An old favorite is back and better than ever.
The hipster-dad waved his hands beneath the swan-necked faucet. “Automatic,” he explained, as I smeared hoisin fingerprints all over its satin nickel surface.
“Ah,” I answered, “fancy sink.” And fancy it was, a long floating trough that appeared carved from some glittery blue lunar rock. He ran one hand carefully along the basin’s rim like a meticulous carpenter. “Whaddaya think it’s made of?” he asked me, as if I was also a carpenter rather than someone who can’t put together Ikea barstools.
I ventured concrete. “No, not concrete …”
Resin? “No. Something else …”
Had we been washing up in the restroom of a Garces or Starr establishment, the conversation wouldn’t have been so unusual. But you don’t see many sinks like this in restaurants devoted to the homestyle cooking of Southern Vietnam. I said as much to the hipster-dad, who indicated the space-agey Dyson Airblade fixed to the wall. “Dude, wait’ll you check out the hand-dryer.”
The Lai clan’s Vietnam Café is definitely not your average pho parlor. Relocated from a smaller storefront next door, the new location opened in November. Framed by banks of new windows, the 100-seat French Colonial dining room feels like the enclosed veranda of a high-ranking official’s country estate. Potted palms do backbends along the soft curves of wide archways. Jewel-toned long deng lanterns droop from the ceiling like low-hanging tropical fruits.
If all that—and the Dyson Airblade, of course—prickles your too-pretty-to-be-authentic Spidey sense, may the Lais present Exhibit A: heavenly summer rolls I recommend swirling through the house nuoc mam, a salve of sweet white vinegar, garlic and funky fish sauce. There’s mahogany hoisin too, topped with crushed peanuts, and a vicious chili oil bloody with crushed peppers. Despite the aggressive condiments, the smokiness of the marinated and chargrilled pork inside the rice paper bundles came through, freshened by fragrant bursts of mint and basil.
And what is “authentic” anyway? I say it’s not a concept defined by atmosphere (or lack thereof) but by soul and honesty, which the food at Vietnam Café has in spades. Think goi du du ga, an addictively crunchy slaw of green papaya and carrot similar to Thai som tam, with an added forest of Vietnamese herbs and a splash of fish sauce that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the other flavors. Finely veined grape leaves hugged sesame-seasoned ground beef in another classic Vietnamese snack, bo nuong la, the Lais have been making since opening their Chinatown restaurant Vietnam in 1984. At the Café, these umami bars were so uncommonly juicy I swiped the last one while my dinner guest wasn’t looking. And I don’t even like grape leaves.
Portions are huge, and prices, though not as cheap as at divier Asian joints, are still inexpensive enough to lure the university crowd. It was hard to argue with the fat shrimp—flavor-charged thanks to a grill-caramelized oyster sauce-and- lemongrass marinade—stacked atop a huge nest of rice vermicelli.
Soups didn’t arrive in bowls so much as baptismal fonts. I wanted to plunge my head into the seafood-laden canh chua thai and proclaim myself cleansed. Tender fish balls bobbed like swept-away beach balls in the golden pork broth twanged with lemon juice and lemongrass, and a quick stir brought scallops, squid and shrimp up to the surface like buried treasure.
The bun tai hue featured vermicelli and flank steak cooked right in the spicy crimson broth fortified with shrimp and tomato pastes. I showered the soup with bean sprouts, lime and jalapeños from a little tray on the side. Herbs would have been nice, as the soup had none, but I couldn’t flag down a member of the legion of servers scuttling about the dining room like scorpions in a shoebox. The broth was beautiful though, hot, beefy, intensely savory.
Stupidly, I tried to improve upon it by swirling in a spoonful of chili oil to stoke the fire, which instead got all over my hands, making me look like the victim of a sinister manicurist, and sent me to the bathroom, where my conversation with hipster-dad transpired.
“I bet it’s made of [futuristic material I’ve never heard of],” he said, giving the sink a knock of certainty. Yeah, I said, thinking of the beef-stuffed grape leaves, that’s definitely it. ■
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.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014