Thursday, July 25, 2002

Pho from perfect

Posted on Thu, Jul 25, 2002 at 4:00 AM

Release Date: 2002-07-25

If St. Paul, Minnesota, had a Little Vietnam, it would be where a guy named Tran owned a car repair shop, Asian supermarket, and video store all on the same block. It was in that neighborhood that I was introduced to phó.

In a second-story diner the owner encouraged me (at the time 12 years old, chubby, and a fan of exotic edibles) to explore the "seven flavors" of his special Vietnamese beef soup. It was all in the details, he insisted: Drop in some bean sprouts, a hot chile slice, cilantro, and hoisin, and a noodle soup, with just a few tweaks, could taste however I wanted. His enthusiasm was matched only by the smell of roasting ducks coming from the kitchen (I guessed the restaurant's kitchen doubled as his family's, since through a doorway beyond the soup pot I saw a TV, couch, and kids playing). The only waiter was a quiet Vietnam vet, and it wasn't clear if the two met on the other side of the world or down below on University Avenue.

The little restaurant closed more than a decade ago, and since then I haven't encountered another proprietor showing the same excitement at getting a person to eat his first "point-to the-sky" pepper, spring roll (of the unfried variety), or delicate, trembling flan. I miss that second-floor guy, but have just found new hope in a woman named Hart in a place that has a tendency to stumble over the details. She doesn't own Viet-Nam Restaurant, but during a rush, it looks like the waitress is all that's keeping the joint together.

While whisking trays of Vietnamese crepes, steaming rice, and iced tea to a dining room full of lunchers, she talks like another food fan: "Isn't that wonderful? I love it," or "It's nice to see somebody enjoying his lunch, taking his time." She's directed me to the spring rolls ($6.25), the crab claw appetizer ($8 for a half pound, $15 for a full), and the chicken lemon grass ($8.95) ‐ she was right on with the first two, but the chicken I could have lived without. Too bad she wasn't around the night I ordered take-out, though. The Seafood Delight (scallops, squid, shrimp, and fish for $10.50) had more tofu than crustaceans, and the vegetable clay pot ($7.50) was fine ‐ soft cabbage, bok choy, and carrots simmering in a vegetable broth ‐ but needed something more than soy sauce to make it sing.

Vietnamese fare, with its prickly points like tapioca soda and roast eel (none of which is offered here), has been overcome recently by Thai food ‐ Viet-Nam is no exception. Pad thai, curries, and coconut-milk dishes occupy nearly a whole page of the restaurant's menu. The menu boasts "Specializing in crab," but there is no whole, fiery beast to crack open ‐ every incarnation is shredded, smothered, or topped with sweet sauce, noodles, or soup broth. The crab claws are an interesting departure, though, with the partially shelled and totally grilled claws offering a small hunk of sometimes-stringy, sometimes-tender meat washed in green onions and a tangy glaze.

The banh xeó, a Vietnamese crepe stuffed with beef, pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts is fine and kind of fun to eat, but it doesn't compare to the bright flavors and cool (temperature) texture of the Thai side's yum nua (beef salad). It tasted great on a steamy afternoon: slices of warm grilled beef topped a pile of lettuce and tomatoes, all awash in what can best be Anglicized as a vinaigrette; sweet, sour, perfect with the vegetables and the meat. I'm finishing the leftovers right now ... and I'm already wishing for more.

One of the nice things about Viet-Nam's menu is the English pronunciations included for most entrees, which means you can order phó (faw), the beef noodle soup, instead of "foe." Everything is numbered, so the less-adventurous can order a "55" and avoid stumbling over "ech x·o lan" (frog legs). While Viet-Nam's phó (No. 59, $5.50) is rich and more than a meal, this lunch my condiment tray was skimpy and limited experimentation.

Viet-Nam's oil content, in most of the dishes I tried at least, is a little high, but in a town where chicken fried steak outpaces chicken Caesars, the amount is acceptable.

Big at lunch is the chicken lemon grass: a pile of chicken chunks sided by white rice and a mound of spring rolls. Better than the chicken itself, Viet-Nam's spring rolls are decadence in a glistening, deep-fried skin ‐ ground pork and cellophane noodles spill out of each bite, highlighted by bits of onions and mushrooms. The nuoc mam cham, a fish sauce and rice vinegar concoction (a staple in Vietnamese cooking), with slivers of carrot adding some earthy sweetness, cut the greasiness of the rolls and softened their incredibly crisp edges. At points I feared that the roll would rip through my cheeks as I crunched down on it.

Not quite the second floor and not always connecting on the little things (no hoisin on the tables, short on cucumbers for the noodle salad one lunch), Viet-Nam is definitely above street level, especially with Hart as a guide.

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