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Savory, Tangy, Spicy, Sweet

Vinh Phat layers complex textures and tastes in its classic Vietnamese home cooking.

And even though there is still a trailer hiding underneath it all, the décor has greatly improved. Freshly painted walls, renovated bathrooms and crisp lighting have brightened things considerably. The tables are simple with paper napkins, chopsticks and a Lazy Susan carrying an array of chili, soy and plum sauces. Service is efficient, yet unhurried with Tina Nguyen often functioning as host, server and chef.

With about 18 tables and a few roomy booths, there is ample space to kick back and enjoy what can only be described as classic Vietnamese food. For those of you not familiar, Vietnamese cuisine can best be described as a light and healthy food which boasts a subtlety of tastes and textures. A small sip of pho can reveal a mighty layering of flavors embodying the many cultures which have so greatly influenced the country. Ten centuries of Chinese rule brought soy sauce, noodles, tofu and even chopsticks to Vietnam while asparagus, café au lait and creamy custards resulted from French occupation during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The ubiquitous spiciness found in the foods of neighboring Thailand is evident in Vietnam’s curried, lemon grass- and chili-infused dishes.

As far as the new menu items go, the green papaya salad is a standout. Spicy, cured strips of beef are scattered over a mound of marinated, shredded green papaya with sliced jalapeno and Thai basil. The flavor combination is an blend of savory, tangy, spicy and sweet — a subtlety of taste exquisitely executed. Add in the pleasing crunch of a young papaya paired with the chewiness of cured meat and you get a true sense of the flavors and textures in classic Vietnamese food.

Banh xeo ($3.95) is a French-inspired dish of a light coconut-flavored crepe filled with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and onions — although the crepe, while savory and complex in flavor, is a tad on the soft side. A little more crunch and a few more pieces of pork and shrimp could easily make an OK dish into a superb one. The pho, on the other hand, is a winner. Served with a platter of bean sprouts, jalapenos, cilantro and lime, the light yet aromatic broth complemented the textured flavors of the meats.

Chao tom ($11.95), a delicate shrimp and chicken paste wrapped around sticky, sweet sugar cane and flash-fried, is one of the many southern Vietnamese dishes on the menu. It’s served with rice paper, noodles, cucumbers and basil. Diners must remove the meat from the sugarcane and wrap it in rice paper. But don’t discard the sugar cane. The grand finale is chewing the cane to release all of its tangy juice. Savory and sweet sings again.

Speaking of grand finales, don’t forget to try one of the bubble teas ($3.50). The unusual concoction resembles a fruit smoothie with chewy tapioca pearls served with a double-wide straw to slurp them up. There is also a tangy and excellent limeade and coconut juice served with fresh coconut meat.

Other beverages include a few wines by the glass for $3.50, although the wine list could benefit from a few offerings a little more tailored to the pungent, spicy dishes found on the menu such as a sauvignon blanc or a German Riesling. Beers include Vietnam’s own 33 Export ($3 a bottle) and Budweiser (a mere $2).

The Nguyens could have taken their seven years of experience running Vinh Phat and moved their restaurant to a strip mall or to the edge of some busy thoroughfare, but there is something to be said about working with what you’ve got. Its simplicity is its charm. The television may be on and your server will, most likely, double as your chef. But this isn’t the place for a fine dining experience. It is the place to sample classic, home-cooked Vietnamese dishes and you’ll have the added bonus of feeling like you’ve discovered a hidden gem. After all, how often do you get to eat in a trailer? S

Kendra Bailey Morris is a professionally trained chef who most recently ran a local cooking school. She taught English at Virginia Commonwealth University for eight years, where she received a master’s degree in creative writing. She is the author of the cookbook “Family Secrets,” and works as a freelance chef and cooking instructor. She visits each restaurant twice and her visits are unannounced and paid for by Style.

Vinh Phat ($)
6311 Rigsby Road
Lunch and dinner: Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-10 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Lunch specials served Monday - Friday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.

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