Bánh Mì Nam Lộc Is a Trove of Teeny Vietnamese Seafood Pancakes
It’s easy to blast right past Bánh Mì Nam Lộc—socked away in a strip mall along busy Southeast 82nd Avenue near Stark Street. It’s there-and-gone in a blink. But this cheery little hole in the wall, snuggled between a cigar garden and the All Ways Warm stove shop, is a gold mine of inexpensive banh mi, flavorful soups, and lesser-known Vietnamese bites.
Those banh mi are textbook Vietnamese sub sandwich craft: served on fresh, warm bread with rice-vinegared veggies and matchstick jalapeños. They're smaller than the subs you'll find down the street at Best Baguette and tend to be skimpy on the meat. But man, that meat is worth it—specifically the meatballs. Deli owner Lộc Nguyen (the Lộc in Nam Lộc) makes the savory orbs in-house every single day: fall-apart morsels of deliciousness, creamy with fat and studded with bits of onion. You can score a meatball banh mi for $3.25 ($5 with chips and a Coke).
Save stomach space, though, because banh mi are just a gateway order. Nguyen keeps the list of soups tight, from straight-ahead pho to a heady, habit-forming rendition of Viet-French bo kho beef stew. But the Saigon native’s hallmark is canh bun, a light, bright crab paste-enriched broth bobbing with tomato quarters, soft watercress, thick, slippery noodles, flash-fried tofu cubes, and a crumbly log of intensely flavored fish bits. Take a few sips to orient yourself and then doctor it up to taste with pungent fish paste and puckery tamarind sauce from the condiment tray for a layered, sour-salty slurp.
The not-so-secret house treasure is banh khot: golden, crisp-edged Vietnamese seafood mini-pancakes that aren’t often found at Portland pho houses. They’re the chunkier baby cousin of bánh xèo Vietnamese crepes and Nguyen says they’re often sold in Saigon as a street snack. Made in an aebleskiver pan-like vessel from a batter of turmeric-whispering rice flour and coconut milk (“if there’s no coconut, it’s no good,” says Nguyen), they look a little like squat cupcakes. Each crisp, toasty bite yields to a custardy texture and the pop of mild shrimp and green onion. Wrap each pancake up in a lettuce leaf with a bit of perilla (aka shiso) and dip the whole bundle in a sweet-spicy-sour mix of fish sauce, coconut juice, chile, and sugar. It's part seafood omelette, part silky doughnut, part taco, and totally delicious. You score seven of ‘em for $6.50, which is enough to split for a side dish (or make it a double order).
Nguyen emigrated from Southern Vietnam 35 years ago, but she’s continued to make her favorite Saigon street foods here in Portland—including those banh khot, which, as far as either of us can tell, are not made anywhere else in Portland (readers: let us know if you find them elsewhere!). She worked at venerable soup spot Pho Hung for years before launching her own (not so) modest deli in 2010. She’s a from-scratch stickler—from those creamy meatballs to the crab paste for the canh bun that she makes from real crab, ground pork, lots of black pepper, and a little sugar (among other things)—and it shows in her layered dishes.
Beyond the grub, Nam Lộc is mostly all about iced Vietnamese coffees, neon fruit smoothies smuggling jelly chunks, and so, so much Keno and video poker. You could happily waste an afternoon here watching reruns of Law & Order on the overhead TV, drinking cheap beers with the regulars, and filling up on comfort snacks. One bite, and you’ll never motor past this spot again.