As we suffer through subzero temperatures wondering what Al Gore was going on about a few years back, our thoughts turn to a fateful day in February when a rodent controls our frigid fate and his never-shadow-seeing self just might bring an early spring. Well, Groundhog Day is still too far away to use as a hope for sunnier days and Punxsutawney Phil is such a tease anyway. Take matters into your own hands, grab a spring roll, and slip your own bit of Southeast Asian sunshine into your mouth. And unlike when you tried that on your last trip to Hanoi, you can be sure they’ll be no misunderstandings with the locals.
If You’re into Park Life
Down the street from grown-ass men running around Clark Park with Styrofoam swords is Vietnam Café (814 S. 47th St. 215.729.0260). Their cha gio (three crispy spring rolls) are stuffed with spiced ground pork, onion and mushrooms. These flaky, tasty nuggets are served with daikon, crunchy carrots and mint leaves on iceberg lettuce with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce called nuoc cham and they’re cut into bite size pieces like our mom used to do with our hotdogs (rest assured, live action role players, you won’t cut yourselves with real knives). C L V
If You’re Feeling Empirical
Marty Grims, the Darth Vader of restaurant collectives (Moshulu, Du Jour, White Dog), must have taken his design cue straight from Steven “Death” Starr himself when he conceptualized Chew Man Chu (400 S. Broad St. 215.735.8107) in the Symphony House. Splashes of vibrant color and stylized Asian patterns are more post-Warhol rip-off than pre-Mao Tse-tung. The Vietnamese Spring Roll with carrots, celery, black mushroom, and noodle has a distinct curry flavor that adds depth to an otherwise simple dish and well represents the chef’s multi-Asian background. L V P
If It’s a War You Want
Over 25 years ago, the proprietors of Vietnam Restaurant (221 N. 11th St. 215.592.1163), a then “hole in the wall” noodle house, found themselves at an impasse. The result, one of the owners packed her wok and marched across the street to set up shop as Vietnam Palace (222 N. 11th St. 215.592.9596) and dish out crispy chicken spring rolls with rice noodles mushroom and nouc cham. Ever since their initial Vietnam conflict they’ve been waging a bitter battle that we’ve all been reaping the benefits. They both upgraded menu and décor and Vietnam Restaurant has expanded into a third-floor lounge and a hot spot in West Philly. C L V
If You Fly Solo
We had high expectations when we walked into Sampan (124 S. 13th St. 215.732.3501) especially after we saw the pantry-raiding, cake-offing, chin-propping Borgata Chef Michael Schulson himself minding the pass. The fried hard pork and shrimp spring rolls were delicious dipped in a hoisin caramel sauce but it was what we were instructed to wrap them with that gave us pause: wilted red leaf lettuce, dried out julienned carrots and shriveled thai basil. Do yourselves a favor and pass on the accoutrements. L V P
If You’re Into Older Chicks
Oh Buddakan, (325 Chestnut St. 215.574.9440) the shrimp, pork and cellophane noodle stuffing in your spring rolls was every bit as authentic as others we’ve had and paired with crisp bibb lettuce and fresh mint, it felt like spring had arrived. The problem was, the fried wrappers encasing the Indochinese goodness were looser than the bat-wing arm skin of the New Jersey cougar queens that clog up your bar and expect you to carry Miller Lites. L V P
If You Hit the Pipe
We were fairly certain that Craig Laban channeled his inner Harold and/or Kumar when he lauded praise on Dim Sum Garden (59 N. 11th St. 215.627.0218) next to the Dragon Bus station in Chinatown. How else would you explain a “very good” rating for a hole in the wall dumpling house where diesel fumes wafted through the air and fistfuls of raw chicken skewers were walked through the dining area like a salmonella-laden Olympic torch? The staff is friendly but their mediocre Garden Spring Roll With Shrimp was greasy. Served with a couple of duck-sauce packets, it was disappointing at best. On the bright side the dumplings were good, but that’s another article. C P
Portions are huge, and prices, though not as cheap as at divier Asian joints, are still inexpensive enough to lure the university crowd. And it was hard to argue with the fat shrimp stacked atop a huge nest of rice vermicelli.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014