Illustrations by Kim Scafuro
Le Ho first learned to cook when she just a kid; helping her mom in the kitchen of their Bac Liêu restaurant in Southern Vietnam. By age 12, she was already organizing the bean sprouts and Thai basil leaves for the pho platters. “I’d help her make extras,” she remembers. “I watched. I learned.” Now she spends nearly every day at her sons Adam’s and Alan’s downtown Portland restaurant Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen (835 SW 2nd Ave.), where she cooks everything from steaming bowls of aromatic noodle soups to tender, herby beef rolls. “I’m there in the kitchen from 9 am to midnight,” she says with a laugh. “I joke that it’s my house.” While she rules the kitchen, Adam tends bar out front, creating wildly innovative cocktails with a Southeast Asian twist. The pair let WW tag along on a shopping trip to one of their favorite Asian markets, Southeast Powell Boulevard stalwart An Dong (5441 SE Powell Blvd.).
Shopping ListChinese five-spice powder
K.L.Y. Trading Co., $1.19
“I use it in la lot [Vietnamese betel leaf-wrapped beef rolls]. The spice is very finely ground, so you can smell it but not taste [the texture] of it. You mix it with the beef and it smells really good with the la lot leaves.” —Le Ho
Whole spices: cinnamon sticks, star anise, whole cloves, cardamom pods, whole dried coriander seeds
K.L.Y. Trading Co., 99 cents-$1.79
“This is what [my] five-spice powder is made of. I put the whole spices in my pho broth. There’s no taste if you just use the powder.” —Le Ho
Fresh thin rice-stick noodles
Rama Food, 99 cents a pound
“We never use the dried noodles for our pho. These keep for a week or two in the fridge. You parboil them: My employees just put them in boiling water, count to 10 and take them back out. Then dump them in the bowl with the broth,” Le says. “Thin noodles are for pho. Thick noodles are for other soups. Pho is just one noodle soup among many Vietnamese noodle soups,” adds Adam. Le also buys packages of fresh bean sprouts, Thai basil and cilantro (99 cents to $1.99) to garnish Luc Lac’s pho.
Squid brand, $1.19
“This is the one to use for cooking. It’s got the real [anchovy] smell. All the other brands are diluted,” Le says. “We put fish sauce in everything. It’s the salty component in Vietnamese food,” Adam continues. “Sometimes you don’t understand why something tastes so good…it’s this stinky stuff.” Le recommends lighter Viet Huong (also known as Three Crabs) brand fish sauce ($3.39) if you are using it as a straight condiment or dipping sauce.
“That’s the other sauce we use. You don’t need a special kind. Just straight-up Kikkoman.” —Le Ho
Fresh beef eye round $3.79 a pound and frozen Beef bones 89 cents a pound
“Everybody knows this is pho meat,” says Adam. “Slice it paper thin and just stack the raw meat on top of the [parboiled] noodles in the bowl. The hot broth actually cooks the meat.” “I use the beef bones to make beef stock for pho,” Le says. “We boil to clean them, wash them and then put the bones back in the pot and cook them for about seven hours: We boil really high for a half hour and then really low with all the spices for the rest of the time.”
“Banh Tu Quy” dessert cakes
$1.99 for a four-pack
“I could grab them all,” Le says delightedly, looking at the rows of brightly colored Vietnamese desserts (often made with glutinous rice and tapioca flours). “This one has black sesame cake, pandan leaf with mung bean, coconut…so good. I don’t make these myself. I let somebody else do it.”
$2.49 a pound
“There’s a Vietnamese snack that’s basically green mangoes, fish sauce and sugar. You just eat it. I’m thinking of juicing the mangoes and making a rum cocktail incorporating those snack flavors.” —Adam Ho