By David Minsky
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The patron at the next table had been temporarily subdued by his soup -- at least he'd stopped shouting. So we took a page from his book and ordered hu tieu nam vang ($10.95), a salty-sour fish broth laden with noodles, shrimp, pale ovals of chewy squid, honeycomb tripe, and a soft-pressed fish cake, served in a big porcelain bowl. Our enthusiastic waiter had named this his favorite dish, and he tried to steer us clear of any other entrées ("Very filling!") He was right; it's a serious bowl of soup even for two people. Since most of the soup's elements are pretty bland, it really needs that fish cake -- which tastes slightly astringent, like the smell of an Asian market -- to sharpen things up. I liked it. My dining partner didn't. It may be an acquired taste.
But we did agree on a spectacular grilled pork chop ($9.95), marinated to a tangy tenderness. A little nest of shredded pork skin coated in gritty, nutty, browned rice flour came with this, plus a rich and soothing egg cake (similar to a crustless quiche) filled with wood-ear mushrooms, clear tapioca noodles, and ground pork. Main courses, as in Vietnam, are served at room temperature. We also loved the bun thit heo nurong ($7.95), tender marinated pork strips served over thin vermicelli noodles and topped with minced peanuts. You scatter heaps of lettuce, cilantro, mint, and cucumber on top, then douse it all with nuoc cham. The whole thing comes together like a complicated piece of music, bracing up the noodles, drawing out the pork's smokiness, shaping the piquant notes of mint and cilantro into a lovely, nimble dish.
Our waiter, so solicitous over the main courses, never offered us dessert (we had already eaten "too much!") But we insisted. We were charmed by the che Saigon ($3), a parfait of jackfruit, gelatin, coconut meat, and red beans -- silky, strange, and satisfying. The French exert influence in the strawberry ice cream, the avocado smoothies, and the sinful coffee with condensed milk served hot or on ice.
Nguyen and new partner Surachai Wienmanapun have filled the menu with specialty dishes he hopes will appeal to American palates -- the steaming pots of beef pho, grilled meats, noodles -- but he's gradually been adding the kind of "everyday" fare Vietnamese tend to cook at home: whole steamed fish in caramel sauce, shrimp with tomatoes, fried fish with tamarind, sweet and sour soup. The food he serves is faultless, and you can't blame him for playing it a little safe with the menu, even if you long for the kitchen to take an occasional great leap of faith (Curried frogs legs! Roast quail!). As long as he polishes up the service of that enthusiastic waiter and rounds up enough regular customers to justify some riskier culinary business, this little piece of paradise ought to have just the right stuff for a long-term run. It seems like a guy who made it all the way from the beach at Nha Trang to the beach at Boynton ought to be able to steer a true course just about anywhere.