By Robin Garr
Last week I had to try calling Vietnam Kitchen a half-dozen times before I could break through the busy line. I guess I wasn’t the only Louisville foodie aching to find out for sure if they were really back from a month-long vacation.
But one reality remains: Vietnam Kitchen, the beloved South End storefront eatery that introduced many of us to Vietnamese cuisine, isn’t going to stay the same, assuming it stays at all. The shop is definitely on the market as a turnkey operation, and owner Alex Lam will eventually either hand it over to new owners or close it.
We wish the Lam family and Vietnam Kitchen’s many fans well, but let’s face it: If you haven’t done this already, it’s past time to begin exploring the metro’s other Vietnamese restaurants. There are at least a dozen, and each has its own particular pleasures. But when I’m hankering for pho, the traditional and soul-consoling Vietnamese soup, I head for Eatz Vietnamese.
Eatz’ menu is relatively brief, with about 20 dishes, only a fraction of the 125 choices at Vietnam Kitchen, but it offers an affordable choice of the Vietnamese basics. A half dozen appetizers range in price from $5 (for crispy fried tofu) to $8 (for fish-sauce fried chicken wings).
Three versions of banh mi, the traditional Vietnamese street-food sandwich, are $7 (for a standard model with three meats or a fiery meatless option) or $8 (for a banh mi topped with fried eggs).
Eight entrees, including three kinds of pho, a couple of noodle dishes, fried rice, and a Vietnamese bento, are priced from $8 (for fried rice) to $16 (for the bento, com dac biet).
Vietnamese iced coffee ($5) made a great accompaniment to my meal. Dark, strong coffee mixed with sweet and creamy condensed milk goes well with Vietnamese fare, and the dairy component makes a first-class antidote to fiery Southeast Asian dishes.
Spring rolls ($5.50) come as a pair, filled with your choice of shrimp and pork or tofu. Their translucent rice-paper wrappers were surprisingly resistant to the bite, but once I got through, the fillings were fresh and good: chopped romaine, flat leaf parsley, shredded carrot, cucumber, and a couple of cubes of silken tofu. The tofu, soft and creamy within, crisp brown on the outside, had been cut in half to display both brown and white surfaces. The plate was garnished with a sprig of Thai basil and a mound of shredded carrot and came with a square bowl of sweet peanut sauce for dipping.
A crispy tofu appetizer ($5, pictured above) lived up to name “crispy,” with six large cubes of silken tofu encased in a pure-white rice-flour breading that had somehow been magically fried to a glassy-crisp exterior while staying pure white. Were they air-fried? The server smiled, shook her head, said something about “fresh oil” and didn’t comment further. It was plated on a bright-orange hot-sweet chile sauce.
The banh mi sandwich traces its roots back to France’s 100-year colonization of Vietnam, which among other not-so-attractive things brought baguettes and French pastries to Saigon. The bread that Eatz uses for its banh mi is so spectacularly good that I need one, along with my pho, every time I go there. The sambal spicy tofu banh mi ($7) is a fiery, meatless rendition that fills a tender, golden-brown crusty loaf with crusty chunks of fried tofu, julienned carrot and radish, crisp cucumber strips, jalapeño rounds, and cilantro leaves, all slathered with bright-orange sauce piquant enough to grab your attention.
We came for pho, and a huge bowl of beef pho ($12, pictured at the top of the page) with added bone marrow ($4) hit the spot. (It can also be made with meatballs, beef tendon, brisket, beef tripe, chicken tenderloin, or tofu.)
The genius of pho resides in the variety of flavors and textures combining at the moment of serving for a great taste experience. Eatz, indeed, produces one of the best phos I’ve had. It’s built on a memorable beef bone broth with ginger and onion. It’s filled just before service with tender but chewy rice vermicelli, fresh cilantro, scallion, and onions, bean sprouts, Thai basil, plus culantro (cilantro’s stronger cousin), jalapeño, scallion and onion mix. The traditional plate of fresh bean sprouts, lettuce, lime, and jalapeño comes alongside for you to add to your liking.
The marrow was white and fatty, powerfully beefy and melted into the broth. The thin-sliced, flavorful but gristly beef had been sliced very thin and placed on a pile atop the broth so the parts above the surface remained pink and raw while the rest of the meatberg gradually turned brown as it cooked in the steaming soup.
With two apps, a banh mi and a generous bowl of pho, our tab came to $40.81 plus an unexplained $1.54 service charge. I added a $9 tip.
974 Barrett Ave.
Noise Level: The room is small, with indoor tables to seat maybe 20 diners, and most of the seats were filled; but conversation was easy with sound around 75dB, the level of normal conversation.
Accessibility: Two steps up to a large wooden deck bar access by wheelchair users.