JUDGING by the growing number of Vietnamese restaurants in Portland, it seems safe to say that most of us are acquainted with the curative Vietnamese soup called pho, especially since its herbal bite has the power to take the edge off the bleakest of Portland winters. But from Vietnam’s tropical latitudes come culinary offerings suited to warmer weather as well, not the least of which is bun tom thit nuong. A satisfying dish defined by a nest of thin, curly Vietnamese rice noodles known as bun (pronounced "boon") sprinkled with bright mint, cilantro and crisp, cool vegetables, it is as ubiquitous in southern Vietnam as hamburgers are here. And like that backyard barbecue favorite, it provides a great excuse to fire up the grill on the first balmy night of spring.

The key to a successful bun dish is to build it layer by layer, allowing each disparate component to fulfill its unique role. Lining the bottom of the bowl are crunchy lettuce leaves, mint and slivers of cucumber. Next, a tangle of noodles is tossed in, followed by bean sprouts and thin bits of pickled carrot and daikon (and sometimes red cabbage for a hit of color). Topping it all off are skewers of grilled, juicy pork and shrimp, typically seasoned with a refreshing lemongrass marinade. The great unifier of the dish’s elements is nuoc cham, a light, tangy dressing made with fermented fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chiles.

Served in deep bowls, bun is the ultimate all-in-one meal. "With Vietnamese foods, there’s always a yin and a yang," says Elizabeth Van, a co-owner, with her husband Lam Van’s family, of Pho Van and Silk restaurants. "You have lime and sugar, garlic and honey, and the coolness of vegetables contrasting with hot meat from the grill. Everything is balanced."

Van, who moved to the United States from Vietnam when she was 5, describes bun as ideal for gatherings. Pho Van’s recipe can easily be double or tripled to feed a crowd, whom you can enlist to help chop vegetables and thread the skewers. So put it on the menu for your first alfresco feast. After all, anyone can grill burgers.

Bun Tom Thit Nuong

 Serves 4

INGREDIENTS

Van suggests shopping for Vietnamese ingredients at Fubonn Supermarket (2850 SE 82nd Ave, 503-517-8877).

DRESSING
  • ½ cup fish sauce
  • 1 cups lukewarm water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tsp garlic, minced
  • 2 tsp chile garlic sauce
  • Juice of 1 lime
SKEWERS
  • 3 cloves garlic, crushed
  • ¼ cup yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp lemongrass, outer layers peeled and discarded, inner layers minced
  • 1 tsp molasses
  • 2 tbsp sesame oil
  • 1 lb pork loin, thinly sliced
  • 12 medium tiger shrimp, peeled and deveined
TO SERVE
  • 2 carrots, peeled, trimmed and julienned
  • 1 daikon, peeled, trimmed and julienned
  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 8 oz bun (vermicelli rice noodles)
  • 1 head green leaf lettuce, trimmed and chopped into thin strips
  • 16 fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and julienned
  • ¼ lb bean sprouts, rinsed
  • ¼ cup skinless peanuts, chopped
  • 4 sprigs cilantro
DRESSING
  1. Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk well until sugar is dissolved. 
  2. Set aside.
SKEWERS
  1. Combine garlic, onions, fish sauce, honey, sesame seeds, lemongrass, molasses and sesame oil in a medium bowl.
  2. Skewer pork and shrimp separately, brush with marinade and refrigerate for at least 2 hours
  3. Grill meat on an outdoor or electric grill or under oven broiler until slightly charred, about 2-3 minutes each side for the pork and 1-2 minutes each side for the shrimp. 
  4. Set aside.
TO SERVE
  1. Combine carrots and daikon in a medium bowl and sprinkle with rice vinegar. Set aside.
  2. Cook noodles in boiling water for 8 minutes. Strain, rinse with cold water and set aside.
  3. Divide lettuce, mint and cucumbers evenly into bottom of each serving bowl. 
  4. Add noodles to each bowl. Top each bowl with equal amounts of carrots, daikon, bean sprouts, pork and shrimp. 
  5. Garnish with chopped peanuts and cilantro sprigs. Season to taste with dressing.