Regulars line up outside Hà VL on SE 82nd Avenue in Portland, Oregon, a good half-hour before the 8:00 a.m. opening. The menu offers two Vietnamese noodle soups each day on a rotating six-day menu; on Sunday, the options are northern beef pho and turmeric yellow noodles, a sun-colored, wide-noodle soup with pork and shrimp.
Owner Peter Vuong (pictured above) offers me my choice of hot or cold Vietnamese coffee in strong or medium when we meet. His mother opened the restaurant in 2005; Peter took over operations about seven years ago. He tells me the beef pho is a specialty of his mother's region in northern Vietnam. Peter learned to make it by watching her, although she never actually shared the recipe with him. But he's confident in his own take. “If I eat something, I know what's missing,” he says.
During one of his frequent table visits, Peter tells me the harrowing story of how he escaped Vietnam in the 1980s by traveling to Malaysia and then to the Philippines before eventually making it to Portland, alone and without family. The trip was dangerous, and as he relives the tale he pulls back the sleeve of his sweater to show me the goose bumps on his arm. One by one, all his siblings escaped Vietnam through similar means and the family eventually reunited in Portland.
Every day Peter prepares enough of each soup for about 200 bowls. Sunday's beef pho and all its accoutrements can take upwards of 6 hours to prepare, but he is adamant about not taking shortcuts. This pho is remarkable in its clarity and intense, warm spice. On top of the deep beef flavor, which Peter achieves by slowly simmering beef shin bones and hunks of lean beef, hints of cinnamon, ginger, and star anise come through. The broth's delicate light-gray color belies its intensity, and each sip uncovers something new. It's deep but never heavy. “Light and fragrant. That's how it should be,” Peter says.
During the COVID-19 crisis, Hà VL's lively, brightly colored dining room (above) was closed for on-site meals, but the kitchen remained open for take-out service and delivery, keeping fans satisfied in the meantime.