Mai Pho Vietnamese

John Chilson

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Location: SW Alder and 9th  (between 9th and 10th)

Description: Maybe it’s the weather, but I’ve been on a beef pho soup kick lately by “researching” different dishes throughout the Portland metro area, including the wonderful Lavang Restaurant in Lake Oswego [near my former work and in a non-descript shopping center] and most recently Pho Dalat, where I had a decent bowl of pho served with traditional herbs, greens and other accompaniments for a reasonable price. If push comes to shove, I can survive on noodles and broth alone.

A couple weeks back I found myself at food cart ground zero downtown at SW 9th  and Alder [a not so subtle reference to the block of some of Portland's best food carts] and spied a recent newcomer: Mai Pho Vietnamese.

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By nature, or habit, I quickly ordered the beef pho without really scoping out the other menu offerings. Admittedly I realize I have been missing out on some great food from the various Vietnamese restaurants around town by ordering only the pho, though I did notice other tempting dishes from the simple menu while waiting for my pho at the tiny, colorfully decorated cart.

The pho, available in beef, chicken or tofu, comes served in a 32 oz. paper bowl and lid – with most ingredients already mixed in the dish for you.

My dining partner ordered the Lemongrass Noodle Salad with chicken. It smelled incredibly edible and I immediately started to feel the pangs of food envy.

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The service was fast and the owner was very friendly. In no time we had our food and off we went to empty Dawn of the Deadesque Galleria to enjoy lunch.

A good pho is only as good as the beef stock used to make it. Sure, freshness counts with the ingredients, usually basil, mint, bean sprouts and chile. But if the broth doesn’t cut it, the dish is doomed. My point? As we sat down I clumsily grabbed the top of the container and proceeded to spill about 80% of the broth onto the table and floor. [Yeah, I'm that guy.] My dining companion was very gracious in not rolling with laughter; instead, gathering up some paper towels and helping me mop up the precious broth. So how was the beef pho without most of the essential broth? Good. Very good and very flavorful. Still moist and even a bit more complex with some of the flavors that are usually reserved as second players getting a shot to shine what they offer in the absence of the broth.

Another visit was warranted, so a few days later, we hit up the cart again, but this time I opted for what my partner had on the previous trip: Lemongrass Noodle Salad with Chicken. Like the pho, options include beef, chicken, or tofu.

And like the pho, the ingredients were fresh and delicious. Mixed with fresh greens, vermicelli noodles, chicken lightly coated in a batter and a light side sauce that was part sweet and part savory, the dish was well worth the $6. And a bonus: I didn’t drop it this time.

Quick takes:

· If you’re really hungry you can add an appetizer with your entrée. Prices range from $3.00 to $5.00 and some servings look like they could make a whole meal.

· Unfortunately only one dish, spring rolls, was vegetarian.

· The meal would have been perfect with a nice, cold pale ale.

Sample Menu:

Appetizers -

Crab puffs (6) $4

Vegetarian Spring Rolls (3) $3.00

Pork Egg Rolls (3) $3.50

Shrimp & Pork Salad Roll $3.50

Tofu Salad Roll (2) $3.00

Chicken Potsticker (10) $5.00

Entrees -

Pho Noodle Soup (32 Oz) Beef, chicken tofu $5.50

Chicken and Vegetable Dumpling Soup $6.00

Lemongrass Noodle Salad (beef, chicken, tofu) $6.00

Vietnamese Noodle Salad w/ egg rolls $6.00

Chicken & Vegetable Stir Fry w/ Curry Noodles $5.50

Hours: Lunch Hours Mon-Fri

Phone: Unknown

Website: None

Email: None

Comments

  1. I’ve eaten here twice, and the food is really quite good. The woman who runs it is a one woman show, but she doesn’t skimp on quality ingredients or quantity.

    The chicken Pho is chicken soup for the soul, for sure. Really, really tasty, fresh and balanced broth.

    My only beef (ha, ha, “beef” get it), is that those paper Pho containers are really precarious. It’s easy to spill them and they aren’t conductive to the whole Pho experience, ditto with the small shallow spoons. I don’t have a solution, but some budding PDX entrepeneur should make some sturdy biodegradable Asian Soup Bowl containers, lids and Asian style soup spoons.

    I know there is a market for them.

  2. I noticed this cart just the other day as I was walking back towards the Square with a Bahn Mi from the other Vietnamese cart. I’ll have to try it out, though it’s almost too warm for Pho at this point (personally I need <40 degrees outside for brothy soup).

  3. They have several dishes on the menu that are supposed to be vegetarian, not just spring rolls. The pho is listed as “beef, chicken, vegetarian”. The noodle salad with egg rolls could be made with the veggie rolls, too, and the lemongrass noodle salad should also be vegetarian.

    It’s always good to confirm that there’s no fish sauce used, but based on the menu they had up yesterday, they should have three entrees that are vegetarian. The sauces for the noodle salads appeared to be served separately, so getting a fish-sauce free sauce should also be pretty simple, if they aren’t vegan by default.

  4. Hey, is there somewhere on this site when we can alert you to new carts when I find them? I don’t want to tamper with the thread of Mai Pho (which I just tried last week, thanks to your site..good stuff) but I want to make sure you have heard there is a new cart on 5th that makes homemade english muffins for your breakfast sandwich and they are yummy.

  5. Thanks e-play. I do believe you are talking about the Brunch Bunch on SW 5th…yes, look for a write up here soon.

    In addition, I am planning on a forums section here at some point where readers can write in with new cart tips, closure info and can announce carts looking for spaces and spaces looking for carts.

    However, this is going to require a bit of time and back end programming so please be patient!

    In the meantime, please feel free to contact me directly using the CONTACT form on this website.

    Thanks!

  6. I have eaten at this cart so many times I’ve lost count! I’ve tried pretty much all the items on her menu and would say the Lemongrass Noodle Salad with chicken, the Beef Pho, and the Pork’n’Shrimp Salad Rolls with homemade peanut sauce are my top favs!! The owner is a wonderful addition to the cart-city there…a one woman show with a friendly disposition! She doesn’t skimp on fresh ingredients and the balance of all the flavors makes it a for sure stop on many of my downtown visits!

  7. Spare Change? says:

    I’ve eaten here 6 or 7 times – never disappointed. Today I had the Lemongrass Chicken on brown rice. Good portion size and very tasty.

    Agree with the above comments that the person operating the cart is very friendly ( as are most of the cart operators from whom I’ve purchased food ).

    I have this cart, Real Taste of India, and Give Pizza A Chance, on my downtown food cart rotation list.

  8. bahdelady says:

    I think this may be my favorite of the carts at Alder & 9th. I get the noodle salad with chopped-up spring rolls, and it’s just so fresh and flavorful, with tons of great herbs and crunchy bean sprouts. The rolls themselves are crisp and nicely peppery even without pepper sauce. The cook seems like a lovely person, too.

  9. This is my new favorite cart!

  10. Best Fried Rice! I’ve only gotten the fried rice (veggie style) from this spot but it’s delicious. Try it!

  11. Lisa Masuda says:

    I visited Portland back in April for a few days and ate here during my visit. The pho she makes ruined me for all of the other mediocre pho joints that are in LA! It was so tasty – an amazing broth made with real quality ingredients (not the watery, tasteless, bouillon cube broths I’m accustomed to in LA)…so much so that I found myself eating here two days in row! I still dream about it….

  12. Mai is just the best! She’s a happy person who truly seems committed to making sure you are happy too. She always has a great suggestion & has never steered me wrong. I’m partial to the lemongrass noodle salad with tofu (which is fresh & super-flavorful with stir-fried veggies on top of rice noodles & lettuce). I think it’s hard to pull off healthy AND gratifying, yet she does it every time. The pho is great, egg rolls wonderful & stir fries perfect. In a sea of pho carts, she truly stands apart.

  13. I’ve eaten at Mai Pho many times, and almost always order the Lemongrass Noodle Salad with tofu. It’s always spectacular, with fresh ingredients, and never cooked ahead of time. Being vegan means my dietary requirements can make me a difficult customer to cater to at many places, but not here. The lovely woman who runs the cart is always very friendly, polite, and eager to help in any way. In fact, I’ve never eaten there when she DIDN’T have a smile on her face.
    I heard that they were offering a new dish, called the Happy Bowl, so I checked it out today. It’s DELICIOUS! Brown rice, red & black beans topped off with their secret Happy Sauce , fresh cilantro, and avocado. You can have it with your choice of chicken, tofu or shrimp. And only 5 dollars for a good-sized portion of the meatless variety. 5 bucks buys a lot of deliciousness! I’ll be making many Happy returns.

  14. The jury is still out as to whether her “Happy Bowl” is ingenious or obnoxious.

    The reason? She has (nearly) replicated the “Whole Bowl” signature dish in the card directly next to hers. On the one hand, I’m sure she got fed up with people lined up in front of her cart every day… FOR THE WHOLE BOWL. So, what does she do? Creates an identical dish, posts a big photo of it, and grabs the eye of everyone who’s in line for her neighbor’s bowl.

    In the time I was standing there, I observed three people in the other line spot the photo, look back and forth a few times, then leave the WB’s line and order from Mai. (I was one of them.)

    Granted, she doesn’t QUITE nail the secret sauce of the WB, but for a quick lunch, it’s close enough for me. My only complaint is that, if you’re going to lure people out of the other cart’s line and into yours, please improved on the one thing that’s wrong with the WB: Wait time.

    Mai Pho’s wait time was as long if not longer, which is the problem with so many of these carts. If they brought one other person into the cart, they could double their business!!

    Maybe this is why they’re running carts and not restaurants. Sorry for the editorial. Bon apetit.

  15. A&P Poulos says:

    This is the VERY best Pho in town. Hands down. Everything Nary makes is excellent. She uses fresh produce and excellent cuts of meats. Rich, flavorful broth and amazing spice combinations. My husband and I are literally addicted to her Pho but everything we have tried has been excellent as well. Mai Pho is worth the drive and paying for parking, not to mention that her service and smile are warm and she has an amazing way of remembering faces and your favorite dishes. I miss working so close to the food carts and having the quick ability to enjoy her delicious food.

  16. I have been at 2 family get-togethers with Mary who owns and runs Mai Pho :) excellent food!!

    Shes the sweetest lady. Her husband is a chef too! They cooked and put together this salad while a big family went camping this summer, bringing pots, pans, bowls, giant coolers, and of course a big grill for some stir fry.

    Her food will please you, leave you filled up with warm happiness :) and have you wanting to come visit again!

  17. @Jackie

    The reason they don’t run restaurants is because the minimum wage in this state is outrageous and is ruining small business. They can’t afford to keep prices competitive and still earn a living when they have to pay the ridiculous wages. Then you add all the insane taxes from this non-business friendly city and…you get the point.

  18. Daniel Fletcher says:

    I eat here almost every day, at least 3 days a week. I either order the lemongrass chicken noodle salad or the beef pho.
    This is the best pho in downtown Portland. I don’t even use the spoon, I drink the broth from the cup! That good.

    I have also contributed a 40 pound weight loss to eating her food for lunch in addition to exercising over a 6 month period. The meals are fresh and full of perfectly cooked crunchy vegetables. I never feel sluggish or tired after eating and I get plenty of energy for a workout.

    Look…I eat here so often, Nary once said, “can I make you something not on the menu”? That’s her level of service and care for her patrons. It was also definitive proof that no matter what Nary makes, it’s epic.

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