Keep your eyes peeled. The best restaurants aren't necessarily the ones with spotlights, balloons and giant cartoon figures waving down cars. Sometimes you can't even see their names from the street, although I think that's more of an inconvenience than a delightful quirk.
Take, for instance, Vietnamese Restaurant. Sure, the originality of the name won't bowl you over, but it would be helpful to have it posted somewhere. A large banner hangs over the entrance, proclaiming "#1 Beef Noodle Soup in Town!" Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather have the banner tell me the name of the place.
Once you do find Vietnamese Restaurant (on the southwest corner of Flintridge and Academy), you will be oh-so-glad you did. I have a special love for Vietnamese food, and I can satisfy every craving here. What's a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant without spring rolls? Here, they are called Steam Rolls, but the result is just the same. Thin, pliable rounds of rice paper are wrapped around shreds of pork and lettuce, plump and fresh shrimp, fresh mint and cilantro, and skinny rice noodles, all served with an earthy peanut sauce topped with chopped peanuts. The elements in this dish unite delightfully on your taste buds, the impact heightened by the absolute freshness of the herbs. In fact, all the cilantro, mint and basil used at this restaurant are so impertinently fresh, Martha Stewart would be cilantro-green with envy. One night I was so intoxicated by the scent of the herbs that I brandished a bud-laden branch of fresh basil under the noses of my dining companions, insisting they smell it, insisting it was the best scent on Earth. I wanted to fill my pockets and keep that aroma with me for the remainder of the evening.
The egg rolls also benefit from this impeccable freshness. Thinner around than typical Chinese eggrolls, these little beauties are filled with pork and julienned vegetables, then quickly fried so they are crispy but not greasy. They arrive at the table on a platter surrounded by fresh lettuce leaves and bean sprouts, rice noodles and thin, lightly pickled slices of carrot and daikon radish. Take a lettuce leaf, supply half an egg roll, then add bits of whatever condiments you choose. Roll up the leaf, dunk the whole packet in the dipping sauce, and eat. It's messy but fun. The dipping sauce is very light, barely flavored with fish sauce and shredded carrots, slightly sweet and tangy, a perfect foil for the egg rolls.
Are you wondering about that sign proclaiming the best beef noodle soup in town? Well, let me tell you, it's no exaggeration. Pho (pronounced like "fun" without the "n") is the most wonderful soup in the world. If Campbell's Chicken Noodle could dream, this is the soup it would want to be. It starts with an ambrosial beef broth, light but full-flavored, in which delicate slivers of onion float about. Into the boiling broth the chef puts an abundance of thin rice noodles, and then your choice of meat. In one of my favorites, the paper-thin slices of steak are dropped into the soup just before serving, the steak cooked to perfection by the heat of the broth, with just a faint whisper of pink at the center of each meltingly tender slice. If you are ambitious, order the monstrous combination of steak, brisket, meatball, flank and tripe in your pho, instead of merely steak, brisket or meatball. My husband swears this is a cure for the common cold. And each serving of pho comes with a platter of herbs, bean sprouts, lime quarters and sliced jalapeno, so you can customize each serving to your liking.
If hot soup isn't what you crave, consider ordering the fabulous bun bowl. Bean sprouts, julienned cucumber, shredded lettuce, mint and cilantro are covered by a bowl full of rice noodles, which, in turn, are sprinkled with slices of the same marinated carrot and daikon radish, and then topped with your choice of meat. Choices include sliced egg roll, grilled pork, beef, chicken or shrimp, or a combination of all of the above. The grilled pork and beef will melt in your mouth. If you want spicy, go for the grilled chicken with lemon grass.
Prices at Vietnamese Restaurant are incredibly reasonable. Both the steam rolls and egg rolls are $3.95 for an order of two. The pho is $5.95 for a small bowl, $6.95 for the large (read: gargantuan). The bun bowls run from $6.95 to $7.25 and are large to the point of being impossible to finish. There are some pricier items listed under Chef's Special. The Hot and Sour Soup ($9.25) and the Seafood Hot Pot ($12.95) are both very good, but be forewarned if you have small children in your party: Both of these dishes are served on a small propane burner, which takes up quite a bit of space on your table. If your server suggests you move to a larger table to accommodate all your dishes, take his advice. The Hot Pot is outstanding, with a mild broth chock full of fresh vegetables and seafood, all perfectly cooked.
Now for that sign ...