This is the new restaurant in Portland where spicy food actually is

The entrance to Con Tu Bot is nondescript. The purveyor of Vietnamese rations has self-adhesive mailbox letters affixed to the window next to the door which indicate their name. The accents are included, but impossible to comprehend without an ability to read Vietnamese. Their hours – 5-10 Thursday through Monday – are posted just below that.

Having opened over the summer, the restaurant, which Google translates to “dude” in English, is part of a growing and magnificent food scene on Washington Ave. The smallish interior, with counter seating and several tables, has a bit of New York City vibe with sparse decor and two large garage doors that run the width of the restaurant. It looks like someone just threw a kitchen and dining area into a random empty space – not that that’s a bad thing.

A waitress gives me the option of sitting at the counter or the one available table which will need some cleaning. Because of my left-handedness and the inevitable elbow jab to anyone sitting to the left of me, I wait for the table while the server cleans it. It’s ready shortly after my wife arrives from parking the car. We settle in with cups of water and get to scoping out the menu.

Headers on the food list include Noodles, Add-ons, Sides & Snacks, and Sweets. On the back, I find some drink options – beer, wine, sake. The menu is relatively small and neither of us are up for a drink due to an early morning of physical activity on the horizon. In passing up a beverage, I also notice that the menu plainly states that the restaurant uses an abundance of cilantro and peanuts. I suppose that to be a good start.

Items with one pepper next to them are spicy; two indicates very spicy. I like spice, but find it tough to pass up a good bowl of pho and decide on the Pho Ga – house style chicken pho. In addition to the the Vietnamese noodle soup, I also choose Goi Cai Bap – cabbage salad w/ red onion, chilis, peanuts, fish sauce, and lots of herbs. That has one peppper next to it.

Mrs. Portlandeater, who has occasional battles against spicy noodles, decides to try her hand at eating the very spicy Hu Tieu Xao – spiiicy stir fried rice noodles w/ Cinese broccoli, scallions, many chilis, peanuts, and red eye brown sauce. I assume the triple “i” and italics in the first word of the description indicate a sort of seriousness in regards to exactly how spicy it is. It’s actually the only available two pepper item on the menu.

My requisite bowl of herbs to go with my pho is delivered. Thai basil, sprouts, lime, and about four tiny, thin slices of peppers – serrano maybe? – are on the plate. Shortly thereafter, our meal comes out. I had requested the cabbage first, but it hardly matters. My noodles need to cool a bit anyway. I gawk at my salad momentarily, admiring the hefty sum of cilantro and peanuts on it. The menu didn’t lie.

With my first bite, the salad emanates salt, vinegar, and heat. The veggies are fresh and the herbs add mountains of flavor. The peanuts are a great crunchy topper. Another bite tells me a little less salt might be better, but I’m not overwhelmed by it; I expected a fair amount of sodium from the fish sauce. A half dozen bites in and my mouth starts to burn. I’m sweating a little.

I power through about half the salad and stop to recover. My wife, having eaten several bites of her noodles, tells me her mouth is on fire. I can only imagine since hers is supposed to be significantly spicier than mine. I am able to finish my salad, but again, my mouth is burning and I relax with sips of water – an absolute non-solution for a scorched mouth.

Eventually, I muster up the strength to begin eating my Vietnamese noodle soup. It’s not as big as others I’ve had, but it’s heartier with lots of meat and noodles. I throw in everything on my herb plate which kicks it up a notch. I also drop a little hoisin and sriracha on top. As I’m digging in, my wife calls it quits on her plate. In the battle of Mrs. P vs. the noodles, noodles win. I ask if she would like to trade meals, wanting to test my own fortitude again the capsaicin-rich dish.

She loves the pho and I love the stir fry with its typical sweet flavors, but need a break after about a half-dozen bites. My wife is no wimp. These are some hot noodles. I carry on eating them, but stop regularly to recover. After about four rounds, I finish, but my perspiration is peaking. I eat the last few bites of the soup too and feel like I have done well.

Our meal comes to $31 before tax. There is no tipping. I know some other local restaurants have recently tried that method and it hasn’t worked out, but as a consumer, I find it excellent. It’s fast, simple, and avoids having to do math on a full stomach and – for those who are drinking – an inebriated brain. We pay and make our way out.

As I walk away from Cong Tu Bot, I am left with delight. I like spicy food that is actually spicy and that’s what they serve. It’s all very tasty too; the spice is just an added bonus. If you don’t like heat, there are items for you – primarily the pho, but you certainly don’t have to avoid going. Add in the interesting ambiance and this is a place I’ll be visiting again in the near future. It will be a great cold weather hideaway this winter. 

Stay hungry.

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1 thought on “This is the new restaurant in Portland where spicy food actually is

  1. Pingback: ​Peter Peter Portland Eater’s Eating Portland, ME Awards 2017 | Eating Portland, Maine

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