Anh Dao

Anh Dao, Washington DC

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.Summer Rolls / Goui Coun, Anh Dao, Washington DC
Spring Rolls / Cha Gio, Anh Dao, Washington DCAfter 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.

Steamed Chicken Dumplings, Anh Dao, Washington DCA 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.

Shrimp Papaya Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother 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.

Shrimp Crispy Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DC
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.

Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll Bun Salad, Anh Dao, Washington DCGrilled Shrimp, Chicken, Spring Roll, Anh Dao, Washington DCAnother 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, Anh Dao, Washington DCShaky 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.

Pho Noodles, Anh Dao, Washington DCThe 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.

Complementary Orange, Anh Dao, Washington DCYes, 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.

Anh-Dao Taste of Vietnam Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pho Kevin

In past blogs, I have posted and quibbled that finding a decent Vietnamese restaurant outside of their established communities has been like searching for the Holy Grail.   Complicating matters and my hunt, the few that I have blogged about have folded up to much of my dismay.  I had pretty much resorted to trekking to Northern Virginia (read blog) to savor some of my favorite dishes when the mood hits me to endure the 35-mile drive.

Pho Kevin

Recently, my BFF and I were driving around Laurel, MD, to find fabric to replace the upholstery of his dining room set, he having just become a new home owner just like I have.  On our way out, we spotted a new establishment that had taken over a defunct Chinese take-out.  Looking at the new restaurant sign, we couldn’t help but remark that its name was an eye-catcher, one being that most Pho places are never named after a particular person, the other that it was my bestie’s name; he posted a photo of it on Facebook and many fell for the joke thinking that he had opened it himself.  A few days later, BFF and I decided to pay Pho Kevin a visit during one of our rendezvous around the area.  After that visit, I knew that it was going to be featured as my next blog.

Cha Gio/Fried Spring Rolls

Some of my favorite appetizers are the Vietnamese kind, especially their rolls.  On one visit, I ordered the Cha Gio, or Fried Spring Roll.  The two thin rolls arrived piping hot with a fish sauce concoction and some pickled carrots and daikon on the side.  The rolls were decent with a rather compact stuffing of minced shrimp and pork, tasting very savory and more peppery that what I was used to.  The outer shell was the Chinese spring roll skin rather than the rice paper used in more traditional places, encasing the stuffing that was a bit too dense for my taste – the traditional use of taro root would lighten it up.  Most Vietnamese places have gotten away from serving these rolls with some fresh herbs and lettuce, and unfortunately, this place was no exception.  However, the side of Nuoc Cham was the right mixture of quality briny fish sauce, acidic vinegar, sweet sugar, and some chili heat.  Anywhere that serves quality fish sauce that is smooth and not overly pungent indicates a house that cares and pays attention to the small details.

Fresh Summer RollThe other type of roll is the Fresh Spring Roll, or Goi Cuon.  The rolls arrived just like what I expected.  Rice paper is used to wrap a filling of rice vermicelli, lettuce, slices of pork, and slices of boiled shrimp, served with a Hoisin-based sauce sprinkled with some crushed peanuts.  What made these rolls good were subtle.  The rice paper skin was slightly moist and tasted recently made, not prepared in advance and refrigerated which would turn the starch slightly chalky to the bite.  But here, it was all fresh and supple to the bite, with the shrimp tasting sweet and the pork slices exuding its porcine beauty.  Despite the lack of salt in the rolls, it was the sauce that was the compensatory note with its sweet and salty fragrant Hoisin sauce cooked with some creamy rich nutty coconut cream, while the bits of peanuts added its nuttiness to the dip.  Unfortunately, an extra note of mint and basil leaves would have completed the whole package.  Nevertheless, this was quite good and it did not take me long to finish these two rolls off.

Pho Beef NoodleBun Bo Hue/Spicy Beef Noodle

A friend’s order one day was Pho Tai, or Rare Eye Round Steak Noodle Soup.  The bowl was filled with a slightly murky soup surrounding a mound of rice noodles and topped with slices of raw lean beef, thin enough to be gently cooked by the piping hot broth.  Having a sip of the liquid, I could taste the use of cinnamon and star-anise in the broth, as well as the use of beef bones causing the pieces to lend its marrow goodness and depth of flavor.  My Vietnamese friend gave his approval with this bowlful as he thought that it was up to scratch.  My order on that day was Bun Bo Hue.  It is a Spicy Beef Noodle with various “pieces” of uhm, meat and etc.  The noodle was the proper kind, being the round thicker version not found with the regular noodle soup, moistened by a beefy soup made spicy with whole dried red chilis.  What makes this dish unique is the use of “off-cuts” in the dish: skin, tendon, knuckle, and other unrecognizable pieces.  Unfortunately, the traditional use of congealed blood was not served which was a bit of a disappointment for this diner who doesn’t mind that funky bite.  The customary serving of the slightly fishy shrimp paste and a dollop of dried chili paste added to the unique experience, along with a plateful of chopped cabbage, fragrant Vietnamese mint (Rau Ran), and a slice of lime that added some crunch and citrus kick.  I have not found many Pho places serving this unique spicy bowl, and I’m glad that this is close to my house.

Grilled Pork, Shredded Pork, and Meat LoafGrilled Beef and Fried Egg

One thing that sets this Pho house apart from other noodle houses is the serving of rice dishes and grilled meats.  When I set foot here for the first time, I ordered the Grilled Beef Rice dish, and was I impressed.  The dish arrived with the grilled beef, meat loaf, shredded pork, and a mound of steamed rice.  What got my attention immediately were the pieces of well-marinated and moist pieces of meat, tasting both salty and slightly sweet, with a hint of caramelization, and brought to another level with the fragrant lemongrass that left its mark in the aftertaste without overwhelming the subtle flavors – I bite into each morsel intrigued by all the different notes that sang harmoniously.  The shredded  pork compromised of  finely sliced pork skin that belied its nature by the flavor hinting of smoky ground rice powder, but betrayed by its bouncy texture (a friend finished it with no idea what it was).  The meat loaf was a light concoction of minced meat pressed together with a beaten egg topping, tasting savory and akin to French paté but a la Vietnam.  The side broth was so good with a rich tasting body made more enticing with drops of shallot oil swimming on top, which made it the perfect accompaniment and palate cleanser to the meaty morsels.  A friend’s order of Grilled Pork was equally tantalizing with the similar treatment in seasoning and cooking.  Indeed, the rice dishes here are definitely worth one’s attention when perusing the menu.

Shrimp Bun Salad

During my last visit, I was in the mood for the Grilled Shrimp Bun Salad since it was sunny and in the 60’s, which felt like a heat wave after weeks of Polar frigid weather.  The bowl arrived filled with springy (and slightly al dente) rice vermicelli, finely chopped lettuce, julienned cucumber, bean sprouts, pickles, fresh mint, and 5 pieces of large shrimp, sprinkled with some crushed peanuts and green onions.  But what sets this version apart from the others is the shrimp that had a beautiful caramelization from its stay on the grill and the slightly sweet marinate with bits of slightly charred lemongrass that added more interest to the seafood.  And the pieces were perfectly cooked with no bouncy texture in each bite, which astounded me.  The quality fish sauce was the icing on the cake in this salad, and I was spooning up whatever was left in the bowl once the noodles were gone.  I’m looking forward to savoring this noodle salad in the warmer months to come.

Che 3 Mau/Three Bean DessertOn one visit, I was inspired to try out one of their desserts, which is a combo of a few of their offerings – Che 3 Mau or Three Color Dessert.  The milkshake glass contained some red beans, cooked yellow lentils, and green jelly – such starches are commonly found in Southeast Asian desserts.  But turning these ingredients into a sweet bite was the use of sugar syrup and a good douse of some coconut cream, topped by a mound of ice shavings.  Even though my dining companions were quite sated from their main dishes, they could not help but dip their long spoons into the tall glass for the sweet beans and a spoonful of the chilled sweet coconut cream – definitely worth trying if there is room, or no room, for a sweet end.

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Ca Phe Sua/Coffee and Condensed MilkAh, Pho Kevin is worthy of a write-up for its wonderful offerings.  Its Pho dishes are well-made, but what sets it apart from other places is the spicy beef noodle (Bun Bo Hue), to the tasty and fragrant grilled meat dishes, to the wonderfully grilled shrimp in the Bun Salad with that quality fish sauce, to the sweet bean dessert.  I am thrilled that I can visit an establishment close to my home that serves such variety of dishes beyond the beef noodle soup Pho dish that can be found nearly strip mal in the region.  After nearly 5 months in business, seeing a steady stream coming through its doors is a good indicator of the savory dishes that people are beginning to recognize and enjoy.  I’m just hoping that this place is here to stay, and judging by what I have enjoyed there, it stands a great chance of doing so.

Pho Kevin on Urbanspoon

Huong Viet

Huong VietThis must be some bad economic times that we are going through.  Uncertainty seems to hover over the housing market, the stock market, the job market, a looming sequestration, and undoubtedly the restaurant business.  More than a handful of restaurants that I have reviewed have folded up since I started a year ago.  To make matters worse, both Vietnamese restaurants on my blog have shut their doors, one after nearly 15 years of business, and the other just a mere 8 months.  As you may have read about my elusive search for a good Vietnamese eatery near me and in DC, this series of events was quite a blow.

With such daunting news in  mind, I approached my trusty Vietnamese barber and asked her for a reliable recommendation.  She pointed me to Eden Center, in the Seven Corners neighborhood of Fairfax, VA, where there is a confluence of Vietnamese business that populate that rather expansive plaza.  This was one place that I used to visit quite often to savor some good cooking when the Four Sisters Restaurant ran their business there before moving further out to the boondocks.   After their move, there was little cause to visit that area except when the occasional taste for steamed tofu with ginger syrup propelled me to drive the nearly 30 miles to terra incognito, as it seems that way to me.   But with a strong reference in mind, I coraled my dinner group on the eve of the Lunar New Year, or Tết in Vietnamese, and paid a visit to Huong Viet , a small eatery that has survived all these years since my visit there nearly 20 years ago.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Walking into the establishment, the decor and the set up are not as plush or creative as most modern restaurants, and the regularly spaced long and short tables do bring to mind a nice clean cafeteria.  After a short wait outside in the cold, we were shown to our long table that accommodated my party of five.   Any feeling of doubt or hesitancy was immediately erased by a sense of assurance brought about by the busyness of the restaurant and the number of Vietnamese-speaking customers in the place. With that thought in mind, I plunged into the menu and quickly ordered some common appetizers.  The Summer Rolls came with soft rice crepe paper wrapped around a filling of perfectly cooked moist rice vermicelli noodles, fresh sweet shrimp, mild roast pork, crisp lettuce, fragrant mint leaves, and finished with a long strand of pungent Asian chive.  But what tied all these disparate elements together was the dipping sauce.  This restaurant’s version had only a bare hint of hoisin unlike other versions that overwhelms the palate with its flavor.  Mixed in it was a peanut sauce that made it rich and nutty, and its unique balance pointed towards it being house-made rather than store-bought.  This was a good fresh bite.

Vietnamese Spring Rolls/Cha GioWe also ordered the counterpart to the above – Fried Spring Roll or CHẢ GIÒ.  When it arrived at the table, I noticed a few variations from the norms commonly found in other places.  First, the large bubbles on the fried skin indicated that it was made in a traditional fashion with Vietnamese rice crepe paper and not with Chinese spring roll sheets that are commonly used these days.  The second was that it was cut into two before it was deep-fried, which intrigued me even further.   Sheer hunger or delectable food can produce a certain suspension of analysis of thought as I honestly don’t recall much from this dish.  All I remember was that the stuffing tasted very moist and savory encased by a crispy shell, and these bites disappeared quickly among my friends who snatched them up while piping hot.  The side sweet and salty fish sauce was adequate but not as memorable as the expensive elixir served in the defunct Green Papaya restaurant.   However, this dish was worth a moment of relapse during dinner.

Young Lotus Root Salad

Another common appetizer found in this Southeast Asian cuisine is Young Lotus Root Salad.  Strands of cooked lotus roots have been mixed with pieces of pork and whole shrimp, lightly seasoned by the ubiquitous sweet and salty fish sauce.  Wow, I could barely get a bite of this because it was ferociously attacked by my companions, and deservedly so.  The pieces of lotus were perfectly cooked while maintaining its characteristic light crunch along with its savoriness developed from being marinated.  The sweet shrimp and moist pork provided the unctuous notes to the mild root, while the crushed peanuts and fried shallot rings added the nuttiness and dark flavors to the clean mild tasting salad.  The rounds of addictive shrimp crackers provided some textural interest as well as serving as the perfect scoopers for this melange.  This was definitely a hit for all of us and we should have ordered another serving of it.

Riceflour Pancake/Banh Xeo

For our main courses, we ordered a quartet of dishes.  The first was a classic Vietnamese dish found in any reputable restaurant – Bánh Xèo.  This stuffed crepe dish literally means “sizzling cake” consisting of a rice flour crepe stuffed with pieces of pork, cooked shrimp and a heaping of cooked bean sprouts.  The crepe had a hint of coconut milk and it was quite crispy, however, not rich or crispy enough for my taste, compared to the fabulous version in The Green Papaya.  Like most versions, the crepe is underseasoned for it is the sweet and salty fish sauce that imparts the necessary seasoning to this very mild dish.  Once my companions figured how to attack the dish, they were enjoying every bite of it.  But I could not help but reminiscence the rich delectable version of the aforementioned closed restaurant.

Shakey Beef

While waiting outside, an acquaintance of one of my dining companions recommended that we order Shakey Beef.  The name was odd enough for me and I had never come across a dish with such name.  The order arrived with pieces of cubed beef along with some onion and green pepper squares, plain and assuming.  The first bite revealed a personality beyond its unassuming looks.  The beef was tossed and seared on high heat in the wok, judging by pieces of caramelized bits, while maintaining a tender medium-rare inside.  Surprisingly, every bite tasted well seasoned and very savory from what tastes like soy sauce, bits of garlic, and a hint of sugar that brought the flavors to another level.   This was a truly successful dish for all of the diners and I enjoyed every beefy bite.

Shrimp with VegetablesTo bring some balance to the meat dishes, we ordered Shrimp with Vegetables.  Pieces of celery, broccoli, carrots, mushrooms, and baby corn are paired with pieces of large shrimp in this dish.  The sweet tender shrimp made the perfect foil to the pieces of sweet al dente pieces of vegetables, while the mushroom adds some earthiness and the baby corn some young sweetness.  What brought all the elements together was the rather rich sauce packed with garlic pieces flavored with oyster sauce and thickened with corn starch.  Although it was a rather light dish, the savory sauce made it seem richer, and it was worth ordering this vegetable seafood dish.  Another hit among my dining group.

Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken

No visit to taste this Southeast Asian cuisine should have a lemongrass dish amiss from the dining table, and we honed on Caramelized Lemongrass Chicken.  The plate arrived with chucks of chicken thigh cooked with large pieces of sweet yellow onions, swimming in a shallow pool of brown sauce.  What truly made this two-ingredient dish delectable and successful was the sauce that was packed with the citrusy lemongrass paired with the seafood salty fish sauce with a tinge of sweetness from the caramel that rounded off the flavors. The pieces of chicken thigh was not the mild breast version so as to stand up to the punchy sauce while adding the necessary body along with the sweet and pungent onion.  Even when the morsels were gone, I was lapping up every drop of sauce with bits of rice as I could not get enough of the sauce that transported me to Indochina.  Another must order here for sure!

Vietnamese Drink Dessert

Despite feeling content with the above dishes, I was curious about the unique Vietnamese sweet servings.  There was not much in terms of solid desserts with the exception of Caramel Flan but the menus listed a list of sweet drinks with bits of “stuff” that are commonly eaten by the locals.  My glass came with a concoction of whole red beans, sweet corn, crushed peanuts, and bits of green agar-agar jelly.  The sweetening agent was a syrup consisting of a mixture of brown sugar and rich coconut milk.  Upon mixing the various elements, things did not look very appetizing at first, but with the first mouthful, it was a revelation of flavors and textures.  Every element spoke for itself: nuttiness from the peanuts, sweetness from the corn, starchiness from the red beans, molasses sweetness from the brown sugar, and vegetal creaminess from the coconut milk.  The green jelly did not add any flavor at all but a jellybean-like texture consistency to the bite, which a couple of my friends found a bit disconcerting – LOL.  Before I knew it, most of my dining companions were partaking in this sweet dish, and we finished it con mucho gusto.

Huong VietComing back to Huong Viet for me was like the return of the prodigal son.   When in doubt, do what the Romans do, or as in this case, what the Vietnamese do.  Thanks to my barber’s infallible suggestion, I’m glad to have made the long trek to Eden Center to taste what has always been there all these years – proper delectable Vietnamese dishes that wowed my dining group even days after our visit.  Never mind the inattentive service at times and the bare ambience.  But what makes up for the shortcomings is the main reason to haul oneself there – the impressive dishes.  Note to diner – they only accept cash but we walked out of there with barely with a dent made since it was around $20/person.   With such good cooking and low prices, I would easily do the 30-mile drive.

Huong Viet on Urbanspoon

Vietnam Palace

Note: Unfortunately, this establishment has closed down.

The hunt for a decent Vietnamese restaurant serving more than just Pho noodles is like searching for the culinary Holy Grail. In the past, my friends and I used to visit Eden Center, a confluence of Vietnamese businesses in the heart of the immigrant community in Seven Corners, VA, to relish in the delectable offerings in our favorite eatery. However, it has moved further away into the boonies, and according to my Vietnamese hair stylist, it is now catering to a more American palate. In replacement, I discovered another eatery, Green Papaya, but to my dismay it folded up a couple of months later after being in business for over a decade. Another favorite haunt in DC also met the same fate after struggling in a part of town that saw gentrification moving slower that it would have liked. With all the Vietnamese noodle joints around me, I was nearly about to resign to  my fate of settling for only this type of offering, pho real.

Around the beginning of this year, I noticed some renovations taking place in a store located in a strip mall near my favorite Costco. As I passed by it a number of times, I was anxiously waiting for the storefront sign to be put up so I could ascertain what type of cuisine it was going to serve. In May, I was thrilled to see its large name – finally a full-fledged Vietnamese restaurant a few miles down the road from me. I couldn’t wait for the Open sign to glow for my first visit, and I even stopped in and asked about their opening day.

Vietnam Palace

One Sunday, I walked into Vietnam Palace eagerly anticipating my first meal there. However, a gentleman quickly told me that it was not officially open but only to invited guests. However, another man appeared from the kitchen and asked me to take a seat as one of the guests. Since that first warm welcome, I have paid them a few more visits before doing this write-up.

Jelly, Longan, and Lotus Seed DrinkOn the first visit when I was treated so graciously, I knew I was entering into a place different from the other Vietnamese establishments that I had visited. This was immediately evident from the drink that was placed on my table without my ordering. It is listed as “Longan in Syrup” in the drinks section of the menu. It comprises of a slightly sweet drink mixed with bits of agar-agar jelly, reconstituted dried longan fruit, and lotus or longan seeds. I was amazed by the combination of ingredients and flavors, reminiscent of a similar concoction that my grandmother used to prepare to cool the body down during the hot dry season in tropical Asia. The different elements in the sweet liquid made it taste more like dessert than a drink. This is definitely a different offering than the usual but a satisfying thirst quencher.

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Durian SmoothieAmong the usual drink choices of Vietnamese coffee, Lemonade and Soda Water, and Avocado Smoothie, there is another unexpected offering – Durian Smoothie. When I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to get my hands on a tall glass of it. Mine literally was filled to the brim and I had to quickly take a sip before it started to trickle down the sides. It was rich, slightly sweet, and ice-cold, packed with the distinctive and pungent flavors of the custard-like Durian fruit. It brought me back to my past summer trip to Malaysia when I got my fill of the fresh fruit that overwhelmed my taste buds with its unique pungent flavor. This smoothie had a similar effect on me without the strong aftertaste that the fresh fruit leaves. What a good alternative to the real thing, especially in this part of the world!

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Vietnamese Spring RollsThe first bite I took in this establishment was on a Spring Roll that you will find in most Vietnamese eateries. This rendition was as good as you would find anywhere else with its light and flaky wrap, a tasty filling that is made with wood fungus and carrot, minced pork and shrimp, and fine bean thread noodles that make up the customary stuffing. But what sets it apart is its accompanying fish sauce that woke up my senses immediately by the smooth refined flavor that you don’t find in other establishments. It reminded me of the fore mentioned closed down restaurant, Green Papaya, whose fish sauce tasted like a prized elixir. With the flavors lingering in my mouth, I knew that I have discovered a place where attention is paid to the details.

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Sweet and Sour Shrimp SoupAnother opener that we tried on a couple of visits is the Sweet and Sour Soup (Cahn Lau) that was part of the set course dinner.  Pieces of fish or whole shrimp are cooked in a light broth along with pieces of tomato, bean sprouts, pineapple, whole okra and celery.  The soup has a unique combination of sweet from sugar and the sour piquancy from the pieces of pineapple which I enjoyed quite a bit.  The pieces of vegetable were perfectly cooked with the okra slightly firm and not slimy, bean sprouts still turgid but not raw, and the pieces of seafood plump and moist.  The sprinkling of Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram) adds the herbal fragrance along with some caramelized shallots that brought another level of complexity to this rather simple soup.  This light yet tasty soup pointed to a direction of Vietnamese cuisine that I had not savored before, which not only was pleasing to my senses but also peaked my gastronomic curiosity.

Chicken Pho Noodles

Beef Pho NoodlesNo respectable Vietnamese restaurant will have Pho noodles amiss from its menu, and this is the case with Vietnam Palace. But instead of the usual bowl of beef noodles on my first visit, mine came with strips of chicken amidst large chunks of daikon root. The mild root was tender yet savory from having absorbed all the flavors from the rich broth, a clear soup, clean in flavor, sweet without the customary use of MSG, and I could distinguish the distinctive spices used to make the key element in the bowl: cassia bark (Asian cinnamon) and star-anise. On another visit, the beef version came with paper-thin discs of raw meat that cooked quickly in that wonderful broth. Large pieces of green onion and fine rings of sweet onion added the mild pungency that complemented the rather sweet broth. Getting to know the owner, he told me that the broth changes in the amount of spices according to the time of the year – more cassia and star-anise in the winter time. This is definitely not your everyday bowl of Pho noodle.

Bun Bo Hue

Bun Bo HueAnother bowl of noodle that shouldn’t be overlooked is one that you would probably not find in other Pho establishments – Bo Bun Hue. The bowl is covered with round long rice noodles, bits of beef, and sweet onions, all enveloped by a spicy beef broth made fragrant with lemongrass and reddish from some chili that is the basis of this noodle dish. The pieces of lean meat are joined by cooked skin, hunks of cartilage (a common source of protein in that part of the world), and squares made from congealed blood – this is not a dish for everyone especially for the squeamish. However, what I enjoy about the dish is the level of uncompromising authenticity along with that fragrant and fiery broth as well as the sprinkling of herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram). The sides of fermented shrimp paste and dried chili paste add to the experience and its unique flavors. This is a must order for the adventurous especially if you are looking for a noodle dish beyond the usual Pho.

Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood

Another noodle dish that we have ordered a few times, albeit in a less soupy state, is Egg Noodle with Vegetables and Seafood.  Dried egg noodles have been parboiled and cooked with brocoli, cauliflower, carrots, whole shrimp, fish balls, and shiitake mushrooms.   The noodles were still al dente, the vegetables cooked similarly and still fresh tasting, the seafood sweet and moist, and the sauce flavorful and light that was effective enough to coat the pasta.  What I enjoyed most was the generous amount of meaty shiitake mushrooms that added a hit of boskiness and a depth of flavor to this satisfying dish.  A good sprinkling of biting pepper on the top was the finishing touch that titillated the taste buds, mine at least.

Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche and Rice

In addition to noodle dishes, Vietnam Palace has an extensive list of rice dishes that I don’t usually see in the usual eatery.  On one occasion, I ordered Charbroiled Pork Chop, Shredded Pork, Egg Quiche on Steamed Broken Rice.  A large piece of lightly seasoned Pork Chop is cooked with a slightly sweet and peppery coating until slightly brown yet remaining still quite moist.  The accompanying quiche was something that I had not had before; bits of minced pork were mixed with egg white and topped by a mixture made with egg yolk.  I found it quite tasty and amazing slightly spongy and rather light, aided by perfect seasoning and well-timed cooking.  The other side of Shredded Pork was equally interesting but not necessarily in the same direction as the Quiche.  It is cooked pork skin that has been shredded and mixed with toasted rice flour and seasoning.  The texture was a bit off-putting by its soft chewiness along with a slight fermented flavor – definitely something authentic yet one needs getting used to.  Mostly, I appreciate the restaurant’s offering of set rice platters that are not usually found in most eateries.

Caramelized FishA couple of dishes beyond the rice and noodle dishes were tasted and are worth mentioning.  Caramelized Fish comes served in a clay pot swimming in a dark chocolaty sauce coating the fish morsels.   The basic flavor components are made from caramelized sugar that provides the slight sweetness and the slight burnt flavor, and the fish sauce that injects the brininess and a breath of ocean into the sauce.  The pieces of fish were fresh and still quite moist.  However, I thought that the use of fish sauce was a bit heavy-handed which overpowered the subtle caramel element.  Upon bringing this to the waiter/owner’s attention, he agreed with me and quickly joked that he was going to fire the cooks, notably his parents in the kitchen.  I felt a bit guilty for mentioning this but I’m not shy to help an establishment fix their faux pas.  Another try of this dish is planned for the future.

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Sauteed GoatBack to my first “invitation” to this establishment.  After having sated myself with their wonderful dishes, the owner mentioned that they are offering a family special cooked only on the weekends – Sautéed Goat.  When it arrived on my table, the waft that reached my nose instantly told me that this was no ordinary dish.  Pieces of goat have been stewed with onion, curry powder, and coconut milk.  In addition to the spice elements and rich coconut, it is heavily infused with some heady lemongrass that adds that Southeast Asian zing, along with a sprinkling of crushed peanuts and herbaceous Vietnamese mint (Rau Ram).  A thick slice of French bread made the perfect sopping tool for that rich and flavor-packed sauce.  Even though the pieces goat were a bit bony, which it tends to be, the bits of flesh were quite tender and well-flavored.  This restaurant never ceases to amaze me with the authenticity of flavors and each visit turned into an adventure into this Southeast Asian cuisine.

Vietnam Palace is a restaurant worth trekking into the Maryland suburbs for anyone who is salivating for well-made dishes representing this Southeast Asian culture, beyond the noodle bowls that have over saturated the various neighborhoods as well as our taste buds.  I still miss some dishes that are not served there, namely Grilled Lemongrass Beef and Salt Pepper Seafood that I used to relish in the closed fore mentioned eateries.  However, what this place does well compensates for the missing dishes, and the dishes have broadened my horizon on this wonderful cuisine.  Who would think that such gastronomic adventure could be found in a quiet strip mall off the beaten path.  It is worth checking this place out!

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