Vietnam Restaurant has a menu of around 100 items. Surely with that many choices, everyone can find something they will enjoy. My family and I, the intrepid diners that we are, ventured to Vietnam for a family feeding session on a balmy April evening. Could this restaurant please everyone, from a preteen who exists entirely on Hot Pockets to a gourmet cook and baker?
Each member of this family unit of mine has distinct gustatory preferences. There is ‘step-monster,’ who has an adventurous palate. She’ll try it once – but draws the line at squid. Step-monster had come to Vietnam in search of a “hot pot,” a dramatic soup. More on that later. Dad is a chef’s worst nightmare. He likes everything as dry as possible, extra well done, and no sauce or mayo. Preteen brother has chlorophyll-phobia. He lives in mortal fear of any green vegetables or herbs. He will actually shriek at the sight of broccoli near his plate. Sister is a restaurant cook. She will eat anything, and is especially fond of fiddly little game birds and anchovies, both of which I will never understand.
The 100-item menu is broken down into various categories. There are appetizers, soups, entrees, broken rice platters, veggie dishes and noodles. It made my head spin to contemplate the choices. Fortunately, service was a little bit leisurely and we had time to whittle down our selections. Dad and I shared the barbecue platter (the most expensive thing on the menu at $18.95), a medley of appetizers meant for two or three people to share. There were sauceless grilled mini-meatball skewers, stuffed grape leaves, and chicken to wrap in lettuce or rice paper with veggies: perfect choices for dry Dad. All the sauces were on the side. Step-monster and sister both ordered Vietnamese carpaccio, which is raw flank steak strips with mint, crushed peanuts and fresh limes. The acids in the lime juice, when squeezed over the carpaccio, cook the raw meat just a little. I really enjoyed this one, but if the concept of really raw meat freaks you out, pass it by.
The much anticipated “hot pot” turned out to be a giant entrée soup full of squid, scallops, shrimp and veggies in a fragrant seafood broth. The whole thing is served in a footed bowl with a hole in the center, through which a righteous little flame leaps out. For those less interested in dramatic soup and more in tasty protein, the star of the meal was Dad’s selection of salt-baked chicken. Individual strips of crispy chicken breast seasoned with salt and pepper rested on a plate of raw lettuce, bell pepper, carrot and onion. It is quite a feat to get chicken this crisp and satisfying without frying it. How they do this, I cannot say. My lemongrass pork chop was the big loser of the meal. The meat was tough and fatty in places, but the steamed tender bok choy supporting the mean chop was absolutely perfect. Little brother chose the old standby, sweet and sour chicken, and even quietly ate around the chunks of horrifyingly green pepper in his sugary sauce.
Vietnam offered us almost 100 choices. Out of those, we devoured ten, maybe. Most were very good, one was spectacular, and one just sucked. Not such bad odds for a family of five out to dinner. Don’t get dessert though, one sugar junkie to (potentially) another. Taro root pudding is a cruel joke on those of us raised on Jell-O instant with whole milk.
Felicia D’Ambrosio can be contacted at Caspian@temple.edu