Ah, the holidays! Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, stockings hung by the chimney, lights and ornaments carefully placed on the tree, jingle bells and endless carols … I swear, if I hear “The Little Drummer Boy” one more time I’m not going to be responsible.
OK, let’s see a show of hands: Talking about the secular commercializing and greedy materialistic excess of the holidays here, is everybody as tired of Christmas as I am?
I thought so. And here’s my plan: Once Christmas Day responsibilities are clear, let’s celebrate with a delicious Vietnamese dinner! As a local dining critic, I get lots of restaurant questions, and at this time of year, “Where can we get Christmas dinner?” is one of the most frequent. It’s one of the major holidays when even people in the hospitality industry get a rare break, and the city’s streets can look pretty much like a ghost town when the majority of the population gathers around holiday tables with family or friends.
For those in pursuit of a traditional American Christmas with turkey and the trimmings, the city’s hotel dining rooms usually fill the gap. If that’s what you’re seeking, give your favorite hostelry a call, although be aware that the more lavish holiday dinners are usually booked up by now.
If you’re willing — or even eager — to step outside the box, though, many of Louisville’s Asian restaurants will be open and eager to serve. Most authentic Asian restaurants are run, by and large, by good neighbors who don’t come from the Western tradition and for whom Christmas is pretty much just another work day; possibly one of their busiest days until the Chinese lunar new year.
And if you can’t get roast turkey and dressing, why not try General Tso’s chicken or a steaming bowl of beef pho instead?
One customary Christmas retreat for those seeking Asian respite from the drumbeat of “Drummer Boy” is Vietnam Kitchen in Iroquois Manor, the grandpappy of the city’s South End Vietnamese spots. I love it and have enjoyed many memorable meals there. This year, though, I’m looking at Annie Café, another well-established South End Vietnamese spot.
We stopped in recently to see how Annie Café is doing and were delighted at the selection, price, food quality and service.
The menu offers a good selection of Vietnamese dishes, including nearly 50 entrees priced from $5.50 (for a Southeast Asian beef or chicken dinner salad) to $9.95 (for clay pot Com Phan moi dau nguoi, a hearty dish for a winter day). Most appetizers go for under $5, and a vegetarian banh mi sandwich is just $3.75.
Dishes are listed under their Vietnamese names, but never fear, if you don’t know what Mi Hoanh Thanh Xa Xiu is, much less how to pronounce it, the menu explains each dish in clear English. (This one is egg noodles with wonton soup and BBQ pork slices.) They’re also tagged with the familiar Vietnamese menu convention — E.17 or V.6 or whatever — and I suggest calling for your pick by letter and number rather than trying to order Ban Uot Cha Lua, Banh Tom in Vietnamese.
That’s how Mary handled it, and we thought the $6.25 dish that resulted was well worth the toll: A ring of neat slices of Vietnamese pork “paté” (the same pale, bologna-like paste that fills pork banh mi sandwiches) surrounded an oval plate filled with tender rice pasta squares that closely resembled the jeung fun noodles of Chinese dim sum along with crisp shrimp tempura and filled with plenty of bean sprouts, onions and shredded lettuce in a piquant but not overly fiery sauce.
Before we got to the mains, we made short work of a couple of taste bud-whetting apps. First, a pair of carefully constructed veggie goi cuon (Vietnamese summer rolls, here billed as “crepes,” $3.95), translucent rice paper tightly rolled around romaine leaves, cilantro, tender rice noodles and crunchy fried tofu bites, with an exceptionally fine dark hoisin-peanut sauce for dipping. Then, a similarly well-executed veggie banh xeo ($5.75), a crispy, eggy crepe wrapping bean sprouts and onions.
Our other main dish, a veggie version of the clay pot ($7.95), was outstanding: Cubes of crisply fried tofu swam with sweet slices of onion in a dark, savory brown broth with mysterious aromatics — soy and black pepper and more. It tasted like the finest beef stock yet was certifiably animal-free. The heavy brown pot kept it all deliciously hot.
From the short menu of authentic Vietnamese desserts, I chose Che Dau Trang ($2.50), a hearty, sweet pudding of “sticky” rice with coconut cream and, wait for it, tiny, sweet black-eyed peas.
A delicious dinner for two, with many cups of delicious hot tea, came to an affordable $27, and exceptionally competent service from a polite young man justified tossing the rules of percentage at this low price point and simply adding $7 as his tip.