We recently learned that Brooklyn Park is home to a large and still-growing Vietnamese population and that some of these immigrants were opening eateries less focused on satisfying bland American palates than on giving fellow immigrants a true taste of home. How could we not want to explore that rumor?
After doing some research, we chose three places to visit. All were in strip malls; all had friendly service, if not always in the best of English; all had tables loaded with serve-yourself condiments that included spicy sauces, fish sauce, and hoisin; all seemed surprised and then gratified that these not-Vietnamese diners were willing to look at parts of the menu that didn’t involve sweet-and-sour anything. Because pho and banh mi are ubiquitous around the Twin Cities, we opted to avoid those dishes and see what each eatery recommended as its specialty.
Our first stop was Phuong Trang, which sported a bright pink interior with large food photos adorning the walls. Phuong Trang has a 22-page menu that starts, discouragingly, with the aforementioned sweet-and-sour options but becomes increasingly authentic as the pages go by. By the last couple of pages, no English descriptions are provided, which seems to indicate that the menu creators didn’t think only-English-speaking people would be interested in these dishes. But we’d heard good things about a dish called Bo Tai Chanh ($20), and when we pointed to it in the non-English section, our server was very excited. Her English was limited, but she made sure we understood it was raw beef. We then asked what else she would recommend, and she immediately pointed to Chao Ech Singapore ($15), which did have the benefit of having an English description: “Rice soup with fog meat.” After a bit more discussion, we learned that the soup came with frog meat. (A little disappointing — fog meat sounded so intriguing and mysterious.)
Knowing we were covering three places in one afternoon, we felt we should pace ourselves accordingly (not unlike those taking part in the East Lake excursions), but when the Bo Tai Chanh was set before us, our cautious approach nearly went out the window. A platter arrived, heaped with raw beef marinated in lime juice (much like a ceviche), served on a bed of herbs and mild, lightly pickled onions, and topped with fried shallots. The beef was insanely tender and flavorful, with a strong lime finish, and wasn’t eclipsed by the onions and shallots.
One bite led to another, and another, and another, until the Chao Ech Singapore arrived to distract us. This came in two separate dishes, a gentle rice soup and a spicy broth with fried frog legs. The broth came loaded with raw jalapeños and sizable chunks of chilies, but combining the broth with the mild rice soup softened the overall effect. The frog legs were chewy, as frog legs can be, but were carefully cooked so as not to become overly tough. They had a good meaty flavor that held its own against the spicy broth.
A final item was a Vietnamese cream coffee ($3.50), which was presented as an assemble-it-yourself affair, lending the coffee a ceremonial air. The strong, bitter coffee softened as it melded with the sweetened condensed milk.
At this point, we wished we had made three separate trips to Brooklyn Park so we could have eaten more of what we’d just ordered (but takeout was not a bad option). We left Phuong Trang and headed for MT Noodles.
This restaurant is in the same strip mall as Fat Chance, a place that left us with happy memories. The interior of MT Noodles was more soothing than Phuong Trang, with muted colors and gracious floral artwork. While Phuong Trang had a 22-page menu, MT Noodles took a minimalistic approach: a one-page menu.
Language was less of a barrier here than at the other places we visited, and staff confirmed what we’d heard about the growing Vietnamese population in Brooklyn Park. Our server was also happy to share what she felt were among the most authentic items on the menu. She strongly recommended we start with the Shrimp Cakes ($8.50 for 7).
As if we hadn’t already faced overwhelming temptation to overeat at Phuong Trang, the shrimp cakes at MT Noodles sent us right over the edge. Each fried rice cake with scallions had one perfectly cooked shrimp nestled inside a nearly impossibly delicate crust, and the cakes were served with pickled daikon and carrot slivers alongside fish sauce. To bite into one was to feel the crust shatter lightly, and then encounter the firmer shrimp. We were sure these would not reheat well, and not to eat them all right then — well, that would have been a crime against food.
The server suggested we follow with Bo La Lot ($16). Beef pieces were rolled with betel leaf, then grilled crispy and served on a large platter full of do-it-yourself rolling ingredients: cilantro, basil, mint, green leaf lettuce, bean sprouts, daikon, carrots, cucumber, noodles, and peanuts. A large vaselike structure held rice paper sheets in a side pocket, ready to be rolled quickly through the vase’s warm water. The beef rolls were earthy and rich, faintly spicy, and enhanced by any of the accompaniments. Building our own rolls with the rice paper was a somewhat messy and definitely amateurish activity for us, but also a fun one. Besides: Don’t like cilantro? No problem. Skip it. Want extra peanuts? No problem. Throw some more in.
By the time we gathered up our to-go containers at MT Noodles, we were not exactly hungry, but still, we’d planned one last stop. Kim Anh had a deli-like feel to it, with a counter up front to order takeout, but there was table service in the adjoining room as well as a locked cabinet containing things like sliced deer antlers. Our cheerful server agreed that we should try the Banh Bot Chien ($7), or crispy flour cake. “Very traditional, very special,” she assured us.
At first, we were not convinced. Cakes of fried flour? The little bites of fried cake, by themselves, were fairly bland. Not surprising, given that they’re made of rice flour and tapioca starch. But they were served on a bed of scrambled eggs with a side of fresh carrots and daikon, and were sprinkled with scallions, all of which added flavor and texture. The dipping sauce tasted like a much more intense version of soy sauce, and the server confirmed that the rich, slightly smoky flavor came from the addition of black vinegar. Put all these components together, and it’s far more than its parts.
Our server also guided us past the pho section of the menu to the Vietnamese specials page, where she recommended the Bun Bo Hue ($10), a dish we’ve previously enjoyed at Tay Ho in St. Paul. This noodle soup, sized to feed multitudes, had a deep, rich, complex broth, definitely not nonfat, with a sweet undertone followed by a spicy, cilantro-heavy finish. The bowl was generously supplied with beef in all forms: oxtail, beef slices, liver, all melting and tender and benefiting from the flavorful broth. And as we learned from experience, soup only improves when it sits overnight.
Besides being impressed with all three restaurants and their diverse offerings, we spied several other Vietnamese restaurants as we drove around Brooklyn Park. Would we go back to try them? Absolutely. If we could bear to pass by the ones we’ve already tried and loved.
Phuong Trang, 8072 Brooklyn Blvd, Brooklyn Park; 763.425.0009
MT Noodles, 8459 W Broadway, Brooklyn Park; 763.15.3055
Kim Anh, 8586 Edinburgh Center Dr N, Brooklyn Park; 763.425.8888