Back in the day, when I was a grad student at Virginia Commonwealth University, my writing workshop classmates would usually leave Anderson Hall at 9 p.m., walk around the corner and reconvene at the bar at Ipanema CafA©. That block of Grace Street was home to a strip club called the Red Light Inn. It was common to see women lingering on the sidewalk out front in excruciatingly high heels and skirts that defied even VCU coeds' liberal standards.
Times change. Today that former den of debauchery houses a copy shop and a well-lit, clean-tiled dining room called A Taste of the Far East. I've spent a lot of time in the latter this summer, and can testify that any hint of its former incarnation has been wiped clean. One wall is hung with framed posters of cheap paintings of the French countryside. The other is hung with attractive oils of Vietnamese women engaged in the most innocent of activities - reading, riding in a rickshaw, walking by a river - while wearing the traditional, ever-modest ao dai, with its yards and yards of flowing fabric over skin-covering long pants.
This place is good, but it's moved into a block that still has some baggage. First there's already a well-established Vietnamese joint just four storefronts to the west (and I may still favor this old standby, Saigon, on days when one can take full advantage of the spacious, shaded patio). Worse than this competition, however, are the assumptions people are bound to make about a place with a remarkably immodest full name that includes a colon and specious qualifiers: "A Taste of the Far East: Richmond's Finest Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine." It risks confusion with the equally horribly titled all-you-can-eat Asian buffet lines a few storefronts to the west. The place deserves a better name - one that would reflect the significant difference in service and quality you'll experience when you visit - and calling it A.T.O.T.F.E. just won't work.
I can knock off remarkable quantities of pho when I'm hungry, and the broth is flavorful. I enjoyed the varieties at A Taste of the Far East. But I don't know that it ranks above Mekong's craft, so I can't say if it is the best in town.
However, after eating there a dozen times is the last month I realized why I kept coming back, and why I will in the future. I can get lunch in less than an hour, and however you rate the food's authenticity or fineness, it's remarkably consistent, the service is enthusiastically welcoming and the space is clean and open. Some of my peers will argue that a certain musty funk and threadbare dA©cor speak to the authenticity of a joint, but I can tell you that my own side-by-side comparison reveals a penchant for cleanliness over quirkiness when I'm feeling out a new regular stop on the lunch circuit.
Although the menu boasts Singapore-style specials and Thai specials that bend the noodle offerings in a couple of interesting directions, the overall theme here is familiar enough. Grilled specials feature fresh basil and limes alongside the rice-paper wraps and nicely glazed shrimp. And when the check comes after a seriously large helping of pho or spicy lemon-grass fried rice and you've only parted with about $8, you might just consider ordering another $3 soda chanh (fresh lime and soda over ice).
And now you can feel good about dropping a few singles on the table for the wide-open smiling service you received. How times have changed.S
A Taste of the Far East: Richmond's Finest Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine($)
911 1/2 W. Grace St.
Monday-Saturday: 11 a.m.-9 p.m.