Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: HA & VL Sandwiches

HA & VL Sandwiches
2738 SE 82nd Ave
Portland, OR 97266
(503) 772-0103

Why was I going for a Vietnamese noodle soup for breakfast? It was 9:45, surely I was supposed to be eating a banana, muffin, egg sandwich, or even a scramble. But alas, there I was, in my car, driving out to SE 82nd Ave for a bowl of what was rumored to be the best Vietnamese soup in town. I pulled into the strip mall parking lot located next to Fubonn market and had to look around to find HA & VL Sandwiches. My attention was quickly drawn to a group of Vietnamese men standing against the wall of a building, trying to stay dry as they smoked butts and chatted away. I knew I was in the right place.

HA & VL sandwiches serves Baan Mi and a different Vietnamese noodle soup every day of the week. I have not tried the Baan Mi yet, as the reason for going to HA & VL is the soup. They open at 7:30 each morning and often sell out of the daily soup by 11 or 12. It is not unusual for the place to be full at 10 o' clock of people slurping down soup and Vietnamese coffee or tea. While I had driven by the place several times, and proudly exclaimed "look Vietnamese sandwiches!" I had never actually visited or been inside. After reading rave reviews by foodies and bloggers this past week, I had no choice but to make the pilgrimage. And I'm glad that I did, because this place did not disappoint.

I sat down and quickly ordered the special of the day, Bun Rieu Son Tay, and a Vietnamese iced coffee. I was asked if I wanted my coffee strong. Obviously I wanted it strong. But I had trouble slurping the whole thing down in one gulp, per usual, because I was getting quite the caffeine buzz. It tasted good too. My soup quickly arrived with the traditional accompaniments of lettuce, basil, sprouts, and chilies. On my first sip it tasted slightly fishy but delicious. After that, my taste buds opened up and the rich broth exploded with flavor. I could not quite define the characteristics of the broth, but it was delicious. The broth housed all sorts of flavorful bites. Swimming in the broth were noodles, balls of ground shrimp, pork, pillows of fried tofu, tomatoes, chives, and roasted garlic. The bowl was quite large and my first impression was that I would get to take some home with me. As I sat and enjoyed my "brunch," I watched the group of men get up and smoke cigarettes outside and return to their coffee and chatter. The matriarch came out and talked to everyone. I truly felt welcomed by her when she said "I am glad you are here." She joked with other customers and brought me out a menu and explained the daily specials.

I started to feel at home in this foreign environment. I was at a unique Vietnamese noodle house on 82nd, surrounded by refrigerators housing Capri Sun and other beverages. The walls were green and yellow and had Mardi Gras beads hanging. And of course the scene would not be complete without the cheesy Vietnamese entertainer blaring out of the old school television. Somehow as I sat around, my soup bowl diminished. There would be no leftovers that day. I bundled up in my rain gear and paid the check. As I left and returned to the dreary Portland day, I saw the empty table housing a few cigarette butts in an ashtray, still sending off smoke signals. They seemed lonely without the group of chattering men drinking plastic cups of Vietnamese Iced coffee. But I had hope for that ashtray. Just as I knew that I would return to HA & VL Sandwiches for another late morning soup bowl, I knew that this ashtray would once again be surrounded by chattering Vietnamese men, talking about whatever the hell they talk about.