Easy to enjoy Taste of Vietnam

by Brian Clarey

Many of the jewels in the Triad’s culinary crown are Asian in origin. We have Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese… sometimes all under the same roof.

Taste of Vietnam sticks pretty closely to the traditional cuisine of Southeast Asia – seafood, curries, chilis, fresh herbs, fish sauce, noodles – in its strip-mall slot near where Wendover Avenue intersects Interstate 40.

Its location in this sprung-up neighborhood of retail is forgotten upon entering… kind of a cliché, I know, but paper blinds muted the glare off Wendover, softened the noise of the traffic somehow; creamy lemon walls and dark wood tones really classed up the joint.

This is a sit-down restaurant, a haven at midday for cultured lunch ladies, salesmen looking to impress and business types who get a noontime jones for pho.

One woman works the front of the house on this day, seating tables, taking orders, running food and making drinks. She brings us Vietnamese iced coffee, each individually brewed in a glass, layered atop a foundation of condensed milk. Soon we’ll stir and pour it over ice, but for now we fire an appetizer order: shrimp toast, spring rolls, asparagus and crab soup and these little deep-fried shrimp wrapped in shoestring potato jackets.

Our multitasking server had them out in 10 minutes.

You should know that the shrimp toast, while a bit greasy, bore none of the heaviness and dread that I associate with other versions of the dish. And the spring rolls, laced with pork and finely chopped vegetables, were exemplary – though the fish sauce laced with delicate carrot slivers served with them was good enough to eat by the spoonful.

The potato-wrapped shrimp were interesting in taste and texture, and did well with the inclusion of a fiery chili paste, chunky with seeds and skins and the color of fresh kill. Go easy on that stuff. The crab and asparagus soup, a version of egg-drop soup, benefited from a sublime combination of flavors – that base of asparagus paired with the sweetness and resiliency of what may have been imitation crabmeat. I like imitation crabmeat just fine, and the soup is something I will order again.

As my lunch companion and I both suffered the drips and wheezes of false-spring colds, we opted for foods with salubrious qualities. She had the lemongrass chicken – the herb is believed to have antiseptic properties – and I went with the pho tai.

Pho tai is the national soup of Vietnam, a version of comfort food with zesty broth, copious noodles, fresh herbs and thinly sliced, raw beef that cooks in the steaming stew. Hanoi penicillin, if you will.

Mine came in a container the size of a bucket, chewy noodles and thin beef swimming under the glistening surface of the broth. From a side plate I added bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, thin slices of raw jalapeno and a squeeze of fresh lime. I tucked into it with a pair of chopsticks and one of those magnificent cantilevered spoons. I could feel it goosing my immune system as I ate. And I should say that I was unable to finish it. Me – unable to finish a bowl of soup. For shame.

Flush with the heat of ginger, cloves or whatever else was used in the construction of my soup, I poured my Vietnamese coffee over ice, sloshed it with a long spoon and took a deep sip.

Before I finished it I was planning a trip here for another one.

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