If Vinh Long Vietnamese-Japanese restaurant were located somewhere else, the fusion of two such far-flung cuisines might be, well, confusing. After all, two time zones and more than 2,700 miles lie between Tokyo and the South Vietnamese province for which the restaurant is named, and the culinary styles of Vietnam and Japan are hardly synonymous. But that kind of geographical compression is par for the course at the intersection of East Thompson Lane and Murfreesboro Pike, where the real estate abounds with global flavors, from Honduras restaurant to La Bamba Mexican and Spanish Club, from Awash Ethiopian restaurant to Dairy King.
Vinh Long's dual dining styles are the result of owner Owen Nguyen's previous employment in a Japanese restaurant. Nine years ago, the Saigon native brought that experience to bear at Vinh Long (also the name of his wife Hang's hometown), where a decor of golden fortune cats, plump Buddhas, bamboo cuttings and landscape photographs create a spare pan-Asian ambiance, while tempuras, dumplings and stir fries bolster an excellent repertoire of soothing soups.
Vinh Long belongs to that rare breed of restaurant that delivers more than you think you deserve. On two occasions, we found ourselves asking "Is this ours?" when Nguyen's son Jeke delivered various unexpected delights to the table. On one visit, simple bowls of iceberg lettuce with shredded carrots and ginger dressing — the ubiquitous salad of sushi restaurants — arrived before we even ordered. On another visit, small servings of steaming broth with bits of chicken, green onions, cilantro and fried shallots preceded the meal. (This elegantly simple soup overshadowed the ensuing Japanese-inspired main dishes of chicken in teriyaki, golden curry and lemongrass sauces.)
While Vietnamese items outshone the Japanese roster in our experience, we did enjoy the fried softshell crab from the Japanese section. Served simply with a sesame-soy dip, the generous portion of sweet, succulent crab with a sandy, non-greasy coating made an ample opener for four people.
For starters, we also enjoyed the Vietnamese-style goi cuon (spring rolls of cool shrimp, pork, noodles and bean sprouts in rice wrappers), whose textures were so fresh they could only have been made to order.
Of course, with the size of the soup bowls coming out of the kitchen, there's no need to fill up beforehand. We stuck with the small portions, which were more than enough, but we enjoyed watching other diners working their way through birdbath-sized tubs of broth with seafood, pork, tofu and beef, expertly employing chopsticks to scoop noodles into their mouths, without producing the slightest slurp or spray.
Beef and carrot stew was the overwhelming recommendation that led us to Vinh Long in the first place, and the headliner did not disappoint. Like a pot roast married to noodle soup, the generous bowl of rich reddish-brown stew laden with carrots and stringy beef arrived with a side plate overflowing with fresh accoutrements: basil, jalapeño rings, lime and sprouts. Scattered with crushed peanuts and tinged with chili oil, the soup was a sultry blend of salty, sweet, spicy and sour, and it joins the ranks of dishes we will crave in winter.
Vinh Long's pho (noodle soup) is available with an assortment of meats and offal to suit a range of adventurousness and appetites. The so-called "regular" version arrived with sheets of gray beef and spongy meatballs floating above a glassy nest of rice noodles. In any case, it is the piping-hot beef broth (extracted from the femur bone) laced with the licorice notes of star anise that makes this dish worth the trip. Not only is it a soothing remedy for a runny nose, it is also an engaging audience-participation meal with a tray of condiments, including chili paste, hoisin and sriracha, as well as a side plate of herbs, sprouts and lime, for mixing in to suit your personal tastes.
Among so many clear soups, bun rieu with pork-and-crab balls and tofu stood out as a red-tinged tomato-and-pork broth swirling with rice vermicelli turned pink by the tomato sections.
A blend of Vietnamese and Japanese elements, dumpling soup arrived with a half-dozen gyoza bobbing in a gorgeous chicken broth with folds of shaved roast pork, shrimp and vibrant-green baby bok choy.
In a departure from the ubiquitous thin rice noodles, banh canh employed tangles of thick chewy Vietnamese udon, swimming with spongy pork balls, shrimp and fried shallots in chicken broth.
On a warm evening when the air-conditioning struggled to keep pace with the rising summer heat in the crowded storefront dining room, iced citrus drinks helped balance the temperature of the steaming soups. While we ultimately preferred lemon soda (fresh juice and sugar blended with seltzer) and lemonade (juice with sugar and noncarbonated water), we were glad to have at least one salted lemon soda at the table for exotic tasting purposes. The traditional drink is made with whole lemons, which are soaked in salt for a month until they liquefy in the rind. The brined lemons are blended with sugar and seltzer to yield a slightly brown and pulpy beverage with a hint of rotten fruit. Still, the saline experience was at least refreshingly unusual.
Next time, we hope that the fresh sugar cane juice will be available — it was not on our visits — and we'll treat ourselves to another indulgent iced coffee. Prepared tableside with a single-serving French-style drip-coffee-maker on top of a glass, the dark brew precipitated onto a layer of sweetened condensed milk. Once the drip process was complete, we stirred the warm, dark coffee into the cool white syrup and poured the caramel blend over a tall glass of ice. The resulting mixture, reminiscent of a coffee milkshake, was a decadent stand-in for a cool dessert and a refreshing close to a warm and worldly meal.
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