A few months ago, we ventured up to Brooklyn Park after hearing rumors that there was a lively and growing Vietnamese scene there. Turned out we’d heard right, and our first visit left us hankering for a return. So back we went, looking for three more Vietnamese eateries, and following the same simple rule as last time: no pho or banh mi, because those are everywhere. We wanted to try what isn’t so easily found.
Our first stop was Thanh Vi, an attractive, large restaurant in a small strip mall (which our server told us was owned by the restaurant owner). Like many of the restaurants we visited, Thanh Vi’s menu has its share of Americanized items, but then you come to the category marked Authentic Vietnamese Dishes, later followed by a section titled Thanh Vi Dishes, and things become interesting.
We began with an iced French coffee with condensed milk ($3.55), a classic Vietnamese drink, and one we’d thoroughly enjoyed at Phuong Trang. Thanh Vi’s was equally delicious, but while Phuong Trang served the coffee brewing with a phin filter, so diners get the full experience, Thanh Vi’s came already brewed and assembled in a plastic to-go cup with a straw — not the same experience at all.
That, however, was our only disappointment at Thanh Vi. After much debate, we started with Com Tam Bi, Cha, Tau Hu Ky, Tom, Thit Nurong ($13.65), or broken rice with grilled shrimp, grilled pork, shredded pork, egg loaf, and shrimp paste in bean curd wrap. Both the grilled shrimp and grilled pork were tender and slightly sweet, with a nice amount of char to round out that sweetness. The egg loaf was mild and seemed design to be paired with the more assertive barbecued meats. The shredded pork was almost like a vegetable side dish, very mild and soft. Perhaps the most surprising thing was the shrimp paste in bean curd wrap. One person at the table noted that it had an egg roll vibe to it, but funkier, and enhanced by dipping in the traditional fish sauce. Altogether, it was a platter meant to combine and play with rather than eat one item at a time.
We were excited to see that Thanh Vi offered several soups not in the pho category, and when we asked our server what he’d recommend, he pointed to Hy Tieu Nam Vang ($8.75), a soup made with noodles, barbecued pork, shrimp, squid, imitation crab, and fish and pork balls. This was a surprisingly delicate soup, almost Japanese in feel, mild but with a depth of richness. The thinly sliced pork practically melted in our mouths, and the fish and pork balls were soft and gentle. The soup came with a large plate of bean sprouts, jalapeño slices, and Thai basil, all of which added flavor and texture to this subtle soup.
The true surprise came with the Hu Tieu Bo Kho ($9.45), a beef stew with carrots, onions, noodles (choice of egg or rice noodles — we went with our server’s recommendation of egg), five-spice powder, and lemongrass. This was unlike any beef stew ever tasted by anyone at the table. The broth was more souplike than stewlike (by our American definition, of course) — complex, rich and intense, full of lemongrass flavor. Large chunks of tender beef had just a light taste of anise. It occurred to us to try adding a little sriracha (available at the table, along with several other Asian condiments), and to our surprise, a dollop of sriracha didn’t ratchet up the heat; instead, it almost disappeared into the broth and kicked up the lemongrass element instead — an entirely welcome development.
Having been more than happy with most of our choices at Thanh Vi, we knew that our next destination was starting at a bit of a disadvantage. Fortunately for Hip Sing BBQ, we were able to disengage from the previous stop by the sheer difference in environments and menus. Hip Sing is housed in what appears to be a former drive-in, with customer parking in the former drive-in slots. Inside, it’s a cheery, bright place, with several large round tables that have rotating glass plates on them, the better to eat family-style with a crowd. (And, in fact, Hip Sing offers fixed-price family-style dinners ranging from $128-$218, for 8-10 people.) Hip Sing has an extensive menu, with plenty of basics, but it also offers a large variety of deli and barbecue items, and that’s what attracted our attention — not to mention the vivid display of bright-red roasted ducks hanging behind the counter.
So the first thing we asked for was Roast Duck ($13.95 half, $21.50 whole for red or plain). Our half red duck arrived glistening, and it proved to be wonderfully tender, tasting like well-cooked dark chicken meat with a rich, earthy sauce that had traces of hoisin and soy. It was fatty, there were little bones, but who cares? This is pick-it-up-with-your-fingers-and-gnaw-to-your-heart’s-content meat.
While we were waiting for our food, we saw several people come in to buy meat to go, and our meal was accompanied by the distant thuds of a chef chopping large slabs of meat. Beside the hanging ducks, eventually an entire pig (minus the head) showed up in the display case, and by the time we left, about a quarter of the pig had been hacked away.
A previous pig was the source of our barbecued spare ribs ($7 per pound). The barbecue sauce was similar to what was on the duck, but a bit deeper and earthier. The ribs themselves were perfectly cooked, with a good crust and tender meat.
Pig also showed up as slices of roast pork ($8 per pound), and this was our dish of the day at Hip Sing. Slow-cooked pork that practically fell apart when we merely glanced at it was paired with the crispiest layer of fat we’d ever encountered. One person at the table took a bite and immediately exclaimed, “Wow, that’s crunchy!” To which the others at the table immediately replied, “We know; we heard it!”
Getting that level of crunch against that level of tender meat is just a treat. The meat itself had a good salty flavor — something sorely lacking at so many restaurants today — and we speculated that salt might have been injected for better saturation. However Hip Sing accomplished it, the salt did not overwhelm the pork; it just enhanced it in a “please give me more, lots more” way.
Our final dish included a lesson from the owner. When we told our friendly server that we’d like to order the pig uterus ($5.50 per pound), she seemed a bit hesitant, but took the order. It arrived looking like a jumble of meaty, brown, cut-up tubes. At first taste, it didn’t have a lot of flavor, and the texture was just slightly chewier than your average mushroom.
But as we pondered what we thought of this dish, the owner came over and noted that her favorite way to eat pig uterus was to stir-fry it into a sour vegetable dish with black bean sauce ($13). We asked if it was too late to do that, and she said no, not at all, and took our platter of uterus back to the kitchen. When she returned, the bland uterus had been transformed; it was still chewy, but it quickly soaked up the tangy sauce, and the crunchy stir-fried vegetables nicely offset the chewiness. As there were leftovers, we asked about the best way to reheat them, and the owner advised a quick stir-fry in oil, which proved to do the trick without toughening the pieces of uterus.
Finally, we went to Vietnam House. It turned out to be a nice circling-around end to our Vietnamese explorations. It’s in a strip mall across the street from the site of Phuong Trang, which we visited for our first installment. In terms of the interior, it’s got a respectable strip mall vibe. It was doing a steady business on our visit. We decided to give the classic Vietnamese iced coffee ($3) a try here, too, and found it to be the full phin-filter experience, which we appreciated.
Our server tried to steer us toward the American part of the menu, but we doggedly flipped the pages to the back of the menu, and decided to try the Bun Bo Xao Cari ($8), a kind of warm noodle salad with a generous helping of rice noodles over a bed of lettuce, bean sprouts, cucumber, carrots, and mint, topped with curried beef, scallions, and chopped peanuts. It was a wonderful mix of flavor and texture, with the curry only mildly spicy but very flavorful. Our server urged us to add the accompanying nuoc cham, which served to intensify all the flavors.
Still interested in non-pho soups, we tried the Mi Kho Do Bien ($8.50), a pork and seafood soup with a fried shrimp cake and egg noodles. It came with a bit of DIY action: The broth was served separately from the noodles and lettuce, with a third plate holding the optional bean sprouts, jalapeños, and lime chunks. Rising from the noodles and lettuce was an enormous triangle of fried dough with a whole shrimp fully encased within. It seemed a good place to start, and it was; the shrimp was hot and tender, and the fried dough satisfyingly crackly and flaky.
The noodles bore more than a little resemblance to ramen (fresh, not packaged), which could explain the broth’s being served separately — to keep the noodles from soaking up all the broth (not to mention prematurely wilting the lettuce). The broth was mild and slightly sweet, with a noticeable touch of five-spice powder, and it partnered with the more savory elements in a harmonious way. Gentle and soothing, it proved to be yet another iteration of Vietnamese soups well worth seeking out.
Vietnam House offers two desserts, both a variation on che. We asked our server which he’d recommend, and without hesitating he told us to get the Che Ba Mau ($3), which turned out to be a brightly colored concoction containing sweetened coconut milk with mung beans and tapioca, along with thin slices of something akin to Jell-O. It’s not at all intensely sweet. It was in fact quite mild, and would be especially good after a spicy or highly flavorful dish.
So what did we learn on our return trip to Brooklyn Park? That it was wise to have returned — there were still worthy eateries to pursue, each doing something different from the others. That the Brooklyn Park/Brooklyn Center area indeed has a stellar Vietnamese food scene. That you could eat Vietnamese food every day in the northern suburbs for a very long time without having to repeat a dish. That we wish there were some splinter groups from Brooklyn Park that would consider setting up shop in other Twin Cities suburbs.
Thanh Vi, 3023 85th Ave N, Brooklyn Park; 763.424.9259
Hip Sing BBQ, 6201 Brooklyn Blvd, Brooklyn Center; 763.537.4430
Vietnam House, 7962 Brooklyn Blvd, Brooklyn Park; 763.425.9991