Cong Tu Bot
57 Washington Ave., Portland
Cong Tu Bot, a Vietnamese noodle bar that opened in Portland last year, is a warm, open space full of soft pink light and hanging plants. On a recent evening, East Asian folk music, all warbling vocals and light flutes, played in the background, succeeded by Drake and, later still, ’80s pop. Exposed pipes and a speckled concrete floor add the de rigueur touch of the industrial, as do the glass-paneled garage doors that roll open in warmer months. (If this reminds you of Tandem Bakery, there’s a reason for that — Cong Tu Bot founders Vien Dobui and Jessica Sheahan helped their friends start Tandem before striking out on their own.)
Cong Tu Bot doesn’t take itself too seriously. In the bathroom, a Technicolor waterfall “painting” plays trickling water sounds. On the homepage of the restaurant’s website, dancing palm trees and tomatoes frame the words “NO RESERVATIONS,” followed by this reminder: “Seriously tho, no reservations and no racists please.” The food is a similar mix of elegance and playfulness.
On cold, prematurely dark evenings, I suggest the Cà Ri Chay ($16). It’s a velvety coconut curry with subtle spice and long, wide rice noodles perfect for slurping, topped with a few marinated and caramelized mushrooms. Next, cut the richness with the Goi Cai Bap ($8), a salad of cabbage, carrot and onion, soaking in a sweet, vinegary dressing and topped with crunchy fried onions, finely diced bird’s eye chilies, and a tangle of cilantro. Careful with that salad, though. Those little red chilies pack a punch (a bird’s eye chili is ranked about twenty times hotter than a jalapeno on the Scoville heat scale).
Those craving more heat are advised to order the Hu Tieu Xào ($15), a savory rice-noodle dish. Just how spicy is this entrée, a diner wanted to know. The server paused to consider this. “It’s pretty hot,” she said, “but it’s not some sort of weird food-challenge hot, like, ‘I dare you to eat a hundred ghost peppers!’”
Granted, there’s a lot of territory between pleasantly tingly and 100-ghost-peppers hot, so take heed: the Hu Tieu Xào is very spicy. If you want to tone it down, ask them to leave off the garnish of bird’s eye chilies. “That’s what we do if someone wants this dish less spicy,” said the server. But that’s about all they can do. “There are a bunch of different chilies and chili oils in the sauce,” including generous slices of the (comparatively mild) jalapeno, as well as, yes, some ghost pepper. The peppery brown sauce is nutty and a bit sweet, slicked over wide squares of rice noodle reminiscent, in size, of lasagna noodles. Crunchy stems of Chinese broccoli, chopped scallions and crisply sweet pickled mustard greens punctuate the dish. And, like almost everything here, it’s topped with a generous handful of cilantro and salted peanuts.
Cong Tu Bot doesn’t serve liquor, but they have a smart, tightly curated selection of alcoholic beverages, including a couple good sakes and a remarkably tasty michelada, a Mexican beer-and-lime drink that substitutes fish sauce for the more traditional tomato-based sauce. There’s also bottomless jasmine tea ($3) and Vietnamese iced coffee ($5), among other non-alcoholic options.
The desserts are cheeky, colorful and delicious. Chè Khoai ($8) was the special the night of one of my visits — a mound of sweet sticky rice swimming in a warm mango purée, topped with a few blood-red pomegranate seeds.
A no-tip policy makes Cong Tu Bot a relatively affordable spot for diners on a budget (the gratuity is baked into the prices). How do the waitstaff feel about that policy? I didn’t ask, but I do think they’re some of the cheeriest, most obliging servers in town. And I suppose the no-racists policy helps, too.
Cong Tu Bot is open daily from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.