The Pearl’s cheerful destination for authentic Vietnamese fare owes its success to hard work, courage, and just a touch of good luck.
Establishing a trinity of beloved restaurants has been no easy feat for the Vans. In the early 1980s, the family crammed into a small boat and fled their native Vietnam in search of new opportunities. After a spell in France (they were plucked from the ocean by the French Navy), they eventually made their way to the United States. And in 1992 they harnessed their knowledge of food and knack for design to open the first Pho Van restaurant. The family hasn’t looked back since.
The Vans currently have restaurants on Southeast 82nd, at Beaverton Town Square, and in the Pearl District, where popular Pho Van Fresh (1012 NW Glisan St, 503-248-2172, phovanfresh.com) opened in 2015 as a fast-casual rebranding of its more traditional predecessor, Silk. The eatery serves a full slate of Vietnamese favorites, including pho and noodle bowls, bánh mì sandwiches, and salad rolls. A key difference with its predecessor is that you now order at the counter and food is delivered to your seat in the art-filled dining room.
The space is unpretentious and fun yet still conveys a sense of elegance. Diners have several seating options: stand-alone tables with metal chairs, a communal table with wooden benches, cushy booths, and high counters with stools. There’s also the stylish bar, the one section with full table service, which lends itself well to a romantic date. The Vans commissioned striking art by celebrated Portland street artist Voxx Romana and decorated their colorful eatery with Vietnamese-inspired works, including a mobile comprising dozens of red Vietnamese New Year envelopes, which symbolize good luck.
At the restaurant’s entrance, a huge drawing of Vietnam details the differences between northern (pho bac) and southern (pho nam) pho, and a note explains that Pho Van’s version resembles pho nam and takes 15 hours to prepare. We recommend the spicy variety with medium-rare beef, Thai basil, and lime.
Other notables include green papaya salad with chiles and cherry tomatoes, and bánh mì with pâté, pork belly, and house-made cha lua (mortadella). Also consider the delectable five-spice duck-confit steamed buns, Vietnamese chicken wings in spicy garlic fish sauce, and crispy rolls with tofu, taro, and ginger-soy sauce
The bar opens each afternoon at 4 and offers an extensive happy hour menu both early and late in the evening. Try one of the specialty cocktails, perhaps the signature Tuk Tuk martini, a biting blend of Thai chile–infused vodka and passionfruit, or the Xic-Lo, with oak barrel–aged Pendleton Canadian Whisky, Bailey’s Irish cream, and Thai iced tea.
As you savor a piping hot bowl of pho or sip one of these comforting drinks, it’s worth considering how far the Vans have journeyed to bring you this flavorful feast. They’re truly an American success story. – Fernando Nocedal | photos by Ashley Anderson