If awards are given for elegant presentation of food, Vietnam Grill should be at the top of the list. A whole crispy red snapper in basil sauce arrived at our neighbor's table sizzling on a large platter. Diners marveled at the imposing fish, set upright, as if stuffed, and surrounded with vegetables.
Just as we regretted not ordering the snapper, our meal arrived--in record time, about 10 minutes after ordering. A whole crispy flounder surrounded with ginger sauce arrived on a bed of cucumber and bean sprouts. More than a foot long, the fish tail curved upright and right off the long plate. The skin melted in the mouth, and the flaky fish pulled off the bone easily.
Being partial to specials that Sunday night--and overwhelmed by the 117 additional selections on the extensive menu--we ordered the "grilled noodle combo"--steamed rice noodles served in a large bowl surrounded by chicken and pork strips, julienned cucumbers and bean sprouts, all topped with a mound of crushed peanuts. A fried spring roll filled with the tiniest diced carrots was served in bite-size pieces in the same bowl. "Use the fish sauce to mix it all," the waiter instructed.
Shrimp pad thai--flat rice noodles stir-fried with egg and shrimp--were bathed in a warm, soothing sauce with bean sprouts and a cabbage salad on the side. An appetizer of summer rolls in paper-thin rice wrappers were heavenly when dipped in hoisin sauce.
Appetizers include barbecue spareribs and roasted quail in butter and garlic. There are soups, including crabmeat with asparagus.
While waiting for a meal, children pressed their noses to the glass of a pet store-sized fish tank where a foot-long gray fish lazily circled. Schools of goldfish constantly evaded the monster. Children wondered aloud whether the goldfish would become meals for the monster.
"The big fish is our lucky fish," explained Mai Viragh of Sterling, who with her sister, Ro Nguyen, has owned the restaurant for three years. "In Asia, we believe if you have a business and a fish, it brings you luck. If anything happens to the fish, bad luck will come to the restaurant." Hence, she adds, "My brother-in-law takes care of the fish, cleans the tank and gives it a special kind of food."
Many relatives--"two sisters, two brothers, two sisters and brothers-in-laws and a sister-in-law-to-be"--work at the restaurant, several as chefs, others as servers. Viragh has lived in the United States since before 1975, but much of the family has arrived since 1989.
Vietnam Grill is inside a remodeled fast-food restaurant, with large windows and a side entrance. A foot-level Buddha statue greets you just inside the door. The 50-some seat dining room is cozy, with green tablecloths fringed in red-piped ruffles.
A high carved white counter is lined with beer and wine selections. Three Vietnamese beers--33, Saigon and Hue--are available, as well as several wines. Top price for a bottle is $11.95. Place a big food order and you'll get a discount or a little something extra. And Viragh says the restaurant welcomes groups: "When people come in big groups, we always give something, like free desserts--flan custard, fried bananas." Catering is available, but is a small part of the restaurant's business.
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* Address: 8828 Centreville Rd., Manassas, 703-330-6868.
* Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
* Credit cards: Accepts Visa and MasterCard. No personal checks.
* Prices: $1.95-$5.95 for soups and appetizers; most dinners $5.25 to $8.95, a few up to $12.95. Full carryout menu.
Our bill for three meals came to $38.15 with tip, using a 10 percent restaurant discount coupon.
* Children's menu: No.
* Low-fat selections: Many rice noodle and steamed rice selections.
* Health-conscious: Yes.
* Atmosphere: Casual.
* Downside: Look for the bright red neon sign competing on the highway with Burger King and Taco Bell signs.