Vietnam Grille – Charlotte
5615 South Blvd, Charlotte, NC
$ – Entrees $8.55 – $11.55
This Vietnamese Restaurant had all (read: the only) of the features I require in a good ethnic restaurant: lots of glowing Urbanspoon reviews. It’s so easy to go very wrong when eating Asian food, and a little bit of encouragement from fellow Anglo-Saxons is all I need to feel safe enough to give it a try.
Like any authentic Asian restaurant, it was in some pretty cheap-looking real estate–in a run-down building occupying the corner of a strip mall parking lot. This is a good sign. The last thing you want is to find one in an expensive part of town. That usually equals unnecessarily high prices and a more “Americanized” experience.
The second plus at Vietnam Grille was that very little English was being spoken. You hear Vietnamese being spoken amongst the kitchen and waitstaff. When, instead of ordering strictly by number, I asked a question, the young waitress had to call in reinforcements to decipher my question. I’m liking it more and more.
Having heard great things about the spring rolls, I started with the SHRIMP AND PORK ROLLS ($4.50) which were very refreshing and delicious. They make sure to spell out that these are NOT FRIED (can you imagine how many chubby Americans were ordered this hoping for something deep fried to wolf down with about a gallon of duck sauce?). Well this is not that. These rolls were like OMG fresh. Between the chilled rice paper outside and the strong flavor from the mint leaves, it was quite the refreshing starter. It was served with a thick, syrupy soy / peanut sauce — maybe hoisin?
Next up, I went with the basic PHO TAI NAM ($8.55), or #27 to the rest of us. Described as “sliced flank steak and brisket with rice noodles in beef broth,” it was a lot more than that. I should say this was really my first experience with pho. I always had the impression that it was just a way overpriced (to the tune of 50x) version of ramen noodles. I was wrong and this experience helped open my eyes to pho. The huge bowl of soup came accompanied with what looked to be someone’s picked weeds from his/her garden. After looking at the menu, I realized I was working with: fresh bean spouts, basil, lime, onion, cilantro, scallions and hot peppers. But what do I do now? Stare at it? Dump it all in?
Being clueless, I Googled “how to eat pho” and was sent to this amazing article which I suggest you reference the next time you endeavor on a Vietnamese culinary experience: How to Eat Pho and Finding Your Own Pho – A Primer For First-Time Diners. I will steal the most important part for the purposes of this post:
“What to Do With the Garnishing:
When you are served southern style Vietnamese pho, you will always be provided with a plate of garnishing. This plate would typically contain bean sprouts, cilantro, Thai basil, sliced chili and lime wedges. Also you will have hoisin sauce and hot chili sauce available at the table.
Is there a specific order by which you should place these herbs in your bowl of pho? The answer to this is no. With the garnishing, you can think of it as finding the best combination that will fit your taste. Each individual garnish contributes its own distinct smell and taste to an already good bowl of pho. You do not want to dump all the garnishing into the bowl at the same time. Rather, just try a few at a time to get your preferred mix. More importantly, give the ingredients several chances (on different visits) and you’ll appreciate their roles in this noodle dish.
Here are a few tips on consuming the ingredients:
- Bean sprouts are put in raw for the crunchy factor. Add a little at a time to maintain the crunchiness as you eat, or add them all while the broth is hot to cook them. The downside here is it takes heat to cook your sprouts, and as a result your broth will cool before you finish your bowl of pho. This is why many people request blanched sprouts.
- Dipping the sliced chili in the hot broth releases the oil and makes the broth taste spicier. You can keep them in if you dare. Many do. But really, about half of the jalapenos are not all that hot. I prefer the smaller but hotter Thai peppers or similar varieties.
- Lime juice adds tartness to the broth, which is good if the broth tastes bland, too salty, or too sweet for you. The saltiness and tartness together provide a delicious combination that many people love – I’m one of them. I can do without the other things, but lime I must have.
- The herb leaves are stripped from the stems and can be shredded to bits by hand before they are placed in the bowl. For the best aroma and taste, don’t drop them all in at the same time in the beginning. I tear the leaves in smaller pieces, and add them as I go to maintain freshest and uncooked flavor. Even down to my last few chopstickfuls of noodle, I’m still dropping in some fresh bits of basil and culantro. The fragrance is incredible.
Eating pho is always an adventure, even for those who have had it all their lives. For first-time diners, the key is to relax and enjoy. You’ll find your own pho in no time.”
BOTTOM LINE: Pho is $8.55 and the most you’d spend on an entree is $11.55. Bottom line? Visiting this restaurant is a no-brainer.