Two words: Potato fritters.
Go. Go now.
There are other ways to start your meal at Vietnamese Garden, like with a mild white seaweed and chicken soup ($2.75), roll-your-own spring rolls ($8.75 to $12.75) or deep-fried zucchini and eggplant ($7.75).
But first, go for those potato fritters ($7.75), with shredded yam and carrot battered in rice flour and Vietnamese beer. Place one of the oily treats in a lettuce leaf and wrap it as best you can with fresh cilantro, mint and basil, then dunk it in the sweet dipping sauce. Don't fret over what spills down your chin and onto the burgundy tablecloth. Just hum a note of satisfaction while you crunch and awaken your brain's bliss centers.
From there, you're on to a noodle bowl or soup, or a beef, pork, chicken, tofu or vegetable entre everything cooked without MSG or corn by-products. Owner and sole cook Dung (pronounced "Young") My Tram cooks traditionally, as her mother taught her. Running both lunch and dinner shifts six days a week, she aims for consistency, marinating of the next day's meats nightly and creating fresh sauces daily. (Try her chocolaty peanut sauce, comprised of coconut milk and black beans.) We'll credit the delivery guy for the fresh herbs that lend raw-food nutrition and balance the grilled, fried and sauted proteins.
A bun is a bun is a bun. Which is to say any heap of rice noodles with bean sprouts, mint, cilantro, green onion and peanut crumbles is made unique solely by the quality of accompanying sauce and grilled extras. Tram's ($7.55 to $9.25) include a bit of cucumber and lettuce and stand just above the pack, thanks again to her sauce and flavorful meat. (I tried the shrimp.)
Where she really pulls ahead is with her bun bo hue ($7.95), a spicy beef soup so popular that it grew into a full-time menu item after debuting as a Sunday special. In it, spaghetti-sized vermicelli rice noodles swim in a oily, red-pepper-flaked broth with a few large half-discs of thin-sliced beef and pork. It's one of four asterisk-ed spicy items on the small menu, and leaves your lips burning after each noodle slurp great for those with a tolerance.
The com ga ram xa ot (lemongrass chicken, $7.95) offers another spice dose, with tender meat and bursting lemongrass flavor. The pho ga (chicken soup, $7.25) proves much milder: It only springs to life with the addition of table garnishes like bottled Sriracha and a slightly more plum-tasting, house-made red pepper sauce.
Of veggie options sampled, the stir-fried eggplant and tofu saut tomato (both $7.95) both earned acclaim: the former rich with basil and not at all bitter, the latter bearing a unique tomato and soy sauce reduction sweetened by a touch of brown sugar.
End your meal with Dung's mung bean and tapioca pudding ($2.45), the only house-made dessert alongside regular and dairy-free ice creams and cream puffs. The mouth feel recalls that of Japanese red bean ice cream, the legume's slightly fibrous texture pairing with the tapioca's starchiness in a semisweet mush.
Though this humble location sports an ugly business life expectancy the likes of Coda Caf and Las Enchiladas Mexican Restaurant have come and gone in recent years I'm wagering that this garden will bear fruit.