Its name may not be memorable, but its food is.
As if it weren’t confusing enough to specify which Chinatown Vietnamese restaurant you’re talking about in conversation—Vietnam? Vietnam Palace, right across the street?—we can now add Vietnam House to the ranks. It opened back in May on the corner of Ninth and Race streets, and though it doesn’t yet have the passionate partisan followers of the other two, it is nonetheless turning out some very good, exceptionally affordable food.
And it’s doing so in a humble space that feels at once welcoming and relaxed. Vietnam House is tidy and linear, with cheery blue and yellow tiles on the wall and a staff as friendly and accommodating as any in the neighborhood.
Much of the menu hews to the familiar, to the tried and true. This isn’t a bad thing by any stretch: Classic, standard dishes here are lovingly prepared, with enough attention to detail and small twists to set them apart and make you reconsider them. Broken rice with BBQ chicken arrives looking like the same sort of platter you’ve seen a thousand times before: sliced tomato, cucumbers, broken noodles. But the chicken—charred outside yet still moist inside, all of it permeated by the smoke of the open-flame grill and the perfume of lemongrass—possesses a depth that this dish all too rarely does. It’s not drowned in sauce or cloyingly sweet; rather, it’s a well-cooked bird, pure and simple, and all the better for it.
The house special rice vermicelli is neatly portioned according to component, and while each bit certainly benefits from a quick trip through the sweet-tangy sauce on the side, none of them really requires it. Generous slices of beef sing with lemongrass, lending each bite an unexpected, aromatic quality, beautiful against the mineral chew of the beef itself. House-made spring rolls (made daily), cut into tight little bite-sized cylinders, were shatteringly crisp, filled with a grind of pork, shrimp and onions. Only the shrimp were a letdown—a bit too diminutive alongside the other items, and just hinting at mealiness.
Bun rieu was fantastic. It arrived at the table glowing with drops and swirls of tomato red pooling in the spaces between noodles and hunks of tofu. Generous icebergs of ground pork-shrimp balls peeked up through the surface, the red tide encircling each. A slurp of noodles revealed the subtle funky hum of shrimp sauce in the background. For $6.25, this is a layered, rewarding bowlful—easily enough for two, though you may want to keep it for yourself.
Then there are the rice cakes: rectangular batons of steamed-then-seared rice flour whose surfaces have been stir-fried to a crisp. They’re joined by an egg that’s warmed by the heat of those cakes, and by the time you’re done drizzling on the sriracha and the sweet-sour soy sauce, the egg has cooked. It’s subtle at first, but then it dawns on you that there’s more going on here than you initially assumed: Nutty flavors turn tangy; the savoriness of the egg veers in the direction of sweet. For a modest $4.50, this is a dish that over-delivers with every bite and continues to improve as the flavors have a chance to get absorbed.
Wash it all down with a fruit milkshake—the mango was notable for its modestly restrained sweetness—or, if you feel like never sleeping again, the jitter-inducing iced coffee with condensed milk, an unabashedly bitter brew balanced out with the tongue-coating sugariness of the milk. The addition of crushed ice, about three minutes after it arrives, mellows it all out enough to really come together.
That all of this is served in such a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere, and at prices this refreshingly low—a recent dinner for two with way too much food ran to $30 before tip—is a bonus. Vietnam House may not have the same caché as its quasi-eponymous competition, but I have a feeling that it will in short order.
901 Race St. 215.413.2828.
Cuisine type: Casual Vietnamese.
Hours: Daily 10am–10pm.
Prices: The menu tops out at $6.25.
Atmosphere: Tidy and welcoming.
Food: Subtle and often unexpectedly complex.
Service: Some of the friendliest in the neighborhood.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014