Thursday, February 23, 2012
Seaside’s Taste of Vietnam, which opened last September in the Fremont Boulevard spot formerly occupied by China Chili, is making a play at a new type of fusion: an authentic Vietnamese restaurant that doubles as a sports bar.
And why not? Traditional sports bar cuisine is some of the most predictable, boring, fattening, overpriced gunk out there, and some imaginative competition is more than welcome. Instead of taking in a game with Buffalo wings and Bud Light, how about com ga nuong and Kirin?
But if you’re expecting to walk in and see a Montana jersey and a signed picture of Eddie D. gracing the walls, think again. Taste of Vietnam is still more restaurant than bar (despite the prominent sports-bar billing on its menu), with an interior that mirrors countless other Asian eateries: trickling fountains with climbing plants, carved woodwork featuring curving dragons, the type of place where it might feel awkward to tackle your buddy after a Buster Posey homer or Frank Gore 50-yard romp.
With that in mind, it’s at the bar – which is mostly partitioned from the expansive dining room – where the sports and the pho are meant to find fusion, and many fans will forget the décor when they get a view from the stools: The 40-foot, granite-topped counter is buttressed by four flat screens, all easily visible from any seat on the stretch, and though there is not yet beer on tap (it’s said to be three months in the offing), the bottled selection is deep and affordably priced ($3.25 for domestics, $3.75 for imports).
The appetizers are the best sharing options on the menu, and my party started with the fried calamari ($8.95) served with a little stir-fried onion, jalapeño and spring onion. The dish had a delicate, tempura-like flakiness that paired nicely with the sweet chili dipping sauce, and though the squid (caught locally) wasn’t as tender as many might prefer, its subtle notes demanded savoring.
The vegetarian spring rolls ($3.75 for two, $6.95 for four) were less successful, stuffed with a few too many vermicelli noodles and not enough flavorful herbs that make for the signature of the cuisine. The peanut dipping sauce, which could have benefited from a little more acid and spice, wasn’t enough to make it come together.
The sweet and spicy garlic fried chicken ($8.50), which was sticky to the touch, is sure to a be a crowd pleaser, but I would have preferred it with less sweet and more heat. That said, the rich, candy-like skin was a decadent casing for the dark meat underneath, and the result was more hit than miss.
The crispy egg noodles with mixed vegetables ($12.95) might be the most unique looking Vietnamese dish I’ve ever tried, resembling a bird’s nest filled with veggies. It was unfortunate that I sampled it right after the fried chicken as it also was too sweet; the crunchy noodles – while pretty – were not particularly wholesome. In many ways, the dish brought to mind a syrupy, Asian version of a taco salad, and is best shared with others rather than eaten by one.
The Vietnamese crepe ($7.95) with shrimp and bean sprouts was a nice DIY surprise, accompanied by a plate of romaine leaves that are intended to be filled with a portion of the crepe, topped with herbs, then wrapped up and dipped in a sweet sauce. The crisped crepe played well with the crunch of romaine, but most bites were pure sprouts, with only a few shrimp in the entire offering.
Soups are perhaps the most defining element of Vietnamese dining, and credit Taste of Vietnam for taking the right approach: Focus on the broth. The restaurant cooks theirs from scratch for several hours to extract the marrow from the bones (whether beef or chicken), and the results pay off with an authentic depth that outshines other local contenders.
The wonton soup ($7.95/small, $8.95/large) and the special combination pho ($6.95 and 7.95) were both very good, but the wonton surprised with a slightly richer complexity. A few of my companions opted to squirt a little Sriracha into their pho (blasphemy!) but Vietnamese food is not known for its heat, and the overall flavor of the soups was on par with the best I’ve tasted up in the Bay Area, where pho is as popular as burritos.
Taste of Vietnam is still a young restaurant without a bustling, established clientele. While we dined on Thursday and Sunday nights, our group matched the number in the rest of the place. To what level it will succeed – and with what identity – remains tough to estimate. The easy call is this: For authentic, from-scratch Vietnamese fare, this place has the game on.
TASTE OF VIETNAM 1868 Fremont Blvd., Seaside. 11am-930pm daily. 394-8855, www.tovrestaurant.com