12 years ago, my Friday dinner group used to meet up for dinner at a wonderful Vietnamese restaurant near Eastern Market, DC, since it was the halfway point between the MD and VA folks. However, it met its demise a couple of years later, and we lamented the loss of its wonderful offerings as well as its convenient location. Recently, I saw the sign of another Vietnamese eatery as this location and my group decided to meet up there. Walking into the familiar space, although chopped up to smaller real estate, I was greeted by a familiar face who called me by my name – the owners of the former eatery. Wow, they decided to reopen in the same space, Anh-Dao, and what a happy reacquaintance it was with some familiar faces.
After our smiling faces settled down from the warm effusive greetings, we perused the menu, albeit pared down from that of the last location. We started off with the usual Vietnamese appetizers. The first was Summer Rolls. The fresh wrap rolls was stuffed with the usual combination of rice vermicelli, sliced pork, sliced shrimp, and crispy lettuce leaves. It tasted like most that I have eaten in other places but I would have liked some fragrant basil leaves in the mix. The peanut sauce reminded me what I had in Vietnam, with the sauce not tasting too sweet or hoisin-like, allowing the peanut flavors to make its presence known in the peanut butter and bits used in the sauce. The next appetizer was Spring Rolls. The fried small bites were delicately made with a stuffing that tasted savory from minced meat and a refined seasoning that was noticeable but subtle at the same time. The pieces were greaseless to the touch, pointing to a kitchen that knows oil temperature for frying. This was a good start indeed.
A non-Vietnamese appetizer was written in the menu and that struck my curiosity – Steamed Chicken Dumplings. What arrived looked very much like Japanese gyozas. One bite revealed its nature. The skin was the usual quite thin dough encasing a delicious filling. Notes of finely minced chicken were mixed in with finely shredded vegetables and punctuated by notes of green onion and garlic. This savory mix made every bite pleasurable along with the dark soy dip that was bit sourish, sweet, and salty at the same time.
Another appetizer that caught my eye was not the usual – Shrimp Papaya Salad. What arrived was a plate of green papaya strands, julienned carrot, sliced shrimp, topped with basil and cilantro leaves that added their herbaceous notes. But what made this dish sing were the details in the dish. The fried shallots added a caramelized dark note and the crushed peanuts its nutty rich crunch. But the magic in the dish was the sauce that was perfectly balanced with its salty and umami fish sauce, and the right balance of sugar and lime juice. I kept coming back to that elixir sauce throughout the whole meal for its-so-goodness.
I recalled that the former establishment had a delicious Shrimp Crispy Noodle dish and a companion went for this order. The large plate was replete with the crunchy brittle pasta, topped with a light sauce and pieces of medium size shrimp and lots of vegetables. But the key to the dishes is both the noodles and the sauce. The former was greaseless and perfectly crispy with a clean taste (fresh oil was used), and the sauce was both savory and slightly full-bodied, which when mixed with the noodles, it had a tinge of smokiness that I found very appealing. I wouldn’t hesitate to order this at all.
Another noodle dish is the Combination Noodle Salad. What arrived was a huge bowl of rice vermicelli, paired with some finely sliced vegetables and topped with grilled chicken, grilled shrimp and a chopped up spring roll. The chicken and shrimp were slightly sweet and salty, pointing to a good seasoning and marination, and grilled with some slight char to its ends. The spring roll was as good as the appetizer. This was a huge bowl that my friend was thoroughly enjoying since its his Vietnamese favorite. Another companion’s order on another night had the noodles changed for steamed rice, which he seemed to be content with.
Shaky Beef was my order on my “first” visit. It’s name comes with the tossing action when it is cooked in the wok. What arrived were small cubes of beef cooked with some white onions. A whiff of it was a good indicator of the dish’s quality. The beef was quite tender, tasting uber savory with a soy/sugar sauce made sweeter by the onions. I enjoyed not only the incredible flavor but also the size of each morsel that made you appreciate the meal without feeling that you are biting into the side of the cow. The moderate portion was just right for me, and I was left complete sated by this dish.
The real litmus test of a Vietnamese pho place is it soup noodles. Since the owner knows me well, she decided to place a special order for me. What arrived was a combination of raw steak (the usual), flank steak, meat balls, and tripe. The meats were of good quality especially the beef balls that tasted home made, and the usual for the noodles. But the key ingredient is the soup that was where my focus was throughout this meal. It tasted full-bodied, an indication of use of lots of bones, slightly sweet from onions, and slightly woodsy (cinnamon, star-anise) with their evenly calibrated tones without jarring the senses. I was thoroughly enjoying this bowl until the last drop of clean-tasting (no msg) broth, and I would stop in here for that hot bowl when in town.
Yes, it has been a decade since I saw the owners in the same establishment, albeit reopened but smaller. But somethings have not changed. The high quality cooking is evident especially in the shrimp papaya salad, shaky beef, shrimp crispy noodles, the combination noodles or rice, and the pho noodles. So has the warm and friendly service from the owners whose husband-cook came out to greet me. The complementary dessert confirmed another unchanged variable – incredibly sweet oranges to end the meal that never departed from this superior quality (Where do they find them consistently sweet?). This place has been definitely added back to our dinner rotations, and we all are glad to have them back in business again.