For better or worse, inner Washington Ave. and the neighborhoods it connects have experienced a great deal of change in recent years. While rising rents and the inevitable displacement of lower-income families represent the darker side of change, a shining light can be seen in the drive and passion shared by those who are actively working to revitalize the Nissen building and its neighboring storefronts. In just a few short years, the landscape has morphed from a strip of vacancies into a thriving community of food and drink establishments that includes Oxbow Blending & Bottling, Drifters Wife, Terlingua and the excellent Izakaya Minato.
The latest to join the list is Công Tử Bột, which — even with its limited opening night menu — proved to offer an entirely unique dining experience not found elsewhere in the city.
It should be noted that opening night is rarely an indication of a restaurant’s true prowess — a scathing review highlighting missteps and a laundry list of perceived problems would be irresponsible to publish. Kinks take time to unravel and should be expected up-front to an extent. When a restaurant and its staff are able to fire on all cylinders from day one like Công Tử Bột did last Thursday, however, opening night can be an excellent indication and intriguing tease of things to come.
PHO WALK WITH ME Công Tử Bột's vaguely Lynchian signage
Owned and operated by Tandem Coffee Roasters co-founders Jessica Sheahan and Vien Dobui, it’s no surprise the space that houses Công Tử Bột is well-designed. Warm neon lighting bounces off of a beautiful matte wood bar that snakes around the open kitchen, calling to mind a Nintendo-era realization of Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” R&B and lively conversation fill the room — Usher’s “Nice and Slow” comes on, the lights dim. A lowered garage door wall randomly filters in shadows and street noise. The vibe is decidedly youthful.
Though a 30 to 45-minute wait remains a constant throughout the evening, service never flounders. Jessica runs front-of-house operations, Vien manages a kitchen of three. Three or four servers float effortlessly around the room, replacing water and removing spent dishes without a break in the action.
The meal begins with Cà Phê Sữa Dá; Vietnamese iced coffee with condensed milk. Though the drink is a favorite of mine, it’s often imbalanced and sickeningly sweet — not so at Công Tử Bột. Once mixed via spoon and poured over ice, the coffee is just sweet enough without showing any bitterness, with mocha notes present throughout. Even if you don’t have time to sit down, it’s worth stopping in for a cup to go when the sun is blaring down.
Công Tử Bột bills itself as a “phở cafe,” and the Phở Gà (house-style chicken phở) is a prerequisite to experiencing the rest of the menu. A heady, extremely light broth bubbles away and is perfectly seasoned for balance, avoiding the temptation of becoming a clove or anise bomb. Crispy shallots meld perfectly with mild, impossibly tender poached chicken. Garnished with the typical amalgamation of sprouts, greens and fiery sliced chilies, the soup is carried by a heaping portion of thick, hearty noodles, making it the ultimate comfort food and a must-order during the winter season.
Hủ Tiếu Xào was especially impressive, a dish of stir-fried rice noodles with scallions, “many chilis,” peanuts, daily vegetable and brown sauce. The dish is numbingly hot up-front, while sparing the back of the tongue to some extent and calling to mind the “Ma La” dichotomy characteristic of Sichuan cuisine. The caramelized noodles are unlike any I’ve had in Portland, with a depth of flavor highlighted by the aggressive usage of spicy chilis. Fresh raw cucumbers and cilantro add a cooling foil to the heat, which is tamed only by taking generous swigs of Tiger lager.
Gỏi Cải Bắp — a salad of cabbage, ginger, chilies, fish sauce and herbs — also helps to cleanse the palate between dishes. Extremely refreshing, the textural crunch of the cabbage plays nicely off of a sweet and salty dressing of fish sauce and lime, augmented by a strong mint presence. Cơm Chiên (fried rice with egg, XO and herbs), though a bit dry, helped bridge the gap between the healing phở and incendiary Hủ Tiếu Xào.
Dessert was Kem Flan, listed on the menu as “Saigon-style Flan w/ Coffee Ice,” and an excellent end to the meal. The silky, satin-like vanilla flan was beautifully formed and topped with a crumble of coffee ice that added a pleasantly bitter contrast to the sweet custard. Even more interesting was the temperature contrast between the flan and the ice, which reminded me of a sweet application of the same concept as the mustard greens with ice served at Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok restaurants.
Though Huong’s, Thanh Thanh 2 and Saigon all offer up great food and a pleasant dining experience, Công Tử Bột is in a category all its own. The space is lively, the menu is playfully self-aware — Chè Khúc Bạch is described as “sweet soup w/ rambutan, ice, and various jellies. Very trendy in 2013.” Gratuity is included in what are already lower-than-expected price points, too, which should serve as an interesting experiment and benchmark for other restaurants looking to follow suit.
Công Tử Bột got it right on opening night and is a welcomed addition to the neighborhood. If the Lynchian-blue “Phở” sign in the window is lit, you know what to do.
Công Tử Bột | 61 Washington Ave., Portland | Thurs-Mon 5–10 pm | http://congtubot.com/