Vietnam Restaurant

I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about Vietnam Restaurant yet.  This is probably my favorite restaurant in Philly–a great place for a quick bite or a long, martini-filled evening with family or friends. You may remember an early Row Home Eats post in which I documented a family dinner in honor of my brother’s impending move to Orlando. Although we did not dine at Vietnam, we began our evening there with a memorable cocktail.

Vietnam has two locations–its flagship restaurant on North 11th Street and Vietnam Cafe (or Vietnam West, as we sometimes call it) which is located, quite conveniently, a block from my parents’ house.  My husband and I take every opportunity to dine at either spot as often as possible. In fact, I may or may not have eaten dinner there two nights in a row this summer. Shhh…

Some of my favorite Vietnam memories involve rowdy, laughter-filled meals with my dearest friends in my post-college days. Recently, my good friends, Minna and Ben, were in town and we decided to revisit the past and dine at Vietnam with another close friend, Ninh.

Oh I forgot to mention that Vietnam is located quite conveniently on the route 23 bus line–as is our house. This is wonderful for so many reasons. Let me count the ways. #1 We have to walk under 1 block in total, door to door #2 No searching for parking and (drumroll please) #3 Safety first! No drinking and driving!

The husband and I grabbed the 23 quickly and reached the restaurant with some time to burn. Our intention was to grab a drink at the bar/lounge on the top floor, but apparently it’s not open on weekdays. We decided to traipse a few doors down and wait for our friends at Yakitori Boy. Yakitori Boy is a relatively new bar and restaurant best known for its karaoke and “Japas.” We didn’t indulge in either of those, but sipped a tasty martini at the empty bar. Interesting martini glasses.

After a brief wait, we met our friends back down the street at the restaurant. My husband and I don’t often stray from our typical orders at Vietnam. He tends to get the #37–House Special Vermicelli–which is a combo of spring rolls, meat balls, grilled chicken and pork over vermicelli. It’s actually no longer #37, but old habits…I always get vermicelli, but switch up the protein from chicken to beef to squid, if I’m feeling fishy. We’ll usually split an appetizer of vegetarian summer rolls or crispy shrimp.  Things are different, however, when you’re out with a group. Our friends were hoping to order a number of dishes to share and for some reason I was feeling strangely proprietary over my food (this coming from a 29-year old who needs to sit at the same seat at my parents’ dining room table that I sat in growing up.) However, majority rules and I agreed to order with everyone.

We started with a drink, of course.

Three men in glasses just sharin’ a little drink. Let’s see how long this picture stays up before any one of the three depicted orders it to be banished from the interwebz.

We decided to order an appetizer of green papya salad with shrimp. My friend, Minna, travelled through Asia in her early 20s and this is one of the dishes that she remembers fondly. This was Minna’s non-negotiable dish. Last time I was at Vietnam, we dined with my co-worker and her husband. My co-worker, Alexa, has two younger brothers who were adopted from Vietnam and has become familiar with the cuisine over the years. Her go-to dish is salt and pepper shrimp which I tried and loved! The name does not do that dish justice and I vowed to try it again. For this reason, I walked into Vietnam (the restaurant) with hopes of ordering salt and pepper squid. My friends weren’t initially feeling this request, but that became my non-negotiable and thus it was ordered.

To round out the meal, we ordered the immense BBQ platter, chicken vermicelli and a seafood hot and sour soup. The BBQ platter is great for a group. It has meatballs, grilled chicken, grape leaves stuffed with beef, vegetable accoutrements and maybe some other things….I’ll have to look at the picture to job my memory. They include rice paper wrappers if you are so inclined to make your own little Asian burrito/summer roll/etc. This dish is awesome. Did I mention that?

Our food came out in no particular order.

Oh right, it has spring rolls too. Interestingly enough, my favorite part of the BBQ platter was probably the grilled chicken and the grape leaves.

Grilled shrimp and papya salad. I don’t eat a ton of shrimp, but I grabbed a big spoonful of papaya salad and tossed it with the vinegary dressing and a splash of sriracha. That did just the trick!

OK, now I’m confused. The soup was a contentious menu item for us. Minna doesn’t like spicy and Ninh wanted to order hot and sour. He promised it wouldn’t be too spicy, but now I’m looking back and think that we may have gone with the Canh Chua Thai (seafood lemongrass) soup. Who knows. My husband loved it but I thought it was just ok (and I only had the broth as scallops and I haven’t gotten along since 2004.) The broth was rich and tangy and we ended up polishing it off. So whatever it was, I guess it was good!

Ahhh, the salt and pepper squid. This, my friends, was another contentious item, but I’m glad I put my foot down. What a hit! I texted Alexa during our meal and thanked her for inspiring my order! The squid came in strips and was not overly fried–just enough to provide a little crispy crunch. I could have eaten those guys all night long. Seriously.

And the vermicelli. There’s not much to say about this besides it was as good as ever. As much as I enjoyed our meal, I was reminded how much I really, really love Vietnam’s vermicelli. They just do it right. From the dipping sauce to the pickled veggies and char-grilled meats, there’s nothing I don’t like about this dish. Oh, and peanuts make everything taste better.

This was our table at the end of the night. We done good! After my tentative feelings going into the meal, the splitting encouraged me to try new dishes AND it was budget friendly. We left sufficiently stuffed while spending less than we normally do at the same restaurant. Can’t complain about that. Besides, we had the very best company and lots and lots of laughter. I love my friends.

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Goodbye Party

Why is it that I go out to drinks and dinner with my family and end up with three pictures?

My younger brother just got a reporting job with a newspaper in Orlando.  Prior to his departure, my family got together, as we have many times before, for a send-off dinner. My brother, unlike me, is a bit of a traveller. Don’t get me wrong–I love traveling. However, when it comes to settling down, I prefer to be in Philadelphia. My brother, on the other hand, has lived in a Cairo, London, Ohio, Salt Lake City and a small town in Jordan (it’s questionable which of the latter two was more of a culture shock.)

The night before he took off to join a land of Mickey Mice, old folks and (friendly) killer sharks, the family got together for one last hurrah. We began with drinks at Vietnam Cafe with plans to dine around the corner at Vientiane, a little Laotian BYOB on Baltimore Avenue.

When my husband, sister and I arrived, my brother, parents and brother’s friend, Artemis, had already ordered their drinks. I usually flip flop between the lemongrass and the French martinis at Vietnam (this is my favorite restaurant, by the way, and I am quite familiar with the menu) and I decided to go with the French martini. As my martini arrived to the table,

So did this monstrosity.

While the picture does not do it justice, my brother and Artemis had chosen to order the most outrageous drink on the menu–the flaming volcano (the most outrageously NAMED drink, on the other hand, is the suffering bastard…) Once again, I wish I had a better camera so that I could have better captured the capsule of “151” rum in the center that was brought to the table afire, hence the name “flaming volcano.” I will tell you, though, that this drink brought us barrels and barrels of laughter. Suffice it to say, there were rarely less than two people sipping from the punch bowl simultaneously.

The guest of honor enjoyed himself immensely.

After rallying a joint effort to finish this bottomless pit, we sauntered around the corner to Vientiane for dinner. I must say, it was a tease to enjoy a drink at my very favorite restaurant only to be torn away when it came time to eat. Vientiane is fine. It’s good, I suppose. But nothing, in my mind, holds a candle to Vietnam Restaurant.  I don’t have much to write as I forgot to take pictures, but we started with appetizers: chicken satay, crispy spring rolls and fried shrimp. The shrimp and spring rolls were good, if not a bit underwhelming. The satay, on the other hand, won me over. I especially enjoyed the silky mellowness of the peanut dipping sauce.

For entrees, my mother got the mussels appetizer, as she is wont to do (order an appetizer as an entree, that is.) They were a decent-sized dish, although I can’t report on the taste. My husband and sister ordered the Pad See-Eew, which are sauteed wide rice noodles with vegetables and soy sauce. The noodle dishes and curries all come with your choice of protein (beef, chicken, shrimp or tofu.) I believe they went with shrimp and received a less than generous serving. My father and brother ordered the shrimp pad thai, which my brother is addicted to (ah, I did it. I ended a sentence in a preposition.) Artemis and I ordered the curry–green for her and red for me.  I don’t eat Thai (or Laotian) food often and never cook it at home as my husband doesn’t love coconut milk flavors or red curries. I love red curry and was looking forward to my entree. It was good. The milky coconut was definitely present along with big chunks of vegetables (the peppers could have been cut into smaller pieces) and a generous amount of chewy beef. I ate about half and polished it off for breakfast the following morning.

The night got really interesting when Artemis (Disclaimer: she’s Greek and a female. She has nothing to do with the man named Artemis on the show or movie Wild, Wild West) broke out the bottle of tsipouro she brought back from her most recent visit to Greece. Tsipouro, if you haven’t taken the time to click the link I so painstakingly provided, is a distilled alcohol from Greece that tastes nothing like the more well-known, anise-flavored ouzo.  In fact, my dear friend, Wikipedia, tells me that tsipouro is a predecessor of ouzo. Another member of the family is raki, that I’ve been so lucky as to taste homemade by my Cretan friend’s father (true story: I kept trying to spell that “Cretian” and was wondering why it was coming up on spellcheck. You learn something new every day.) Jeez, add this to my affinity for limoncello (which, in case you were keeping track, also comes up as a misspelled word) and I’ve become quite the fan of Mediterranean aperitifs.

Where were we???

Oh right, Artemis brought out the tsipouro and the evening quickly took a turn for the crazy. It ended with the bottle being passed around the table for all to share. The waitress then told my mother than she remembered our family because my father is always, ahem, memorable. There was much storytelling and laughter and we sent my brother off with a bang. It’s funny what a good dose of tsipouro can do to a family function. Good luck in Orlando!