day thirty-seven: vietnam restaurant

July 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

I had been to Vietnam Restaurant once before, years ago, and remember well my conversation there. I remember my dining partners, where we sat, but I couldn’t remember, for the life of me, what I ate or anything at all about the food. So, last week, when some friends and I were looking for a place to eat in Collegetown, I suggested we give Vietnam Restaurant another try.

I opened the tacky menu, entreated to do so by three Vietnamese cartoon women shading and cooling themselves from the sun with various objects (a leaf hat, a hand fan, and a parasol). Nothing looked particularly appealing. My friends chose quickly; on the spot, I defaulted to what I like to think of as the equivalent of the chef’s special at any noodle joint, the House Special Noodle Bowl (phở đặc biệt), and, to be safe, got a standard order of spring rolls as an appetizer.

Our food arrived all at once: My meal and appetizer, two orders of BBQ Pork and Duck on Rice, and an order of chicken vermicelli (bun ga nuong). The spring rolls were huge, fresh-looking and served with a small lake of sauce. The rolls themselves were fine. Not flavorful, but fine, and a good vehicle for massive amounts of salty sauce. Everything else, though, looked kind of flaccid and sad. The BBQ Pork and Duck on Rice looked and tasted like subpar Chinese food fare. I didn’t taste the chicken vermicelli and my friend said she really enjoyed it, but to me, it looked really dull, not full of the fresh herbs, vegetables and noodles that I usually expect in Vietnamese food.

My House Special Noodle Soup was pretty awful, not special in the least. The broth tasted like lukewarm dishwasher water. The main soup ingredient was pallid lettuce. Whereas traditionally phở đặc biệt would contain assorted organ meats from various cattle and chicken, this version instead contained unidentifiable clumps of meat and fish. The imitation crab in the soup was rubbery and tasteless. I saw one shrimp and two thin slices of dry, overcooked beef, a sharp contrast to the rare beef slices served in most Vietnamese restaurants. All of it was tasteless: Had I closed my eyes, I might not be able to distinguish one boiled piece from the next, save by texture. There were hardly any noodles in my bowl and even these were mushy and overcooked.

To finish, we had Vietnamese coffee, cold and hot. The cold version tasted similar to a Thai iced coffee, but was slightly less sweet and well over twice the cost ($3.95) of the same-sized Thai iced coffee next door ($1.50). The hot version was half the price and, I think, while not authentic, highly caffeinated and more interesting than the cold version.

If you’ve never had Vietnamese food, don’t make Vietnam Restaurant your first stop — it will give you the wrong impression. Instead, if you’re craving or dying to try some pho, take a short(ish) trip up to Syracuse where at a little industrial hole in the wall called New Century Restaurant, you’ll find what may just be the best Vietnamese food in New York State, fresh cilantro, Thai basil, crunchy bean sprouts, squeezable lime, and all the sauces. Because, alas, you won’t find any of those here at Vietnam Restaurant.

Price: Reasonable enough, but not cheap (< $9/entree)
Hours: Sun-Th, 11:30am – 10pm, F-Sat, 11:30am – 10:30pm
Location: 208 Dryden Road
Website: Vietnam Restaurant

Vietnam Restaurant on Urbanspoon

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