I have a friend who is obsessed with seasoning her own food. When she sits down at a restaurant, the first thing she'll do is look for the saltshaker. If it's missing, she figures, "Any chef that makes me ask for salt is too full of himself." I shrug whenever she brings it up, mostly because Americans' salt obsession is ruining our ability to taste things properly. But she'll go on to say her food is ostensibly underseasoned and that the chef must be a pompous windbag to insist that he knows how she wants her food better than she does. Mind you, this is before she's tasted a single thing.
I really wish I had brought her along with me to Basilic Vietnamese Grill, where she would've found plenty of opportunity to douse salt-laden condiments on the dishes. That was evident right from the arrival of a dish we ordered called shaking beef ($15). The Vietnamese name for the plate, bò lúc lac, refers to the way the chef vigorously shakes the skillet to cook the slender chunks of marinated tenderloin. The beef is served on a bed of thick wedges of onion and bell pepper and comes with a small mound of coarse ground salt and pepper. To eat it, squeeze a bit of lime in the seasoning and swipe a chunk of beef through the tart mixture, coating the meat in as much or as little salt as you like. Of course, you could also skip it, as one of my dining companions did. "This beef is good enough on its own," he said.
Basilic, a 2-month-old restaurant in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, closely follows the Vietnamese dictum of customizable dishes. Say you don't like sriracha in your beefy, fragrant pho; that's cool — don't add it. But pile in as much basil, plumy hoisin, slivers of jalapeño, and bean sprouts as it takes to make your head swivel in place. The chefs/owners, brothers Chuck, Vince, and John Vu, will not demand that you eat your bún chà Hà Nôi with precisely this much mint or that much fish sauce. There's absolutely no right or wrong way, and it results in some fine, empowered eating.
For many of Broward's eastsiders, the ins and outs of Vietnamese cuisine may be unfamiliar, considering that the joint is perhaps the only restaurant exclusively offering nourriture vietnamienne east of I-95. In fact, the two friends I brought along with me to Basilic were complete strangers to it — Dani, a pescephobe, expected a menu overrun by all things fishy; Kyle is a more adventurous eater and was prepared for anything. But Basilic does its best to make things easy for first-timers to rice noodles, fish sauce, and pho. The menu is printed entirely in English with Vietnamese translations, and while the owners hail from Vietnam by way of California, the wait staff is almost entirely Western. Our waiter, a young guy with a bizarre haircut and a thick, Spanish accent, was happy to recount his favorite choices for us. We took his advice and ordered bánh xèo ($8), a rice flour crepe stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. We slathered complimentary styrofoam-textured shrimp chips with the house sauce — a blend of garlic, lemongrass, and chili — and peeked around the room.
The hull of the restaurant has been overhauled from its previous life as Tedesco's Pizzeria, with the brothers Vu opting for a hip, youthful vibe. The interior is small but not tight, with about ten taupe-colored tables spread throughout and a lacquered bar top sitting center stage. To further the illusion of spaciousness, the entire north side of the restaurant is lined in windows that open up to a calm strip of Commercial Boulevard. "The place just feels comfortable and relaxed," Dani noted, soaking up the surrounding Zen, a high-contrast design that marries creamy white walls with dark bamboo trim and green paper lanterns.
By the time our crepe arrived, the tables around us had filled up with young diners cracking open bottles of wine (many under $20) and downing pints of draft beer along with their wok-tossed noodles. Our waiter gave us each a small bowl and instructed us how to tear a piece of the crispy crepe off and mix it with shreds of mint, cilantro, lettuce, and a drizzle of nuoc cham. The latter is a savory, yellow dipping mixture made with vinegar, chili, and fish sauce. Alone, the crepe was light and bland, but adding the cooling mint and umami-laced nuoc cham ignited the wild flavors of caramelized batter and chewy pork. Across the table, Kyle had managed to impress himself with his own sambal oelek-laced version. "I don't know who's the better cook," he confided between bites of his customized crepe, "the chef or me."
Spring rolls ($5.50) shared a common trait in that the gummy rice wrappers filled with sliced shrimp, slivers of pork, and a whole lot of lettuce were rather plain until rolled through some creamy peanut sauce or dabbed with nuoc cham. Hanoi-style vermicelli ($10.50) provides even more room for experimentation: The cold rice noodles are served platter-style with bean sprouts, pickled carrots, daikon, and pan-fried bits of chicken, pork, and sweet ham lavishing in a dish of that lip-smacking fish sauce. I returned over and over to my bowl, trying different combinations of meat and herbs, adding alternating drops of sambal and spicy lemongrass paste.
Across the way, a mother and father argued over the best method to season their adult son's steaming bowl of beef brisket and meatball pho ($9). The henpecked son sat silently as his mother snatched up a whole stalk of basil off his plate and tossed it in, along with bean sprouts, jalapeño, and cilantro. "This is how you eat pho," she said. By the time my bowl of the iconic Vietnamese soup arrived, I had resolved to eat it without any additions — at least at first — in a show of solidarity for the poor dude. And what a reward: Basilic's version of the ubiquitous beef and noodle soup was intensely beefy and infused with star anise and roasted ginger. It stood tall on its own, but I eventually gave in to temptation, tossing in musty basil leaves and some deep, richly caramelized hoisin.
And still we ate more. Kyle dug into the shaking beef, served with mayo-less coleslaw so light that it nearly floated off his fork. Chicken curry ($10) was bathed in a thick, piquant coconut sauce, while Dani's spicy lemongrass rice noodles ($12) were livened with chewy bits of fried tofu and a dusting of crushed peanuts. At the end of it all, I felt like I had to be shoved out of the glass doors and airlifted home. Yet, among the three of us, we'd barely spent $65.
I returned for lunch later in the week to sample Basilic's banh mi, a submarine sandwich resulting from the intersection of Vietnam's homegrown food ways with a hundred years of French colonization. Here, the banh mi comes with either grilled chicken or beef, or it's filled with the same smooth pork meatballs that grace the pho. Sadly, you won't find standard banh mi fillers like pâté or headcheese or even Vietnamese ham. But at $6, the banh mi at Basilic is larger than the ones you'll find at authentic delis and, with the hot grilled meat replacing exotic cold cuts, sports a decidedly Anglo bent. It still comes topped with the requisite cucumber spears, pickled carrot, cilantro, and jalapeño, but it was missing something wet and earthy. Luckily, a quick fix was at hand: I dabbed the chewy baguette with some chili paste and a squirt of salty soy sauce. Much better. Turns out that my salt-loving friend was right — this banh mi just needed some sodium to liven things up. Thankfully, Basilic has some pretty good chefs, by her standard. And I'm not so bad myself.