As I walked through Uptown on a Saturday evening in February, I was struck by the bright lights and the energy of the big city on display. The four northbound Louisiana lanes were congested, the parking lots were full, the restaurants were busy. It was heartwarming to see so many people outside.
Two months later, another Saturday night, things looked a lot different. Traffic was sparse and the parking lots at Winrock and Coronado shopping centers were empty. You could easily imagine yourself being the sole survivor of a post-apocalyptic film.
At Viet Taste, in a mall on the north side of Menaul between San Mateo and San Pedro, the waiter spoke resignedly about the night ahead. There would be a few more calls for take out, he said, then nothing.
I sympathized a little, then I left with my food. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Viet Taste was my back-up plan. Viet’s Pho, an operation that reached a few blocks west of Menaul, was my initial target, but no one answered the phone there.
This is how it is nowadays. You have to do a little detective work before you venture out.
Open for over a decade, Viet Taste is one of the most established places in the city’s hyper-competitive Vietnamese restaurant scene. It is easily recognizable by the lime green lettering on the entrance. Inside, the renovated space is clad in pale woodwork.
The menu offerings and prices are in line with those of other places around town. Some assembly may be required, such as the take-out version of Rare Beef Steak Noodle Soup ($ 7.75). Thinly sliced meat is stacked on rice noodles in a styrofoam container; the very important broth comes in a separate container. When you get home, you add the beef to the broth and it cooks to a bone-white color in less than a minute. The broth was excellent, beefy and flavored with ginger and garlic, and it was nice to control the proportions of noodles, basil and bean sprouts.
Several dishes are served on vermicelli patties, rice noodle mats about as thick as an average pancake. The special version ($ 10) includes pork, pork sausage, shrimp and chicken. You can eat it with a fork, but it’s more fun to wrap the meats in the patties and dip them in the sweet, watery nuoc cham sauce. The pork and the coaster-sized sausage discs exhibited good caramelization and smoke.
Spicy Lemongrass Stir-Fried Rice ($ 7.75) consists of onions, peppers, and lemongrass chunks cut into stalks that somewhat resemble green onions. I enjoyed the simplicity of this dish and the slight lemon-mint flavor imparted by the lemongrass. However, it wasn’t spicy at all, despite the name. Between that and the nuoc cham sauce, I wondered if the native warmth of the cuisine had not been declined to appeal to American palates.
Vietnamese cuisine makes you appreciate the multiple ways that rice can be served. The broken rice that underlies many entrees at Viet Taste is made up of fragmented grains that cook more sticky and chewy than the whole grain version. He made a gooey backdrop for a chicken and shrimp dish ($ 7.75). The shrimp, with the tail still in place, was fresh and well seasoned, while the chicken was a mixed bag: some tender pieces, some crispy.
Fruit and soy drinks, always a highlight of Vietnamese cuisine, are well represented here. A lighter touch on the dairy side lets the fruit shine through in the mango shake ($ 4.25). The chalky green soy beverage ($ 2) flavored with pandan, a leaf widely used in Southeast Asian cuisine, was just slightly sweet and floral.
We are fortunate to have so many good Vietnamese restaurants in our city. People tend to be fiercely loyal to their favorites, but in my experience, competition has raised the bar on food everywhere. Viet Taste is no exception.