One of my former mentors loved to tell the tragicomic story of how she met (and later re-met) her husband. Their first encounter took place at a party. She was tipsy, he was completely torpedoed. Wanting to impress him with her sense of humor, she told a knock-knock joke about a pony passing gas. It did not go well.

In more sober circumstances, the two ran into one another again about a month later. She was mortified, recalling their original interaction, but he had no memory of any of it. “Great!” she told him. “Consider this our first meeting, a very lucky version 2.0.” After a few months, he blurrily recollected something about crass horse humor, but papered over the memory with the reality of their blissful romance.

My first encounter with Sun Vietnamese Restaurant (formerly Sun Bakery and Café) was similarly benighted. Yours may have been as well, if you visited the lurid yellow Woodfords Corner restaurant during its first several months in business.

When it opened in November 2017, Sun Bakery served a peculiar menu of breakfast sandwiches, pan-Asian food, fried chicken and pastries. Some of that confusing, artery-clogging cornucopia was inspired by the quick-service business model of the space’s predecessor, Thurston’s Wicked Good Burgers.

Indeed, chef/owner Truc Nguyen and her husband, owner/general manager Hai Nguyen, seemed bound by the space’s history in more ways than one – they made almost no alterations to the dining room’s interior, apart from adding an orchid or two and toning the fluorescent walls down to a pale, powdery hue.

It did not take the couple long to figure out they were on the wrong path. “My wife learned about doughnuts from her parents, who make them in Bar Harbor. So we tried doing that, too.” Hai Nguyen said. “But we just didn’t have enough people coming in for them. You have to get up way too early to make them, and it’s too much work to do that and make breakfast, lunch and dinner. We knew we had to focus.”

On July 1, 2018, Sun Bakery transformed into Sun Vietnamese Restaurant. Breakfast service? Gone. Doughnuts and pastries? Gone. That lingering smoggy haze from frying oil that bubbled from 3 a.m. until long past dark?

Also gone.

Suddenly, the Nguyens found time in their day to devote to labor-intensive, from-scratch dishes like slow-simmering pho broths that begin with flame-scarred aromatics like ginger, onion and garlic.

Lush, musky pho with beef costs just $9.50, making it one of Portland’s best food bargains. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The beef version overlays lush, musky flavors from chuck, oxtails and larger bones split to release their marrow to the stock, along with warming clove and star anise. When it is time to build broth into pho ($9.50), Truc Nguyen drops in rice vermicelli, scallion, bouncy tendon meatballs and filmy shavings of raw flank steak. Hers is a fantastic pho tai bo vien – the equal to any other I have tasted in Maine.

So too, her traditional pho ga, a chicken-broth-based variety of the same soup ($9.00), made at once lighter by selectively cranking up the volume of cinnamon and coriander in the stock, and funkier as the brine and umami of fish sauce winks in and out of every steamy sip. My ideal December dinner might just be what’s in this bowl at Sun Vietnamese: shreds of boneless chicken meat bobbing in and out of tangles of white noodles and torn cilantro leaves.

Those same stark white (and gluten-free) vermicelli also feature in Sun’s unobjectionable soft-skinned fresh spring rolls ($4 for two), as well as its two impressive bun dishes. Layered onto chopped lettuce, cucumber, cilantro and holy basil, rice vermicelli form a nest for grilled shrimp tossed in a thick paste of ginger, garlic and hoisin sauce ($12). It’s a decent dish, but one that must be eaten immediately to keep the noodles from seizing up into a stodgy mass.

On the BBQ beef bun – a nearly identical base of noodles and vegetables topped with strips of sauce-slicked top round and cleavered pieces of crisp-fried pork egg rolls ($12) – you’ll find an extra dose of sweet, tangy sauce to keep this indulgent dish looser than its shrimp-based cousin. Add it immediately to your Rolodex of superpowered comfort foods.

If you’re a fan of the savory scallion-and-pork filling in those egg rolls, you can also find a version of it tucked inside the deep-fried dumpling appetizer ($5.50 for eight). Here, though, the kitchen foregoes crunchy jicama and vermicelli to create an almost molten interior that balances out the dumpling’s crisp, puffy skin. My dinner guest and I agreed that the ’70s television show had it wrong: Eight is not enough.

Or if more sticky-sauced BBQ beef is what you’re after, your best option is one of Sun’s excellent beef banh mi sandwiches ($5.50) – a crusty baguette-style roll bulging with homemade daikon and carrot pickles, fresh jalapeno and cucumber.

The excellent banh mi with house-made daikon and carrot pickles. The Vietnamese iced coffee stands in ably for dessert. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

What makes Truc Nguyen’s banh mi different (and arguably better) than those of her competitors is that regardless of the fillings she uses, she never erases the sandwich’s essential link to the classic, cold-cut-based original (which is also available for $5). So whether you opt for a sandwich loaded generously with beef, white ham (cha lua) or grilled chicken breast ($5), one side of your roll will always be buttered and the other slathered with pork-and-chicken-liver pâté.

The feral headiness of pâté extends and exaggerates the sandwich’s other meaty flavors, turning every bite into a preamble to the next, when you’ll attempt to create the perfect mouthful with a tiny nibble of tart daikon pickle or floral cilantro.

Two years ago, I was prepared to write off Sun. In trying to do too much, it did little well. And while today’s menu still clocks in at nearly three dozen dishes, jettisoning breakfast sandwiches and sweet pastries seems to have triggered exactly the kind of reboot the restaurant required – a very lucky version 2.0.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME

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