Flavor Notes by Robert Rich: Food, Wine, Restaurants & Recipes


Mini Restaurant Reviews
short takes and editorials

Xanh Vietnamese

by Robert Rich, November 2006

Vietnamese cuisine is fusion cuisine by force of history, with influences from Chinese and French colonialists, and a liberal application of the fresh aromatic herbs that one might also find in Thai and Malaysian food.

Most of the Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area seem to land on two extremes: fast food or high-end fusion. Casual pho` soup houses serve healthy and refreshing noodle bowls with beef broth; and a new breed of high end western fusion restaurants serve artfully presented plates at premium prices. I have a hard time finding the sort of down-to-earth restaurants that serve the fresh, spicy unpretentious family dinners that I have enjoyed elsewhere.

Xanh opened on Mountain View's Castro Street in springtime of 2006, after a lengthy renovation of the previous Taj Mahal Indian restaurant. Modernist brushed chrome furniture and a blue neon glow give this room an urban chic flair. Indeed, Xanh strives toward the high end spectrum of Vietnamese fusion, not the traditional dinner fair that I have been craving. As such, it offers its fresh food in an appealing atmosphere, but I didn't feel an urge to return often.

The Traditional Roll ($8) came very close to a classic spring roll with rice vermicelli, slivers of shrimp, lettuce, basil and mint, in a rice flour wrap. Presentation was beautiful, on a long glass plate, two rolls sliced in small sections and set up on end, with a dish of garlicky peanut sauce and four small dollops of pepper paste in the middle. These tasted light and fresh, but I've eaten more well-stuffed and flavorful rolls for half the price at numerous pho` houses.

Papaya Salad ($9) arrived in a tall stack with a finely shredded blend of daikon, carrot, and a few slivers of papaya, with bits of mint and cilantro. Decorations included a spoon filled with Sriracha hot sauce, a lime wedge and a dish of light sweetened rice vinegar dressing deepened with a hint of fish sauce. The lime and dressing also graced the salad, with their delicate sweet-sour balance; and a crumbling of peanuts decorated the top. I would have enjoyed this fresh dish even more if the kitchen had been more generous with both papaya and the aromatic leaves such as mint, basil, cilantro or even rau ram that typically would cause such a salad to virtually explode with fresh flavors in the mouth. As it was, the salad pleased both eye and palate with its lightness, but didn't leave a lasting impression.

Shaking Beef ($18) came recommended by our waiter as a specialty of the house. The meat arrived in small chunks atop baby greens on another long rectangular glass plate. Flakes of mild crispy fried garlic added a savory touch to the sweet marinade that dominated the flavor of the beef. The beef chunks were perfectly tender, medium rare, from an excellent cut of steak. Indeed, this was the best dish we tried that night.

Eating at Xanh means paying as much for presentation and tablecloths as for the food. I understand this trade-off, and would recommend Xanh for dates and similar occasions where appearances matter. Yet, after our meal we couldn't help but wonder about the realities of "fusion" restaurants, a designation that seems designed to allow higher prices than traditional Asian restaurants can usually ask.

I would consider this a reasonable trade if the food itself showed increased diversity or more interesting flavors. But I haven't generally found this to be the case. Among the Vietnamese restaurants I have visited, the more traditional ones usually have the fresher more vibrant flavors, while fusion restaurants like Xanh seem a trifle bland and simplified in comparison.

The traditional ingredients of Vietnamese food aren't bizarre or challenging flavors that would justify being watered down for squeemish gringos. These are delicate and fresh flavors derived from aromatic green leaves and balanced applications of earthy and spicy seasonings. Sadly, I find myself still yearning for likes of the restaurants I've found around Little Saigon in Westminister (Orange County) -- Thanh My is my benchmark, on Bolsa street, sadly 400 miles south of where I live. In San Jose, Vung Tau is pretty good, and I hope to try Khanh's Garden someday as a comparison. I'll have to keep searching to satisfy my urge for great authentic local Vietnamese dinner cuisine.

Xanh Vietnamese Cuisine
185 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
(650) 964-1888