Okay, let’s run the numbers here. Vietnam Kitchen has been open for about 20.5 years, six days a week. That’s roughly 6,500 days of serving the public since Alex and Kim Lam brought this lovable institution to town in 1993.
Thinking out loud, that means that if every day they sell five orders of “K8,” the menu shorthand for H? ti?u Saté, a delectable rice-noodle dish that’s surely one of Vietnam Kitchen’s top hot-and-spicy dishes, they must have stir-fried way more than 30,000 orders of it by now.
If the Lams were more boastful types, they could put out a flashing sign that boasts, “Nearly 50,000 K8’s sold!” (Yeah, I know I guesstimated 30,000, but hey, nobody fact-checks Mickey D’s “billions and billions” either, right?)
And this dish is popular. Look up “Vietnam Kitchen K8” on Google and you get back 982,000 results. Run similar searches on the LouisvilleHotBytes.com forum and find scores of discussions, where you’ll never find a discouraging word about this iconic stir-fry other than, maybe, “I wish they’d make it even hotter.”
Most of my foodie pals who trek out to Vietnam Kitchen regularly just can’t get away without ordering K8 (available with beef, chicken or pork) or VK8 (its meatless twin, with tofu).
The dish is currently tagged at $10 for a generous bowl full. It’s listed under “stir-fried noodles” on VK’s organized-by-style menu, but that’s just the base: A bowl of white noodles, a bit like soft, textured spaghetti despite their origin being in rice, not wheat, is joined by a ration of crisp bean sprouts that offer a toothy contrast with the noodles. The noodles and sprouts are cloaked in a thick, savory-spicy brown saté sauce scented with lemongrass and chopped peanuts, and topped off with your choice of meat or chewy triangles of pressed, fried tofu.
It’s marked with three stars, the top level on the menu’s heat scale, but I’ve found it variably piquant, ranging from a subtle, mellow heat to a more attention-getting burn on any given day. It may help to discuss this with your server in advance, although it’s ultimately up to the kitchen. You’ll also find Sriracha “Rooster” sauce and fiery chile sauce with garlic on the table. Use them responsibly.
But it’s not all about K8. There’s too much else that’s good among the (count ’em) 125 dishes listed. And just about everything bar a couple of seafood dishes is under $10. I won’t say I’ve tried everything on the menu, even over 20 years, but I’ve been through enough of it to say this with confidence – it’s all good.
On our recent visit, in addition to a fine rendition of the standard VK8, we enjoyed two pairs of appetizer rolls packed in translucent rice paper: Bò Biá Chay (VA33, $3.50), stuffed with Buddhist “mock duck,” gluten-based faux fowl that tastes a lot like the real thing; and G?i cu?n b? (VA5, $2.95), stuffed with avocado slices.
We lingered over the selection of Ph? and Bún (meal-size soups) and appetizing rice dishes before coming back to another noodle dish, Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio (J7, $8.55), a hearty mix of chunks of char-broiled pork and broken-up bits of tiny egg rolls over stir-fried noodles, topped with chunks of romaine, mint and julienned cucumber, in a light lemongrass-scented sauce.
With iced jasmine tea ($1.89), a fine Vietnamese dinner came to a reasonable $27.60 for two; plus a $6 tip.
5339 Mitscher Ave.
Robin Garr’s rating: 87 points