It’s our last night in Philadelphia and it’s 19 degrees F outside – only a bit nippy for a couple Syracusans. But after three weeks of riding the trolley into Center City for evening dining adventures, we decided to try a restaurant within walking distance of our apartment in West Philly: Vietnam Cafe. It had a good website, some good reviews online and an interesting menu, so off we went.
This is a small restaurant that has a clean, modern, attractive design. The lighting was excellent: not the fluorescent glare so often found in Asian restaurants but rather the soft golden light usually found in more upscale restaurants. Service was quick at the beginning, but “mistakes were made.” No notice was taken of some unfolding unhappiness.
We started with the Crispy Spring Rolls, in part because we’d learned to love the crispy New Century’s Shrimp Rolls (Syracuse) that have had us enthralled for years. The spring rolls were crispy as advertised, hot and flavorful. But they still couldn’t touch the lacy crunch or the sublime spicing of the New Century version.
I ordered the Crispy Noodle Tofu, looking for something akin to the crispy noodle dish that used to be served at Syracuse’s Pho Saigon (sadly, it’s gone out of business). The noodles I was served were crispy and mildly flavorful; the vegetables were cooked just right. But the tofu was not special in any way and the sauce left me wondering if anyone in the kitchen knew anything about Vietnamese spicing. It was tasty in the way that Chinese-American food is tastier than McDonalds, but it left me searching for ways to brighten it up. I tossed in some of the dipping sauce left over from the appetizer. I put dots of Sriracha sauce all over it. I tore up mint leaves, again from the appetizer, and tossed them about. Bit by bit, I coaxed some flavor from it. But it wasn’t the exciting dining we’ve come to expect from any Vietnamese restaurant.
Dave ordered the Shrimp Sate Sauce, and his experience was even worse than mine. Dave adores Vietnamese food. He’s usually capable of making vast quantities of food disappear in a short period of time. But I soon realized that, incredibly, he was picking at his food. By the end of the meal, he’d left half the shrimp on the plate – a first! – swimming in an insipid sauce that he said lacked the snap and vitality that he enjoys in Vietnamese food.
Partway through our meal, a very smiling waiter came to let us know that it was “last call” for food as the kitchen was going to close. This was a new one for us, but we feel for chefs and didn’t mind. Still, service basically stopped at that point and no-one noticed that the gentleman at the corner table wasn’t eating his dinner. It wasn’t that it was bad – he would have sent it back – it just wasn’t good.
It was at that point that I looked around. “Dave,” I said, “What’s missing from this restaurant?” He glanced up.
“Vietnamese,” he replied.
And that was the problem. The Vietnam Cafe seems to be catering to the clientele: Caucasian students. There was not one Asian person in the place, unlike at Pho Xe Lua in Chinatown, where we had eaten some of the best Vietnamese food we’ve ever had. Nope, no Vietnamese here, not the people and, sadly, not the food.