Mainers know it does no good to dread the impending winter and all the annoyances that come with it, from cold noses to high heating bills, and instead focus on what the season has to offer — skiing, sweaters or, in my case, soup.
I could eat soup any time of year, but it serves a greater purpose when the weather starts to turn — initially, as the antidote to any snow-related anxiety then as a soother of shivering bones.
Right in the thick of commerce on Congress Street, Mi Sen is serving up steaming bowls of this delicious cure-all, in various combinations of Thai-style broths and noodles.
The tiny eatery — made to look bigger with mirrors covering a wall on one end and, on the other, framed like windows by shutters and sills — has a clean design with muted colors and music to match, reminiscent of what you might hear getting a massage.
Although it bills itself as a noodle bar, offering pad thai and drunken noodle entrees, it’s the noodle soups that occupy the menu’s prime real estate.
I’d been to Mi Sen once before, not long after it opened, in search of a different version of the huge bowls of Asian soups, like pho and ramen, I’d come to love and was disappointed when my order came out in a tiny bowl. I ate the soup and left unsatisfied, only to learn later that the purpose of the small serving was to order several bowls or other small plates.
Apparently, Mi Sen has dropped this concept and now serves its soups in 12-ounce bowls, which is really a perfect portion — big enough for a meal, but not so big that it gets cold halfway through.
Craving something fresh to go with the soothing soup, I ordered the crunchy noodle salad ($6.45), a spring mix with halved cherry tomatoes and spiralized carrots, coated in a house ginger dressing and topped with a nest of crunchy noodles, which I broke up and incorporated into the salad. Bright and nicely dressed, it was the perfect start to the meal.
For soup, I ordered the num daeng ($9.20), described as slow-cooked marinated meat in chicken and pork broth with brown palm sugar, bean sprouts and green beans, garnished with scallions, cilantro and a crispy wonton sheet. The sugar should have tipped me off; the broth had a deep flavor, but was sweeter than I like. I was hopeful when my attentive server offered hot sauces – sriracha and a chili garlic paste that she recommended using – thinking it would balance the sweetness. While it did add some spice that I appreciated, it didn’t succeed in masking the sugar.
Normally, the dish is served with egg noodles, though you can substitute the noodles in any soup for free with another of the six options – including cellophane, vermicelli and udon – which are displayed dry in shadow boxes hanging on the wall. I opted, for $1 more, to try the sen pak, a noodle made in house with Chinese broccoli that gives it an appealing green color. I couldn’t detect the broccoli flavor, nor that of the broth, in the noodles and found that the bean sprouts did a better job of soaking up the broth, while also providing a nice crunch.
The meat – big hunks of melt-in-your-mouth pork (beef or, for $1 more, wonton or duck are the other options) – was definitely the star of the soup and convinced me that this place knows what’s doing, I just didn’t order to my taste.
Fortunately, there are plenty of other soup options, including num sai (a clear chicken broth), tom yum (hot and sour soup with coconut milk) and green and red curry, along with noodle and rice dishes and a ton of tasty-sounding appetizers, from shrimp rolls to squash fries. A weekday lunch special offers a choice of appetizer and entree for $12.
Good thing soup season is just getting started.
WHERE: 630 Congress St., Portland, (207) 747-4838. misennoodlebar.com
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, noon to 10 p.m. Saturday
WAIT: About 10 minutes
PARKING: On street
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes