T

he first thing I ever ate at Berlu, in 2019, was a puffed rice cracker served in a wood box in the world’s most silent food chamber. It was near translucent, undulating and amorphous, like an art installation of sea foam. Like many things made by the quietly talented Vince Nguyen, it was raw, naked, and spare, the kind of aching poetry that made this teeny restaurant an eccentric gem.

What was missing? That frisson of flavor, the thing that hot-wires the mind to the joy bone.

Flash forward to now. During the pandemic, Berlu went on hiatus. And Nguyen, a Euro-French modernist, went off to find what he had long rejected: his Vietnamese self. He plunged into YouTube, called the aunties, launched Berlu Bakery, toyed with regional noodle soups, and found his calling: Vietnamese cooking, his way, without boundaries, limitations, or labels.

A whole Dungeness crab four ways, with popovers, herbs, and pickles.

Image: Thomas Teal

Since rebooting last November, Berlu has morphed into the country’s next great Vietnamese tasting-menu restaurant—casual fun meets fine dining, street foods, and some mind-shredding originals. A night here will include something in a test tube, some combinations never considered, and dishes that blur the line between dinner and dessert. I call it Nguyen's World. Seasonality still rules, and Berlu remains a dairy-free and celiac-friendly zone. Otherwise, nothing else is predictable. Billie Eilish has commandeered the sound system. And that rice cracker is now a godly shrimp chip with a mysterious, ethereal crunch.

Part of the experience is the sense that we’re all on a journey at Berlu. For us, the entire tasting menu is a surprise, down to the final sip of hot chocolate infused with sweet black bean. That includes bánh bò nướng (an exquisitely chewy, honeycomb-textured bakery treat) as we’ve never seen it: charcoal-toasted until warm and crunchy on the outside. On the side for sopping: luxurious coconut cream and caviar. It’s the coolest “bread course” around. (Look for the traditional pandan version at Berlu Bakery.)

Charcoal-grilled honeycomb cake with caviar and coconut cream

Image: Thomas Teal

And where else will we find an upside-down cake embedded with caramelized shallots instead of fruit ... for dessert? Intoned celebrity Portland diner Gary Okazaki (a.k.a. Gary the Foodie) two bites in: “I’ve eaten thousands of desserts around the world. I’ve never tasted anything like this.” Even the zero-proof pairings are unique, inspired by Asian tea traditions, roughly half of them served hot.

But these dishes are new to Nguyen, too. Chefs on a personal roots journey often draw from family meals. Nguyen has no such memories. Growing up in California with divorced parents, he lived on American fast food and Westernized dinners. Like many second-generation kids of the time, he was ashamed of his heritage. Until recently, he rarely ate Vietnamese food, much less cooked it.

Taco-like bánh xèo

Image: Thomas Teal

And yet, his bánh xèo is a thriller. You probably know this iconic dish as a giant crêpe stuffed with shrimp, pork, and mung bean sprouts. Berlu builds the elements like regal, palm-size tacos, but with crispy, turmeric-stained, coconut milk crêpes instead of tortillas. Parked inside: shrimp ceviche, bright herbs, and a field of alfalfa sprouts, all dressed in fish sauce and lime. Wrap them in soft, sweet butter lettuce leaves and go.  

It could be Portland’s next cult dish. It’s that good. But before making it at Berlu, Nguyen had never eaten a bánh xèo. He just understands it. Unintentionally, he told me, his food was always Vietnamese.  

Some of his best dishes go off-script: two or three conceptual beauties inspired by Vietnamese flavors and aesthetics, not known dishes. They don’t exist in Vietnamese gastro-lore, only in Nguyen’s mind. They are right in his wheelhouse, the strange beauty, the unexpected synergies, and now, a new sense of purpose.

Chef Vince Nguyen

Image: Thomas Teal

That might mean a crazy salad of fruits and turnips, each melon-balled and steeped in some kind of lemongrass concoction, then piled over tamarind-coconut pudding. Poured on top: kombucha made from four kinds of juiced apples. Another dares to spoon geoduck clams and near-candied crisp lychee slivers over heavenly durian custard, at once cloudlike and daring with its famed potent perfume. This is Berlu’s greatest triumph yet—bold, original, and sublime.

Divine durian custard hides under geoduck, candied lychees, and fresh coconut.

Image: Thomas Teal

Fumbles are not unknown. Early on, one night’s “whole animal” duck course—each body part presented through a traditional Vietnamese dish—was disjointed, literally and figuratively, with a few bland clunkers in the mix. Six weeks later, the concept soared with Dungeness crab, creating a mini-feast of tradition and imagination. In the mix: grilled, spinach-wrapped legs; knuckles and claw meat bobbing in glorious hot chao porridge; fresh popovers alongside crab butter and foie gras terrine; a bowl laden with different lettuces and herbs. With this, Berlu found the heart of Vietnamese dining: fun and interactive with flavors jumping and everyone mixing, swooping, and chattering.

I always respected Nguyen’s cooking, so genuine and heartfelt. Now, I also crave it. At 35, he’s not just one of the best chefs in Portland, but one of its most important. As Portland’s food scene searches for a future, this is a place we can believe in, a story to celebrate, food to remember. Berlu, 605 SE Belmont St, berlupdx.com 

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