I felt a growing sense of trepidation crossing the vast parking lot in front of Thanh Thanh, a new Vietnamese restaurant on the West Bank. I wasn't concerned about its location in a strip mall; I knew that the best ethnic food could often be found in unlikely places. Thanh Thanh, though, was located in a line of chain restaurants and small shops extending like an arm from a colossal Wal-Mart Supercenter. How exotic could a restaurant be this close to an outlet of America's largest retailer?
Once inside, the outlines of curtains painted around the windows made me forget that Wal-Mart was down the sidewalk and a Quizno's franchise stood next door. The cheerful young waitresses glided their information between Vietnamese and Y'at-accented English. A few framed squiggles of gold calligraphy decorated the walls, but the room was dominated by a gleaming cooler of Hershey's ice cream stationed below a laminated sign illustrating the rainbow-colored offerings of boba (or "bubble") teas. On the menu I saw dishes I knew well, like spring rolls, vermicelli bowls and pho, but pages of weekend specials written in Vietnamese with basic English translations -- "roasted quail," "combination seafood soup" and "tossed fried crispy fish" -- hinted at tastes I'd never experienced before.
In Vietnamese cuisine, Chinese influences from the north and Cambodian curries from the south are tied together with the pungent saltiness of fish sauce and the bright flavors of raw mint, cucumbers and cilantro. At Thanh Thanh, the thin, almost-transparent rice paper wrapper around the spring rolls revealed the mix of bright colors and textures inside. A slice of grilled pork along one edge of the roll was a condiment for the filling of vermicelli noodles, cilantro, sprouts and mint. The fried-rice paper wrappers on the cha gio, a delicate version of Chinese egg rolls, formed a crispy shell without a trace of grease around the minced vegetables and strips of earthy wood ear mushrooms.
The main courses had the same radiant flavors. A careful row of jalapenos on the banh mi, a miniature baguette stuffed with pickled vegetables and meat, produced a quick burst of heat like fireworks blossoming and then fading. The bright yellow banh xeo, Vietnamese crepes, looked like two oversized omelettes. The crunchy half-moon shells, made of fried rice flour mixed with turmeric and scallions, were filled with nothing more than a scattering of shrimp, chicken and bean sprouts. Piled high with torn leaves of fresh herbs and lettuce, each bite created more flavor than expected. My lunch companion and I kept peeking inside the crepes to see if we'd overlooked a secret ingredient.
As we finished our entrees, we eyed the large illustration of bubble teas, the increasingly popular blends of fruit juice and condensed milk filled with dark tapioca bubbles. On our waitress' recommendation, we tried the pale green avocado boba, which had a texture creamier than any milkshake and a hint of vegetable among the sweetness. We vowed to return on a weekend and sample the specials that included ingredients like frog legs, scallops, goat and duck.
On the weekend, bring a group and order enough to crowd the table with plates. Don't miss the goat curry, with sinewy cubes of meat floating in a steaming bowl of light orange broth. Flavored with lemongrass, the curry burned slightly in the back of the throat. A pile of frog legs, overcooked but still tasty, rested on onions and peanuts in a yellow curry with a rounded spiciness and a taste of cinnamon.
Take a chance on the specials scribbled only in Vietnamese on the whiteboard. You might encounter ga di bo, a quarter chicken steamed, deep fried and glazed with hoisin. Shred the chicken and stuff it between the gwa pao, fluffy buns of rice flour. The moist chicken in sweet, dark sauce between the gwa pao reminded me of good barbecue served with a slice of white bread.
A duck prepared in the same manner as the chicken, unfortunately, was dry. The hoisin glaze, complex when coating the chicken, lacked depth on the duck. The pork ribs were also disappointing. The meat was tough and fatty and the combination of pork with a sauce tasting of fish confounded the Western palates of even the adventurous eaters I brought along. A taste of redfish fillet baked in a clay pot and coated with a spicy layer of black pepper immediately erased the memory of the ribs. Even better were the gai lan, Chinese broccoli with meaty stalks and bitter leaves like broccoli raab, dressed in a light oyster sauce. After our weekend feast, no one had room for dessert. I managed, though, a few sips of a refreshing honeydew bubble tea, which had an icy texture like a granita with a light melon taste. In the shadow of Wal-Mart, Thanh Thanh seems like a small protest. At the giant retailer, the shelves are lined with packaged foods designed to please everyone across the country, from city dwellers to residents of the smallest town. A few yards away, Thanh Thanh makes goat curries, bitter vegetables and frog legs with few concessions to popular tastes.