By Robin Garr
I’m pretty sure I unleashed a small rant last autumn when the Delta variant was coming on, threatening to retreat into takeout dining until things blew over a bit.
I didn’t actually do that. I’m vaccinated, and now boosted too, so what, me worry?
But the other day, eyeing news reports about the Omicron variant and rising positivity tolls, I started thinking about takeout again.
Yeah, vaccinated and boosted. I said that. But it seems that breakthrough Omicron cases are rising, and even if healthy vaccinated people who catch this plague have symptoms only like the flu … hey! I had flu once. I don’t want to go through that again.
So, don’t get me wrong. I’ll belly up to a restaurant table again soon. Takeout only works for me for eateries within 15 or 20 miles of my house. I can’t keep it hot and fresh much longer than that.
So, I’m craving Vietnam Kitchen under its new second-generation ownership, for example, and takeout just won’t do for a South End trip. Not to mention some New Albany spots that I’ve had my eye on.
For this week, though, triggered by thoughts of Vietnamese food, Heart & Soy popped into my mind. This little Highlands spot – partner at the same address to its more upscale sibling Roots – is good, it’s affordable, and it’s street food. By definition street food is comfortable fare made to carry around and stay delicious even after it cools off a little.
Just like that, there we were, properly masked in Heart & Soy’s attractive dining room with its cool Zen mood, looking over its intriguing chalkboard menu.
That menu lists nearly three dozen items, all vegetarian and most marked as vegan and/or gluten free. All but a handful cost less than $10. There’s also a toothsome collection of fresh-made vegan pies and other desserts in a cooler box; and house-made tofu is freshly created in a fancy Taiwanese-built machine in a glassed-in room right there on the premises.
Under the guidance of owner Huong “CoCo” Tran, who introduced Vietnamese cuisine to Louisville in her Café Mimosa 35 years ago, the menu offers predominantly Vietnamese dishes, with ventures into other Asian cuisines and beyond.
Some popular items, like Quang’s Traditional Yellow Noodles, go back to Tran’s Zen Garden on Frankfort, predecessor to Heart & Soy. Even the prices haven’t escalated unreasonably over the years: Quang’s noodles, now $9.90, were $7 in 2011.
The menu isn’t separated into categories, but you can detect soups and appetizers by their mostly lower prices: Miso mushroom soup is $5.90; spicy noodle soup from Hue and a vegan pho are both $7.90. Starters range as low as $4.90 (for fried tofu squares, steamed buns, or a pair of egg rolls). A Vietnamese sandwich (presumably a banh mi) is $6.90 plus a buck for the vegan option. A bbq tofu sandwich or vegetarian ham sandwich is $7.90.
The remaining 18 entrees are almost all priced from $7.90 to $9.90, with only a handful of items reaching double digits. The bill of fare tops out at $11.90 (for orange tofu, fresh green beans and tofu, or special lemongrass tofu).
Spring rolls wrapped in translucent rice paper are pretty with the bright ingredients showing through. The traditional Vietnamese or Thai presentation features bright shrimp in that role, but Heart & Soy gets the job done with strips of white tofu with a reddish barbecue rim. Lots of rice noodles, chopped lettuce and carrot shreds fill the roll, with sweet peanut sauce for dipping, They were good, although the rice paper was a little stretchy and a challenge to bite through.
Sunny bright yellow Singapore noodles ($9.90) breathed a gently spicy, almost smoky aroma that signaled the presence of turmeric and curry flavors. It was pleasantly hot enough to get your taste buds’ attention but not at all fiery. Plenty of thin, tender rice noodles were matched with strips of carrot and onion and pressed, marinated and fried tofu, all cut into long, thin strips, plus chopped cabbage and scallions to complete a flavor symphony.
Vietnamese rice noodle salad ($8.90, pictured at the top of the page) was a full dinner salad, a generous portion of thin, white rice noodles massed in the bottom of a bowl and topped with fresh, crisp lettuce; carrots and stir-fried onions, and a mix of meaty marinated fried tofu and red-edged barbecued tofu. A small tub of thin, sweet-and-tangy soy and lime dressing brought all the flavors together and added a gentle hint of fiery spice.
A lemon bar and a wedge of chocolate peanut butter pie from the takeout cooler were both excellent: Creamy, full of flavor, and built on good crumb crusts. I won’t even try to guess at the secret recipe – I suspect tofu was involved – but their deliciousness spoke for itself.
With the addition of two take-out desserts and a block of house-made tofu, our meal came to $39.43 plus an $8 tip. The lunch portion alone was about $26 plus tip.
Noise Level: The space was empty when we picked up our to-go order.
Accessibility: There are no steps at the entrance and restrooms, but wheelchair users will have to negotiate two heavy doors at the Bardstown Road entrance.