Mi Sen

Num daeng with pork. photos/Chris Busby
Num daeng with pork. photos/Chris Busby

Mi Sen Noodle Bar
630 Congress St., Portland

It was a blustery evening in downtown Portland, Pai Men Miyake was packed to the gills, and I could not wait 45 minutes to satisfy my soup craving. “Remember that noodle place you wanted to try?” my friend said. “Let’s go there.”

We walked a block east on Congress to Mi Sen Noodle Bar and were promptly seated, at our request, at a two-top table facing the front window. This gave us a great view of the street life passing by (and, over the course of the meal, the opportunity to give enthusiastic thumbs-up to those who stopped to read the menu taped to the glass).

Mi Sen lacks the hip factor of modern spots like Pai Men, but it’s not tacky; mirrored walls and dark brown accents give it a classy, yet casual, look. The background music is something else: hits from the late ’90s and early ’00s, like Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” and Monica’s “Angel of Mine.” As a child of that time, with my generation’s appreciation for irony, I kind of loved it.

The menu is snazzy and fun: choose a base, a protein, and a noodle, and voilà, you’ve built your own soup. Depending which protein you choose (chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, wonton or tofu), you’re paying either $5 or $6 for a modest, but filling, bowl of delicious soup, making this one of the best cheap-eats deals in town.

There are about a dozen appetizers (dumplings, rolls, skewers), and the types of entrées one commonly finds at Thai restaurants (pad thai and other stir-fries; curries, to which one can also add duck). This noodle bar doesn’t have a bar, but does have a small selection of beer (local and Asian) and wine. I had a Singha ($4.50) — Thai Budweiser, basically — and my friend enjoyed the Bogle sauvignon blanc, well priced at $5.

Chive cakes.
Chive cakes.

The first appetizer that arrived was chive cakes ($5), which we ordered deep-fried, at our friendly waitress’ suggestion. The triangular cakes had fantastic texture — perfectly crisp on the outside, soft and just a touch chewy inside, thanks to a delicate rice-flour dough. They’re accompanied by a chili sweet soy sauce. The crab Rangoon ($5) soon followed. I’m not usually a fan, but Mi Sen proved they can be delicious. Their light, almost airy mixture of cream cheese, crab and grated carrot came ensconced in crunchy, piping-hot wonton wrappers.

A third appetizer, ordered off the special menu, missed the mark. The crab shumai ($6) — steamed wonton dumplings filled with a mixture of crab, shrimp and pork, and topped with crispy garlic — were dense and rubbery and lacked flavor. Oh, well — two out of three ain’t bad.

At $11, my friend’s chicken massaman curry, also on the special menu, was our biggest splurge. A Thai dish of Persian origin, this curry is slow-cooked, making for meltingly soft potatoes, onions and carrots, and a tender cut of chicken that my friend pronounced “so amazing.” But the sauce itself was the highlight, with its creamy coconut base and undertones of tamarind.

My soup, num daeng, with slow-cooked pork ($5), was also a hit. The sweet and salty palm-sugar broth tasted rich and restorative — perfect for a cold, wet March night. The pork was exquisitely tender, and crisp green beans and bean sprouts provided a pleasing contrast in textures. Halfway through the soup, I was wishing there was some way to balance the sweetness of the broth, but Mi Sen doesn’t offer traditional Thai condiments (like fish sauce and chili sauce) because, they later told me, they think the strong flavors will turn Americans off.

Chef Ben Chandpen, who runs Mi Sen with her son and sous-chef, Darit, explained their approach to me during a return visit.  “We’ll tweak recipes if we think our customers will like it,” Ben said, with Darit translating. “For instance, we offer soba and udon noodles in our soups — that’s not Thai. But we tried it, and it tasted really good, so we put it on the menu.” Another tweak, the bacon pad thai, “sort of started off as a joke,” Darit said. “But then we were like, ‘Man, this is really good, we have to actually serve this!’” His mother hastened to add that most of the food at Mi Sen is cooked in a strictly authentic manner, “just like I cook for princess,” she said with a wink, in English. I figured she was joking, but no — in addition to teaching at a highly regarded Thai culinary school, Chandpen used to cook for the Thai royal family.

At these prices, you don’t have to be a princess to eat like royalty at Mi Sen.

— Hannah Joyce McCain

Mi Sen is open daily for lunch and dinner. See their Facebook page for menus and more info.

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