The rumors started more than four years ago, and they spread quickly: “Vietnam Kitchen is going to close! The owner wants to retire! Next time they close for vacation, they won’t open again!”
The fear was real. Vietnam Kitchen – VK, as its fans invariably abbreviate it – is the longest-standing Vietnamese restaurant still open in Louisville. It was founded in 1993 by Vietnamese immigrant Alex Lam and his family.
Lam and VK’s servers stayed quiet for a long time, fending off worried questions with a smile. But rumors spread, and in March 2021, after a year of pandemic challenges, the other shoe dropped. “They are retiring April 1, and thus closing,” a HotBytes forum member posted.
The restaurant went up for sale, and with no sign of a buyer, the mourning was intense. People headed for the South End for one last visit, or two, or three. But VK still didn’t close, save for long, mysterious vacations now and then.
Then, in the first week of 2022, more good news dropped in the HotBytes forum again: “I spoke to the owner … Their son (Phillip Lam) has decided to take over the business. They are up and running again full steam.”
I dropped in for lunch the other day and found the mood, the menu and the food essentially unchanged. Meet the new Vietnam Kitchen, very much like the old Vietnam Kitchen, and that’s great news.
Even the menu appears unchanged. More than 100 dishes are subdivided into fine-grained categories denoted by a letter-and-number system that makes it easy to order, say, “C3” rather than “Hu Tieu Hay Mi Bo Kho” when we crave “lemon grass beef stew with rice noodles and carrots and your choice of beef or chicken.”
Appetizers are A dishes; pho, soups, and noodle dishes are Bs. Rice noodle soups are Cs, egg noodle soups are Ds, vermicelli noodle soups are Js. Stir-fried noodles are K, and that’s where you’ll find the beloved K8. And so it goes, all the way up to N for clay pot dishes and V for some 25 vegetarian dishes.
Spicy fare is marked with one to three asterisks. Main-dish pricing, with few exceptions, falls in a close range between $10 and $15. A half-dozen lunch plates including main dish, soup or egg roll are $9.10.
We came at noon and found the long, narrow room nearly full of happy customers. The tables are closely spaced for social distancing, but with our backs to our neighbors. the servers all carefully masked, and Omicron on a downward trend, that didn’t feel too worrisome.
I ordered Vietnamese iced coffee with sweet condensed milk ($3.60) and got the whole kit, drip-brewed into a glass at my table for me to pour into a larger glass over ice. The dairy component helps ease the fire of spicy dishes, and its good bittersweet flavor made it a treat through the meal.
Two vegetarian fried tofu egg rolls (VA1 Cha gio rau Cai, $3) made a taste-bud tantalizing start. Rolled in shattering crisp deep-fried pastry cylinders, they were packed with thin cellophane noodles, tofu, green onions and shredded carrots. A thin, gently spicy dipping sauce boosted the flavor.
A Vietnamese crepe (VA17 Banh xeo chay, $9.25) was a larger starter, big enough to be a light entree. It looks like a giant omelet folded over sizzling ingredients, but dairy – save for condensed milk in a can – is rare in Vietnamese. This egg look-alike is fashioned from rice flour and coconut milk, tinted yellow with turmeric. Puffed up and browned in the wok, it makes a great wrapper for crisp bean sprouts, tender grilled onions and cubes of soft tofu. It’s also available as A17 Banh Xeo ($9.50) with shrimp taking over from the tofu.
Pho, the iconic Vietnamese meal-size soup, is always a good choice at any Vietnamese restaurant, and VK does it well. The basic standard, B1 Pho tai ($11.95), came in a large aluminum bowl containing nearly a quart of soup. About 10 slices of very thinly sliced beef was immersed in a thin but rich, beefy broth with rings of white onion, cilantro, and green onions and tender vermicelli noodles at the bottom. The traditional add-ins – a plate full of bean sprouts, anise-scented Thai basil, a lime wedge, and three or four slices of fresh jalapeño – came along to add as you like it.
Of course we had to have *** VK8 Hu tieu sate chay ($13.15). In this format with tofu or as ***K8 Hu tieu sate ($13.35) with beef, chicken, or pork, it’s a spicy rice noodle soup dish. It’s a clear, rich broth flavored with saté sauce, a delicious Vietnamese flavoring made with chile oil, lemongrass, and garlic. It comes loaded with broccoli florets and your meat choice or fried tofu cubes speckled with fiery red-pepper flakes.
A memorable lunch for two was $43.41 plus a $10 tip. Knowing that Vietnam Kitchen is here to stay: Priceless.
5339 Mitscher Ave.
Noise Level: The narrow room was crowded at midday on a weekday, but dB levels remained in the 65dB range, comfortable for conversation.
Accessibility: The entrance is accessible to wheelchair users, but the tables are fairly closely spaced.