The looks dazzle, but is this South Philly Vietnamese spot more than just a pretty face?
It was one of those typically thick Philadelphia nights, the kind that turns a pleasant-sounding stroll into something more like a trek through Amazonian rainforest. T-shirts become sweat rags. Poker-straight manes become Cabbage Patch curls. I caught the reflection of my sweaty mess in the sleek, glass doors of Le Viet, the new pho-slinging fashion plate at 11th and Washington. The doors didn’t open so much as recoil.
Inside, the air was as well-conditioned as Viet’s pride of bouncers waiters. Cherry blossoms in tall vases trembled in the electronic breeze. Stacked stone walls twinkled as if inlaid with splintered diamonds.
Le Viet couldn’t look less like the fluorescent-lit pho emporiums and banh mi counters it calls neighbors. They’re all serving the same dishes, but Viet’s owner Bruce Cao is after distinction through decor. So the chairs are leather, and dinner—from a menu of more than 50 items—is served against a backdrop of matte pine panels and Tears for Fears.
“We make the food we eat at home, not the food we make for Americans,” Cao says. But this is surprising considering the chef is Cao’s father, Sinh, a 58-year-old who emigrated from Bong Dang, in northern Vietnam, three decades ago.
By nature, Vietnamese cuisine is less baroque than that of, say, next-door neighbor Thailand. It’s usually diners, not cooks, who calibrate the spice and seasoning with the array of condiments on each table. These are absent from tables at Le Viet, their buff, buffed surfaces saying “You are not to be trusted.”
A saucer of sweet, sour, funky fish sauce-based nuoc mam arrived with one Le Viet specialty, stir-fried baby clams and ground beef with crushed peanuts and basil. Chili sauce I had to ask for. Big doses of both plus a squirt of lime refused to add dimension to this wet, mulch-textured starter served, taco salad-style, in a black-sesame-freckled rice-cracker carriage as lavishly scalloped as a bowl in King Triton’s china cabinet.
“Like fish and chips,” offered the server, unsteady as a baby giraffe. He instructed us to break off a piece of the cracker to scoop the saute. More like dip and chips.
Sinh’s food is beautiful, adequate in taste but exquisite in presentation. It comes festooned with edible garnishes as ornately whittled as an armoire from the Lester Freamon Dollhouse Collection. Bowls like inverted Mayan pyramids brimmed with wispy vermicelli, shredded crab and a simmered-all-day broth that, unfortunately, only had simmered-15-minutes depth. More rice noodles came in bowls like upside-down turbans, these topped with a lot of pork, but not a lot of herbs. There were grand sundae glasses of rainbow ice overstuffed with green jello and red beans and a frosty soursop shake, which came with the surprise addition of black tapioca pearls—not unwanted, unlike the shake’s toothache sweetness. Fried bananas with coconut-doused ice cream were fine, in a P.F. Chang’s sort of way.
None of the above was bad, per se. Were my parents to come down with a craving for summer rolls, I’d bring them to Le Viet. But you can get better Vietnamese elsewhere. Was it a coincidence there was but one diner of Asian descent in the crowd? Even Glee has more than that.
The lunchtime clientele is heavily Southeast Asian, Cao says. While I can’t vouch for that, I can for the tender squid-and-pineapple salad presented, grandly, in a hollowed pineapple shell. Even if the Vietnamese cilantro bullied some of the starter’s more delicate notes, the cumulative effect was tropical and refreshing. Battered and fried, the soft-shells were far too fat to be from nearby waters, but their buxom bods packed generous deposits of sweet crabby meat offset by the potato-chip crunch of backs and claws.
Two cups of silty Vietnamese coffee later, I was back out into the Philadelphia night. Le Viet’s logo, a tall drink of letters and askew chopsticks, glowed lilac blue above the plate-glass facade. Like a tractor beam, it pulled in passers-by. Cars on 11th slowed to a stop. Their drivers twisted their necks like Linda Blair. Good looks can be a blessing, but what your mama said holds true: Real beauty’s on the inside.
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1019 S. 11th St.
Hours: Daily, 11am-10pm.
Dinner with Luke Palladino