The man in charge at Huong Viet is editing my order as fast as I can rattle off my requests from the epic menu.
Instead of stir-fried beef with lemon grass, he insists I try grilled beef with lemon grass. "It's better," he explains. He also steers me away from the "caramel pork in hot pot" in favor of "salted pork's rib" and nixes altogether my getting shrimp on sugar cane. My request for curry chicken gets the green light, however. (Whew!)
The host's intervention proves a success. That thinly shaved grilled beef, seasoned with scallions and fried onion, is luscious; served with a mound of fine rice noodles, fresh herbs and lightly pickled carrots, all of which are meant to be splashed with a clear combination of fish sauce, vinegar and sugar, it's a trip to Saigon in each bite. "Salted pork's rib" turns out to be a mound of meat, lightly caramelized, just a touch salty and moistened with a fine brown gravy. And the chicken curry is by turns delicate and feisty on the tongue. (Someone needs to tell the kitchen to go easy on the sugar, though: Both the peanut dipping sauce for my summer rolls and a bowl of sweet-and-sour shrimp soup border on cloying.)
One of dozens of places to refuel in the sprawling Eden Center, the 20-year-old Huong Viet is a sure bet. Modestly dressed with glass-topped tables and a mirror along one wall, the cash-or-check-only storefront isn't much of a design statement, but the friendly waiters in their burgundy vests and a backdrop of Vietnamese love songs give the place a certain charm. Better: Each of my counsel's suggestions cost less than $10.
--Tom Sietsema (April 15, 2007)