That is, Vietnamese American looking for authentic Vietnamese food.
This week we celebrated Slow Boy’s parents’ 36th anniversary at Silk, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Pearl. It’s actually owned by Pho Van, a decent local chain that serves your usual Vietnamese fare (pho and bun), but being in Portland’s upscale district, Silk is fancy Vietnamese.
Fancy Vietnamese? Is that, like, an oxymoron? A few years ago when I first saw the new menu at Silk, you could quote me saying I’d never pay $9 for pho or $15 for thit kho (caramelized pork), but I’m becoming desperate for some good, authentic Vietnamese food. And now I see that making Vietnamese cuisine trendy is the right step towards making it popular, because really, does Portland need another Thai restaurant?
My short summary: Silk is not entirely authentic but the food and experience are delightful. The bun and soup are more true to Vietnamese cuisine, and I enjoy the high quality of the broth, but the rice dishes tend to have Chinese and sweet flavors. Still, the menu is different enough that it’s worth the extra few dollars for better ingredients, lighter cooking style, and interesting dishes that I normally wouldn’t make at home.
My first test is always cha gio. If it comes out like crunchy egg rolls, then it’s a fail. Vietnamese use rice paper, not egg, and Silk, much to my delight, got it right. The wrap was sticky and crispy, the filling, often too meaty, had the right balance with vegetables (and mushrooms!), and the nuoc cham (dipping sauce) wasn’t too sweet.
We also ordered goi cuon, which is harder to mess up as long as you have fresh vegetables and a good piece of pork and shrimp. The art is more in the rolling, which should be firm–but not too tight–and the shrimp visible (next time I’ll take a picture!). The peanut dipping sauce favored hoisin sauce a little too much for my preference.
I ventured out with tom kho (caramelized shrimp on a noodle nest), something I’ve never seen my mom make or order. The prawns had a nice bite, so not overcooked, and the caramelized coating was more like a glaze, a pleasant crunch. It was only slightly too sweet and could use some hotness or pepper.
My favorite dish was surprisingly ca ri ga (chicken curry). I’ve always had a problem with Thai curries and the amount of coconut milk. Silk’s curry tasted more like my mom’s: yellow indian curry spices with more nuoc mam and less coconut and used dark meat to give that extra fat and flavor. But they added a twist that I enjoyed: yams, instead of potatoes, and oyster mushrooms (can you tell I’m a fungus fan?).
I recommended ca hap (steamed fish with a soy, mushroom, and ginger sauce) for Slow Boy’s dad because I had confidence that a proper restaurant would know how to make this light and delicate dish. We normally eat a whole fish and use more nuoc mam with piles of ginger and scallions, so the mushroom-flavored soy sauce was a Chinese touch. Still, you know the restaurant is good if they can achieve the right taste that isn’t bland or overpowering the fish.
Slow Boy quickly observed that the thit kho to was different than my mom’s, but that’s because it’s a different dish from thit kho! The “to” part means dry (I think?), and like pho, each family has their own version of braised meat. Silk’s version did not use the fatty pieces of pork; instead the tenderloin was sliced more like one would expect on a skewer. The sauce wasn’t as intense, which was a wise choice, because normally thit kho is a side dish that you need to balance with several other flavors.
Another Chinese influence: the only side leafy green offered was bok choy with shitakes, instead of rau muong (spinach) sauteed with garlic.
A unique dish on the menu was ca Ha Noi, which looked like the Pacific NW rendition of cha ca (Slow Boy’s favorite, remember?). It used salmon instead of catfish and as there was no mention dill (a must for this dish), I didn’t dare. Slow Boy has tried bo luc lac (sauteed tender, cubed beef) before and it was disappointing; it takes skill to correctly sear and “shake” the beef. Last summer, CP nursed her wisdom tooth extraction with mi hoanh thanh (wonton noodle soup), and since she couldn’t chew, I got to enjoy the light and shrimpy wontons, just how we like it.
I should compliment the decor: simple and large pieces with a lot of texture, all in similar tones so nothing was too noisy or bright. Throughout the meal, we continued to notice and enjoy the art, the wall coverings, even the lamp shades that were six feet across.
Everything could easily use a hot pepper or four, as my dad would have it. Though he prefers traditional Vietnamese, I appreciated the subtle changes that Silk incorporated into some of my favorite dishes. I felt their focus was not to serve authentic Vietnamese food but to create a sophisticated dining experience with Vietnamese cuisine (and it turns out, that is their focus).
Right now it’s my best option for good quality Vietnamese in downtown Portland. But really, $15 is a lot. Do you know of any other places? I’m happy to try and always looking for an excuse to eat Vietnamese!