The first thing you’ll notice at Thanh Son is the smorgasbord of tofu, fresh and fried, in large and small blocks ($2.25 a pound). It’s everywhere—in bins at a buffet table, packaged in the fridge—the firm fried tofu even comes plain or flavored with onion or hot chili lemongrass.
But more than just a tofu shop, Thanh Son is a brick-and-mortar American dream. The Southern California-based Dang family owns and operates a chain of shops that stretches up and down the West Coast from its main store in Orange County’s Little Saigon. (It’s even in Texas and Washington, D.C.) As cousins emigrate from Vietnam to the U.S., they’re given a chance to expand the empire. The tofu is often made in-house, including in PDX—although you’re more likely to find blocks from Thanh Son’s larger Seattle outpost at markets like Fubonn.
Beyond its housemade tofu, the Portland location also acts as a small convenience store, offering sodas and Snapple as well as Vietnamese canned juices and coconut water right out of the husk. Peek inside the refrigerated cases and marvel at the goods: housemade yogurt! Rice crackers! Uncut noodles! It even stocks pickled pork nem chua sausages ($3), a hard-to-find Vietnamese bar snack with a sour flavor complemented by small bits of raw garlic and chili pepper.
Among the to-go items are bundles of rice flour wrapped in banana leaves, like Southeast Asia’s version of a tamale. Read the English ingredient label to find out what lies in the center of the dense mass—I like the banh gio ($1.50), shaped like tetrahedra and filled with pork and a boiled egg. The steamed rice flour’s silky texture works well with the eggy, meaty filling.
The small shop, hidden in the shadow of a Walgreens, also specializes in the Viet dessert cum main course xôi, a thick, porridgelike dish made, at Thanh Son, from sweet rice flour puréed with banana, durian or sometimes corn. Though xôi can include items like garlic and chicken, Thanh Son seems to stick with fruits and beans for a sweeter approach. The portions of xôi ($1.75) can be served rainbow-style in a cup, but get solo portions until you find flavors you like (try the sweet corn topped off with a bit of coconut milk).
Thanh Son also offers bowls of pho, banh mi and noodles, including the tasty rolled banh cuon rice noodles. There’s ample seating, too, in case you want to stay, eat and watch TV—just like you’re part of the family.
Order this: banh cuon thit ($7), tasty tubes of rice noodles filled with meat and served with fresh vegetables and a vinaigrettelike sauce.
Best deal: At $1.50, the banh gio is a filling, compact meal—with pork and egg packed inside rice flour.
I’ll pass: Skip the pho, as it doesn’t really have a great depth of flavor—a better bowl can be found farther north up 82nd Avenue at Pho Oregon.