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HaVL’s shrimpcake noodles in pork broth.

A drizzly, cool Monday morning. After traveling for the past three weeks, Jeff was home, briefly, before heading on the road again. And I, having been laid off about 8 weeks ago, was starting to feel itchy and unsettled. Anxiety and self-doubt were creeping in, especially with my recent solitude.

Jeff took the day off — a day of rest and laundry before leaving again the next morning. I suggested checking a to-do off my unemployment bucket list: Have a late breakfast/early lunch at HaVL on SE 82nd.

HaVL made my to-do list after the noodles repeatedly appeared in the Instagram feed of a trusted foodie-friend. When I quizzed her about the must-try dish she said: “They only have 2 soups daily and usually sell out by 11 or noon. Get there early and go every day of the week until you’ve tried all 14! All of them are unbelievable. Secret tip: you can call early and reserve soup for later if you can’t make it early. They’ll just take your name and save them for you.” (Note: They’re closed on Tuesdays, so there are only 12 soups. “Only.”)

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Crabflake noodles with straw mushrooms and quail eggs.

We arrived around 11am and the small space still had a few tables available. I expect it was an anomaly given that all the tables were full only shortly after we arrived. The vibrant green walls brightened the small space, even on a dark day, and the staff quietly hustled around taking orders and delivering wrapped bánh mì sandwiches, steaming bowls and smaller plates of add-ons: sprouts, mint, cilantro, lime.

On Monday, the soups were crabflake and shrimpcake. We got one of each, naturally. Shrimpcake soup had a lighter, but deeply flavored, pork broth and skinnier rice noodles. The crabflake soup had a velvety, thickened pork broth and fat, slippery rice noodles.

My friend was right — both were unbelievable. A couple extra spoonfuls of fiery chiles, and our bellies were warmed to greet the rest of the week. “Go to HaVL” was crossed off my unemployment bucket list, only to be replaced with, “Go again. Soon.”

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White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

White prawn in a curry of Asian pennywort, longan and holy basil with fried lemongrass.

Tucked away in a snug corner within Thai comfort-food restaurant PaaDee lies a hidden gem. Or, rather, it used to be hidden. Lang Baan has enjoyed more exposure recently than Justin Bieber’s recreational pursuits, so while no longer undiscovered, it remains a jewel.

Upon arrival, you are led through PaaDee’s bustling dining room, toward the kitchen and around a corner where a second diminutive dining room is concealed behind a false bookcase. The greeter tells you which lever to pull to re-enter should you leave. The room is rustic and welcoming, with rough wood paneling and a small counter cook space. The staff, possibly the friendliest and most accommodating we’ve encountered in a while, adds to the warmth.

We dined here on a Saturday night in May with friends and fellow food lovers Lauren and Shawn, oohing and ahhing over beautifully crafted Thai dishes served family style.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

Zingy, brothy quail soup, good for the soul.

The May tasting menu featured dishes from the northern part of the country, and the fireworks started with the first bite-size taste of pork belly, a salty-sweet mix of pineapple and coconut folded in a betel leaf. The second of our 12-course tasting menu featured pork stew scented with roasted coconut and spooned onto crisp crackers fashioned from sticky rice. A soup of quail, wild mushroom, kabocha squash and dill exploded with spice-laced flavor, belying the clear broth’s delicate appearance.

Twelve courses went on like this, culminating with head-on white prawns in lemongrass-scented curry; fork-tender Carlton Farm pork collar; and grilled halibut with a zingy chile dipping sauce. For dessert, Thai red rubies and jackfruit floating in a refreshing chilled coconut jasmine soup, mildly sweet with a focus on silky, chewy textures.

Lang Baan is like an amusement park for the senses, unlike any other Thai cuisine we’ve experienced in Portland. With two seatings a night, Thursday through Saturday, this place is bound to be booked solid as food-loving Portlanders flock to it. But that’s OK: Put our names on the list — we can’t wait to return.

 

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Chinese sausage corn dogs.

Thirty years ago, or even 20, if asked what I wanted to eat on my birthday, I would have surprised no one with my answer: “Noodles.” Little has changed. However, if you had told me that for my 45th, my wish for the perfect birthday dinner would also have included corn dogs in a sultry cocktail lounge setting, I would have suggested you have your noodle checked.

But living in Portland does unexpected things to a food lover’s perspective and cravings, and on a soggy end-of-March Friday, I could not wait to get over to NE Killingsworth and 30th for my fix.

As we did the first time we visited Expatriate, J and I took a seat at the window facing Naomi Pomeroy’s Beast, the site of other memorable feasts.

Expatriate is a collaboration between Pomeroy and husband Kyle Linden Webster, lauded former bartender at St. Jack. (Also the site of other memorable meals. Sensing a trend here?)

On paper, this lounge, with its Asian-inflected bar-snack menu, already has a pedigree, but Webster and Pomeroy’s devotion to balanced flavors and hospitality makes it special. Indeed, Webster has a gift for making people feel welcome. When he stops by to check on patrons, it’s not a typical obligatory manager drive-by. Instead, he looks you in the eye and, despite being clearly busy, he lingers to chat. I’ve seen him run out to the sidewalk to talk with and offer suggestions to people who had come inside but couldn’t find a seat.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Cocktails to brighten the dreariest day.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

Crunchy, delicious brussels sprouts salad.

We started with cocktails, the No. 8 for me and the Precariat for J, sipping while we perused the menu, trying to narrow it down to an order that would not overwhelm our intimate corner of the window counter. On this visit, we skipped the deliciously simple onion and butter sandwich, an ode to James Beard on crustless white bread. Last time we were here, a fortuitous kitchen mixup brought us two orders, so we felt OK passing it over this time.

Not pass-up-able, however, were the aforementioned corn dogs, like the corn dogs of your childhood, stick and all, but made so much better with delicately sweet Chinese sausage in place of the standard hot dog. They are served with a potent sinus-cleansing mustard.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Oregon Dungeness crab Rangoon.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Burmese coconut noodles.

Following that was dungeness crab Rangoon: crispy wontons filled with local crab meat and cream cheese. New to us this time around was the most craveable salad: caramelized brussels sprouts, butternut squash cubes, Napa cabbage and ground lamb, every bite a delicious crunchy balance of sweet, salty, sour and savory. And from the “Hungrier” part of the menu, we ordered the tempura cod sandwich and, of course, the noodles: a generous bowl of coconut-scented broth and noodles with fried duck confit, topped with a beautifully soft-boiled egg.

By the time we had finished, the crowd had filled in behind us, and it was time to relinquish our coveted seats to some other lucky couple. We walked home feeling lucky to have so many delicious options in our neighborhood and grateful for another year.