PHO VIET & CAFÉ

Food: () Delicious pho soup highlights a menu with other Vietnamese delights.

Service: () Prompt, friendly staff has improved knowledge of language and culture.

Atmosphere: () Delightful element of back-alley Asian tackiness in simple decor.

More Info

Location: 1326 NE Third St. (at Norton Avenue), Bend

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday

Cuisine: Vietnamese

Price range: Lunch $5.95 to $7.95; pho $7.95 to $13.95, entrees $9.95 to $18.95

Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa

Kids’ menu: On request (chicken and beef pho $5.99)

Vegetarian and gluten-free menu: Most dishes can be made free of meat and gluten

Alcoholic beverages: Beer and wine

Outdoor seating: Heat lamps are planned for fenced patio area

Reservations: Suggested for parties larger than four

Contact: phovietandcafe.com, 541-382-2929

For more area restaurant reviews, visit bend bulletin.com/restaurants

In just under seven years in business, Pho Viet & Café has transformed itself from an exotic outpost to an integral and beloved piece of Central Oregon’s varied restaurant scene.

Bend’s very first Vietnamese restaurant helped to make “pho” a household word for scores of diners, who may never have tried it before it appeared on a menu here. The beef-noodle soup, typical of the cuisine of the Southeast Asian country, is offered in more than a dozen versions.

“It’s something good to eat when you don’t feel good, when the days are cold and dark, when you have a hangover,” said Tan Vo, the restaurant’s exuberant owner. “It’s something that everybody likes.”

Pho Viet’s pho (pronounced “fuh”) is made from a recipe passed down from Vo’s great-grandmother. Slow cooked with beef bones, onions and spices for 10 hours, the rich, clear broth is served in a steaming bowl filled with long rice noodles. Seasoned with green onions, it is topped with various cuts of beef that may include sliced flank steak and round steak, lean brisket, meatballs and tendon.

A side plate encourages diners to add condiments: copious bean sprouts, fresh sprigs of basil and cilantro, sliced jalapeño peppers and a wedge of lime. For those who need more seasoning, choices of Sriracha, hoisin and soy sauces are on each table, along with deep spoons and chopsticks. I always find myself asking for extra basil.

The menu extends well beyond pho. There are six pages of chicken, pork, beef and seafood dishes, many of them with rice or noodles, highlighted by duck and crawfish specials. Tan and his wife, Tammy, the executive chef and kitchen manager, know how to keep their customers satisfied.

A long trip

But it’s been a long, strange trip for Tan Vo, whose earliest memories are of stirring a wok in his mother’s Saigon restaurant as a schoolboy in the late 1960s.

He was in his teens when he fled his country in the early 1980s. Vietnam’s new government was rounding up political enemies, and Tan’s father, a career army officer, was taken from the family home one night. As the eldest son, Tan was encouraged to make his escape. For three weeks, traveling mostly at night, he traversed the jungles of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, using skills his father had taught him as he searched for sanctuary.

He found it in a refugee camp, where he lived for 27 months. His cooking ability earned him a kitchen job and the opportunity to learn English. It also introduced him to a Thai community sponsor, an imperial chef who took the young man under his wing until he had confirmed passage to America. Although Pad Thai is not a Vietnamese dish, Vo keeps the noodles-and-shrimp plate on the menu to honor his patron.

He also believes in the twin virtues of hard work and a positive attitude. Although he initially landed in Orange County, California, he made his way north to Portland. He enrolled at Portland State University and found work at local restaurants until he had saved enough money to open his own, with partners, in 1988.

Tan and his partners sold the restaurant after 4½ years. For most of the next two decades, he worked in the mortgage loan business and cooked on the side. He brought his parents to Portland when his father, now 93, completed an 11-year prison term. And Tan met Tammy on a visit to Vietnam in 2000.

Thanks to Buddha

The Vos left Portland in November 2010 when they bought a former taco restaurant on Third Street. Pho Viet opened two months later, and Tan still expresses gratitude for the speed with which the city of Bend completed its inspection. “Thanks to God, thanks to local Buddha, we have a successful business,” he said.

An attempt in 2013 to establish a second restaurant on Wall Street, Sweet Saigon, didn’t go as well. The space was too large and the overhead too high for the business it could generate; today, it is home to the Barrio restaurant. But the 50-seat Pho Viet cafe is just right, and it seems to always be packed.

Service has improved with the years. An all-male staff, which once struggled with English and sometimes confused orders, has a much better grasp of the language. Decor includes a small Buddhist altar beneath a television programmed to show scenes of life in Vietnam. But there’s a delightful element of back-alley Asian tackiness in the ceiling fans and promotional photos of menu items hanging on the walls.

The menu, of course, extends far beyond pho. Two of my favorite items are the lemongrass beef salad and the Vietnamese crêpe.

Goi Bò ($12.95) features tender sliced beef, seared with lemongrass, carrots and sliced daikon radish, served on a bed of chopped iceberg lettuce with a drizzle of rice vinegar, and finished with fried shallots, cilantro, sesame seeds and crushed, roasted peanuts. Served with a handful of shrimp crackers, it is perfect for a lighter appetite.

Bánh Xèo (also $12.95) is a wonderful winter meal. The crispy, rice-flour crepe is filled with shrimp, pork, sweet onions and bean sprouts. It’s served with leaves of romaine lettuce for wrapping, along with basil, cilantro, carrot, daikon and Nuóc Mam, a popular sweet-and-spicy dip made with Vo’s own blend of fish sauce, lime juice and other ingredients.

It’s worth hiking through a jungle to eat.

— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at janderson@bendbulletin.com.

19075365