating taps than Fish Sauce in a less cramped and more colorful space. If only Chef Liu would revamp his Riesling-heavy wine list, perhaps following a perusal of Fish Sauce’s smaller but far more diverse offering.
Mago Tip: Why agonize over choosing between these two great Asian-themed gastrobars? Definitely start out at Kung POW! for some fiery swine-driven food, a brewski or twoski, and shot of exotic sino-hootch (consider making this chili-infused white lightening so as to continue the hot and spicy theme). Then cool off at Fish Sauce with something noodly, soupy, and seafoody. Finish your evening with Chuối Chiên, that is to say fried banana wrapped in rice paper served with sweet coconut milk, tapioca, and Hershey’s sauce.