One rainy Saturday, I made plans to visit Pho Van (1919 SE 82nd Ave) with friends for dinner—my first time trying the Portland Vietnamese staple, open since 1992. What better cure for the stormy blues than a steaming bowl of noodle soup? My friends brought their friends, and soon, we had a dream team of eight—old friends, new friends, siblings—a dinner party that would have been unimaginable just a couple months earlier.
Suddenly, the idea of staring into our own separate soup bowls seemed like a wasted opportunity. After all, one of the biggest perks of dining with a big group is that you can order the giant, shareable dishes, and add on all the appetizers in the world to pass around. A new friend, Teresa, immediately zeroed in on the cá nướng on the menu, a whole, roasted catfish. “With its crispy skin yet succulent and juicy flesh, roasted catfish is often referred to as the Peking duck of Vietnam,” the menu read. “Here at Pho Van, we have perfected the method of making roasted catfish just like the ones you would find in Saigon.”
One thing I’ve learned in my years of food writing is that if a restaurant claims to do a dish perfectly or says that one item is the best on the menu, it’s an automatic must-order. It hasn’t let me down at Gracie’s Apizza, where the tomato pie, labeled “This is the best pizza,” haunts my dreams, or at Taqueria Los Puñales, where the menu rightfully steers you toward the carnitas tacos with a simple note: “We do this well.”
So we heeded Pho Van’s advice, ordering the whole roast catfish as well as the papaya salad with shrimp, some crispy rolls, and bánh xèo, also known as stuffed pancakes. The papaya salad was the first to arrive, finely shredded to the thickness of angel hair pasta and straddling that delicate line between tenderness and crunch, with a flavor more toned-down and subtle than its Thai and Lao counterparts, lighter on the fish sauce and chile and heavier on fresh herbs like mint. This one had an element of build-your-own flavor and crunch added by sliced shrimp and fried shrimp chips. The crispy rolls landed nearly scalding, packed with juicy pork-shrimp filling with a bubbly, crackly shell and herbs and pickles for wrapping. The super-crackly, coconutty banh xeo was a behemoth and arrived on the kind of platter you might expect for a Thanksgiving turkey rather than a pork-and-shrimp-filled crepe with a deep pile of lettuce and herbs.
But the real star, as we expected, was the catfish. After a 45-minute wait that was happily filled by crunching on appetizers (call ahead to skip this preamble), the catfish—we chose large from the three sizes available that day—arrived on its own boat-shaped platter, and was greeted by eight stunned faces and a sudden shuffling of plates as we tried to make room on our already-full table. It was followed by a spectacularly sized plate of accompaniments: lettuce, mint, basil, cucumbers, sliced tart green apple, a bowl of cooked noodles, rice paper, and a warm bowl of water for dipping the paper.
We dunked our rice paper, scooped chunks of flaky catfish flesh and crispy skin off the bone with a giant spoon, and crammed the rolls full of veggies, herbs, and fruit until the paper could barely hold together. We admired (or mocked) each other’s rolling skills, our eyes collectively widened as we took the first bite of our rolls, and we passed each other lettuce, rice paper, and herbs down the line so we could all assemble roll after roll. We were raucous and voluble and brimming with joy on every bite: It was an interactive, communal dining experience unlike anything I’d had in years, and I loved every second. No need to eye others’ bowls of soup or vermicelli with envy and ask “How’s yours?”—we were all in the same boat, sharing one big dish, and it felt so, so good.
Naturally, we continued the shared experience through dessert with the Chè Van, a house version of the classic Vietnamese crushed ice dessert with sweet beans, coconut cream, and various jellies. The ice was smashed to just the right size, easily crunchable between the teeth, with long green jellies for slurping, pink water chestnuts for crunching, and perfectly al dente sweet yellow and red beans, just a hint of sweetness and a refreshing end to the meal.
In short: it was glorious, every last bite, and as we messily hoovered the last sweet morsel into our mouths while moaning about how comically full we were and waxing lyrical about that catfish, it was a reminder of how the best meals are made to be shared. And for meals to be shared, it doesn't come much better than Pho Van's cá nướng .