In case you missed it, young Vietnamese American cooks and food thinkers are shaking up Portland's food scene with fresh visions that blend Portland and Vietnam. Several opened during the pandemic, including Mama Dút's vegan comfort food eats, Berlu Bakery's elegant sweets and savories, and Portland Ca Phe, roasting beans from Vietnam.
Now comes another new voice: Thơm, from brothers Jimmy and Johnny Le, opening Aug 19 at the last stop on Alberta's shopping district, 3039 NE Alberta St (formerly home to The Big Egg and Sugar Cube).
The space is tiny, with room enough for 10 seats. To start, the menu will be petit as well, with four dishes for dine-in or take out: Phở Bo (beef noodle) or Phở Chay (vegan phở); Bún Thịt Nướng (BBQ pork noodles); and Cơm Gà (chicken and rice).
The mode is casual. But let it be said: Thơm will be the surely be the coolest, most considered, custom-made haunt for sipping an old-school bowl of pho. The feel is of stepping into a hidden studio in a mid-century home—blonde wood everywhere, painterly shades of green, a trio of hanging Isamu Noguchi Akari light sculptures, and customized wood speakers, four of them, strategically placed around the room.
Brothers Jimmy and Johnny Le hail from the Phở Lê restaurant clan in Vancouver, now 30 years strong, and known for a serious bowl of beef noodle soup. During dinner in 2018, I got schooled in “how to eat pho” from auntie Tina and lived to write the tale.
That story noted that the Le's two sons loved photography. One of them, Johnny, was a cool-kid artist living in LA and curator of a migratory art gallery, Galerie Hideout; younger brother Jimmy, a helper in Phở Lê 's kitchen since age 5, stayed on, cooking beside his father. “My parents are getting old,” Jimmy told me. “I don't want their legacy to die.”
Here we are, 2021. Phở Lê is still steaming along, dad at the stove. But with Thơm, the family legacy will live on in a new way. Thơm, says Johnny, can mean “a pineapple, something that ‘smells good,’ or a kiss—like a kiss on the cheek, which is a loving definition.” The small space aims to pay homage to Phở Lê 's original location, barely 500 square feet. “We want to go back to that intimate place we grew up in,” says Johnny, “Back to childhood, to create a place for memories and reinterpretations.”
To begin, the menu will be inspired by their parents’ food—staples and hallmarks of Phở Lê with tweaks from Jimmy. A different cut of beef, for one, will soon bob in the family's pho, itself deep in marrow bones and meatballs from Seattle's International District. “My dad likes sirloin; I like tenderloin,” says Jimmy. “So much more melt in the mouth.” The vegan pho, stocked with Ota Tofu since they were kids, will ditch the multi-vegetable approach to highlight one punchy green, like bok choy. Jimmy is thinking small and classic to start, especially with pandemic worries and headaches still afoot, but hopes to add some playful options down the line.
Johnny, 34, is the house mood-maker, drawing inspiration from chance encounters and influences, among them conceptual artist Danh Võ, Japanese architecture, and his own keen photography, which captures artists, musicians, and urban spaces with an alluring candor. You can't miss him—he's the guy who always has a camera in his hand.
I'm curious about his DIY bookshelf speakers, which he customized with parts from the company of his friend Devon Turnbull, the Brooklyn audio engineer known as a master of frequency. “I want to introduce a well-tuned experience for the space,” says Johnny, who plans to tap friends from his travels for playlists. Up first: Mathieu Schreyer, a DJ at LA's KCRW and a feature film music supervisor.
Nothing flashy here. Everything, says Johnny, who will split his time between his LA home and Portland, is to support Jimmy's food: “He's very passionate. It took two years and perseverance for him to find this place here, to build his own world during the pandemic while my parents worked the hardest in their lives.”
So what do their parents think about Thơm, now that Jimmy has stepped away from his dad's side for the first time?
I caught their mom outside the other day, planting flowers and figs trees on a barren patch out front. “Too ugly,” she said. But once inside, she beamed. “It's super cute.” With the new restaurant, the brothers hope their dad, the guy who goes home only to sleep, will retire. But both admit that's unlikely any time soon.
“Maybe Dad can come to Thơm and work for you,” I posit, half joking.
Answers Jimmy, “Oh God.” I wouldn't count it out.
Follow Thơm on Instagram @thom.pdx. Opening hours, Wednesday-Saturday 4-8 p.m.