Trieu Chau is small. By our count, it seats 46 max; at busy times, the staff mixes and matches tables — as if playing expert-level Tetris — to accommodate hungry diners. Based on our two visits, it seems that busy is the normal state of affairs at this non-descript spot on St. Paul’s light rail corridor. And, though it may seem counterintuitive, the press of bodies and cramped tables actually add to the dining experience. Everybody is so mellow and happy; it would take serious work to fend off the good vibes in the place.
Bun Thap Cam ($7, below) (aka pork three ways over chilled rice noodles) made us particularly happy. While the crispy pork egg rolls and strips of sweet and smoky barbecue pork were tasty, the pork meatballs really made the dish. Flash-fried, then grilled, they had a crusty, slightly charred exterior and moist, delicious interior. Although the dish was filling, we nearly ordered a second helping of the luscious meatballs.
The two soups we tried were also quite good. An appetizer of crab and asparagus in pork broth ($3.25) was comforting and flavorful, but a creeping sweetness quickly became cloying. The heaping bowl of seafood and pork rice noodle soup ($7), however, was toothsome and satisfying. The combination of colors — white calamari and noodles, pink shrimp, green cilantro, and onions — was beautiful. Thin, savory roasted pork paired well with the sweet seafood and fish balls. Our only gripe with this dish was that, again, the broth was too sugary; a few dashes of Sriracha solved the problem.
Of the dishes we ate, only the spring rolls ($3.75, below) missed the mark. Although fresh and tender, they had too much filler (i.e., shredded lettuce and noodles) and not enough pork or shrimp. Still, while boring, the rolls proved effective conduits for a tasty mix of peanut sauce and hot sauce. Fried egg rolls were better: profoundly crispy and mild in flavor, enhanced by a quick dip in the accompanying nuoc cham dipping sauce.
In all, Trieu Chau’s fare equals (and, in the case of the Bun Thap Cam, surpasses) some of the better Vietnamese outfits in the Twin Cities. That’s surely one reason this 23-year-old restaurant remains so popular. The other and perhaps even greater reason is its welcoming, convivial feel. To take just one example, on our second visit, one of the several young women who, along with ebullient owner Minh Nguyen, run the place with aplomb not only remembered us, but inquired if we returned to try one of the dishes she previously recommended (in fact, we had). She then welcomed a couple of regulars before demonstrating her remarkable Tetris skills to seat them. As the couple sat, we smiled at each other, as if to say, “Isn’t this place great?” Trieu Chau’s hospitality made us want to become regulars too.
James Norton contributed to this review.
Vietnamese in St. Paul
500 University Ave W
St. Paul, MN 55103
OWNER: Minh Nguyen
HOURS: Sunday-Thursday, 10am-9pm; Friday-Saturday, 10am-10pm
ENTREE RANGE: $6.25-10.95
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / Yes