Driving through Uptown on a Saturday night in February, I was struck by the bright lights and the big-city energy on display. All four lanes of northbound Louisiana were choked with traffic, the parking lots were full, the restaurants busy. It was heartening to see so many people out.
Two months later, on another Saturday night, things looked much different. Traffic was sparse, and the parking lots at Winrock and Coronado malls were empty. You could easily imagine yourself as the sole survivor in a post-apocalyptic movie.
At Viet Taste, in a strip mall on the north side of Menaul between San Mateo and San Pedro, the server spoke with resignation about the night ahead. There would be a few more calls for takeout, he said, and then nothing.
I commiserated for a bit and then left with my food. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Viet Taste was my backup plan. Viet’s Pho, an upstart operation a few blocks west on Menaul, had been my original target, but no one answered the phone there.
That’s how it goes these days. You have to do a little detective work before you venture out.
Open for more than a decade, Viet Taste is one of the more established venues in the city’s hypercompetitive Vietnamese restaurant scene. It’s easily distinguishable by the lime-green lettering over the entrance. Inside, the remodeled space is clad in pale wood paneling.
The menu offerings and prices are in line with those of other places around town. Some assembly may be required, as in the case of the takeout version of rare steak beef noodle soup ($7.75). Thin-sliced meat is piled over rice noodles in a Styrofoam container; the all-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 fragrant with ginger and garlic, and it was nice to have control over the proportions of noodles, basil and bean sprouts.
Several dishes are served on vermicelli patties, mats of rice noodles about as thick as your average pancake. The special version ($10) comes with 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 into the watery, sweet nuoc cham sauce. The pork and the coaster-sized disks of sausage displayed good caramelization and smokiness.
Rice stir-fried with spicy lemongrass ($7.75) consists of onions, peppers and chunks of lemongrass cut from stalks that bear a passing resemblance to green onions. I enjoyed this dish’s simplicity and the faint lemon-mint flavor imparted by the lemongrass. However, it wasn’t spicy at all, despite the name. Between this and the nuoc cham sauce, I wondered if the cuisine’s native heat has been turned down to suit American palates.
Vietnamese cuisine makes you appreciate the myriad ways that rice can be served. The broken rice that underpins several entrées at Viet Taste is made from fragmented grains that cook up stickier and fluffier than the whole-grain version. It made a glutinous backdrop for a dish of chicken and shrimp ($7.75). The shrimp, tails still on, was fresh and well-seasoned, while the chicken was a mixed bag: some pieces tender, others gristly.
Fruit- and soy-based 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 bean drink ($2) flavored with pandan, a leaf used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking, was just slightly sweet and floral.
We’re fortunate to have so many fine Vietnamese restaurants in our city. People tend to be fiercely loyal to their favorites, but in my experience, the competition has elevated the level of the food everywhere. Viet Taste is no exception.