Minh's keeps Clarendon tradition
By Justin Rude
August 13, 2010
The buzz: Before Eventide, Lyon Hall, Tallula and other hip spots turned Clarendon into a dining destination, the neighborhood was more well-known for under-the-radar ethnic dining, Vietnamese specifically. But as the new restaurants started to pop up, many of these restaurants began to close, including such neighborhood favorites as Queen Bee and Little Viet Garden. Today, a handful of Clarendon eateries remain to carry on the tradition; among them, Minh's is special. The 110-seat eatery opened almost a decade ago by Chi Ha and her husband, Anh Nguyen, San Jose, Calif., transplants whose families operate restaurants there. The garnet dining room is generously decorated with South Asian touches and is surprisingly versatile: It works as well for a date location as it does for families with young children and large groups.
On the menu: Though it has a massive menu with selections from across Vietnam, Minh's talents highlight the cuisine of the north. This means the head-turning broiled catfish that is served sizzling with onions and dill and seasoned with turmeric. It's a delightfully aromatic dish and more delicate than one would expect from its dramatic presentation. Those ordering grilled pork with vermicelli are given two options at Minh's, southern style or northern style; look north. Less sweet and more juicy than the southern version, the northern grilled pork is tender, savory and one of the best things that comes out of the kitchen here. Among entrees, a favorite among the restaurant's Vietnamese clientele are the pan-fried rice noodles. The white rice noodles are deep fried and topped with a saucy pile of beef or squid-heavy seafood. The clear sauce provides just a slight background to the flavors of the proteins, which themselves give way to the strong textural contrasts between the noodles and everything else. "It's a very authentic dish," says Ha. "It's a dish that has been with the family for years and years."
On the appetizer menu, shrimp and yam cakes are another regional favorite. The shellfish is tossed with the starch and lightly deep fried in a delicate rice flour batter. The result is noticeably ungreasy -- perfect finger food and a great alternative for those diners suffering from spring roll fatigue. Another standout from the starters list is the escargot. The snail is mixed with ground pork, black mushroom, onion and ginger and steamed. The flavors blend well, and the ginger adds an aromatic flourish. The result? Addictive.
Though it feels like the kind of restaurant that could easily become stuck in time, Minh's is not afraid to add to its already voluminous menu. Recent specials included an oxtail stew that was improbably hearty, tasting of tamarind. It was well worth the effort of eating around the bones.
At your service: There is an easy explanation for the warm way the staff greets its guests: "This is a family business," says Ha. "My sons work for me on the weekend, and we always have nieces and nephews in." If that means the easy familiarity of the staff leads to the occasional delay, it's really a small price. Minh's ambiance is nothing if not comfortable, and that obviously extends from the kitchen outward.
What to avoid: Vegetable curries are heavy and don't carry nearly the same excitement as other dishes. And you have yourself to blame if you order pho, when Pho 75, another old neighborhood favorite, is mere blocks away and makes a specialty of plumbing the depths of beefy broth.
Wet your whistle: The homeland is represented by 33, a beer from Vietnam, on a beer list that includes such other Asian regulars as Singha and Tsingtao. There is a modest cocktail list.
Bottom line: If the size of Minh's menu seems to have come up a lot, don't take it as an overstatement: It's huge. But there are a surprising number of highlights, and hidden treasures, to be found while exploring it. Minh's is a neighborhood favorite, and if you haven't been in a while, it's worth a trip back.
Wheelchair access: Yes.
Kid-friendly: There are high chairs, plenty of room between tables and an understanding staff (though once or twice they set glasses and plates right in front of my toddler -- not that he minded of course).