Mi Sen Noodle Bar
630 Congress St., Portland
These days, as I wander around Portland, I’m in awe of all the new developments. Hotels I’ll never set foot in. Condominiums that I, and most of my peers, can never afford. Boutiques with candles that cost more per hour to burn than most of us earn. Vapid corporate offices with TPS reports being passed around. And, no surprise, restaurants where I just don’t fit in.
A recent visit to a new raw bar and bistro in the newly fabricated “Foreside neighborhood” proved just that. The space was beautiful, and our server was gracious, but after $125 in appetizers and a smug refusal by the bartender to make a non-fruity mocktail, we skipped further courses and got takeout from our favorite Thai joint.
Mi Sen Noodle Bar, on Congress Street downtown, has been our go-to for Thai food for almost 10 years. The Chandpens (a mother, son and daughter-in-law team) have been welcoming hosts making consistently delicious food since 2013.
Does this freckled lady from the Midwest or her half-Italian son and girlfriend know Thai food? Nope. Have we ever even been to Southeast Asia? Again, nope! But we know it’s tasty, fits the bill, and fills our bellies.
The menu and décor haven’t changed much in the last decade, and I love that. I know exactly what to expect and have rarely been disappointed with anything I’ve ordered. Some stand-outs and family favorites…
Pak Moh ($9.90): Rice-flour crepes steamed with minced pork and salty sweet peanuts. Think of it like a savory mochi with a bit of crunch.
Thai Fries ($9.90): Crescent moons of buttercup squash, batter fried with red curry mayo. They oddly never get soggy — I’ve had them hours later, for my 2 a.m. insomniac’s “second dinner,” and they’re still crunchy!
Curry Puffs ($11.10): The flakiest curry-flecked pastries rolled tight and fried with steamy potato and ground chicken. Think Jamaican beef patty crossed with a samosa?
Crab Rangoon ($10.10): The only ones I order in Portland. Pandering to the gross Americans? Maybe, but they’re so good.
Chive Cakes ($8.00): Also made with rice flour, but fried and crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside. Full of pungent allium delight and served with sweet soy sauce.
The entrées are divided into Noodle Soups, Noodle Entrées and Rice Entrées. You’ll get your tried-and-true dishes, like Tom Yum or Tom Kha, but venture a bit further and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by selections such as …
Num Sai ($14.00): A chicken-based broth, with choice of protein (I choose wontons), served with bean sprouts, green beans and your choice of noodles. It’s like Thai mom’s chicken soup — the perfect remedy for a winter cold or hangovers.
Pad Kra Pow ($15.50): Heavy on the basil and spice, full of fresh vegetables and whatever protein you want. I recommend chicken or tofu to soak up all the flavors.
Pad Thai-Traditional ($14.90), Bacon ($16.90) or Crispy Duck ($20.90): An absolute ton of noodles tossed with bean sprouts, scallions and peanuts. Our favorite is the crispy duck, but I dare you to find a kid (or adult) who won’t lap up the bacon version. It’s smoky, not too sweet, crunchy and chewy.
Ginger Noodles ($14.90): The best choice for folks who can’t tolerate spice, this dish is packed with flavor. They’re served on a bed of lettuce that adds a nice contrast to the stir-fried flat noodles.
And finally, my personal favorite: Rad Na ($16.50). Super-chewy flat rice noodles are slightly blackened in a pan and served in a soy gravy alongside Chinese broccoli. This vaguely reminds me of a Southern favorite of mine, rice and gravy. Like the saying on the bags piled high in my pantry says, “Let Mi Sen comfort you.” They certainly do.
Mi Sen serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.