Tot Restaurant

Visiting Portland, Sean Simpson always gravitated to the city's Vietnamese cuisine.

"It's our favorite food to eat that we weren't really able to find here."

Naturally, the Talent resident thought to bring Vietnamese food home. His Tot Restaurant took over the former location of a forgettable Chinese establishment in Ashland's Oak Street Center about a month ago.

While it seems Simpson and co-owner Andrew Will transplanted Tot from the hip Rose City, the effect likely will appeal to Rogue Valley residents with flavorful fare served in a casual setting at a nice price point for Ashland.

The restaurant's name, according to its website, is a play on the Vietnamese word for "good." But there also is a snack of house-made tater tots ($3) that incorporate rice and come with tamarind-barbecue or peanut sauce for dipping.

I passed up that unusual fusion, however, for more iconic Vietnamese specialties: green-papaya salad ($10) and banh mi ($6). Because the Southeast Asian nation's quintessential noodle soup, pho, only is served Fridays, I ordered Thailand's tom yum ($7), a hot-and-sour broth flavored with lemon grass.

This dish numbers among the concise menu's vegetarian selections. Tot takes a decidedly carnivorous direction with entrees of barbecued brisket, pork and ribs and roasted game hen ($11-$12). The baguette sandwich known as banh mi comes in brisket, pork, meatball or grilled veggie versions. If Tot offered it with grilled tofu or the traditional paté, I would have ordered it without hesitation.

And once I tasted the grilled tofu on the papaya salad, I was even more convinced it belonged in a sandwich. Nicely charred, the bean curd provided the right textural contrast for the large pile of produce that also included cucumber and bok choy. Toasted peanuts added richness to the lightly dressed dish.

The tom yum's clear broth likewise was light enough to enjoy on such a hot day and not overly spiced. The soup featured mushrooms, cabbage and tomatoes with cubes of tofu. It's served with shrimp instead for $9. For the same price, the pork-dumpling soup with turnips and greens is another one to consider, particularly for winter.

Sliced pork was my co-worker's choice on the banh mi. The quantity of meat was perfectly balanced with pickled daikon and carrots, and fresh jalapeno and cilantro. Diners who want more meat can double the portion for $2.50 extra.

I immediately recognized La Baguette's stamp on the bread, and Simpson confirmed that the Railroad District bakery produces the loaves exclusively for Tot with the addition of some rice flour. The recipe apparently produces a crust that isn't quite as crunchy as the typical baguette and a fine, tender crumb.

Although Tot bills itself as a place for Southeast Asian barbecue, the banh mi and papaya salad are the most credible, local versions. As chef, Will is serving the street food he loves and has been cooking for family and friends when he wasn't working at some of Ashland's finer restaurants.

Will isn't cutting corners at Tot, either. He makes all the dressings, sauces, pickles and even sausages from ingredients that often are locally produced. Seasonal specials, including lettuce wraps and summer rolls, join the regular menu, posted on a large blackboard behind the counter, where customers place their orders.

Tot's decor pairs rustic, recycled materials with sleek, industrial fixtures. Simpson and Will collaborated on the remodel and clearly are proud of the aesthetic, detailed on their website.

Wood paneling was salvaged from pallets. The central, concrete bar is supported by a 100-year-old beam from a Chicago warehouse. Chairs were purchased at a garage sale, reupholstered and backed with oriented strand board that benefits from a smooth, glossy finish. The barn lights — original to the building — were rescued from obscurity and given prominent display.

The concrete-floored dining room painted in bright white and cool blues and grays is a refuge from summer's heat. There also is seating at blue-painted picnic tables outside the front windows.

— Sarah Lemon

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