Berger's Bites: Variably Vietnamese

By Andrew Berg

Berger’s Bites is a brand new The Mac Weekly column by Andrew Berger. Berger, food aficionado, will give us his taste buds’ best bites of the week-, comparing restaurants around the Twin Cities one week and giving us the scoop in Café Mac the next.
Vietnamese cuisine is diverse, known for its use of fresh herbs, fish sauce and an eclectic variety of spices. Lucky are we that St. Paul is home to a vibrant Vietnamese enclave along University Avenue.

On a recent Saturday evening, I made my way to Hoa Bien restaurant at 1105 University Ave. Located at the “four corners” of the St. Paul dining corridor, Hoa Bien competes with White Castle, KFC and New Asia Express. I elected to order take out and then sat down with the extensive hybrid Vietnamese Southeast Asian menu featuring soups, stir fries and barbeque. I decided to order a favorite Vietnamese dish of mine: vermicelli rice noodle topped with grilled beef, herbs, bean sprouts and a clear fish sauce, but as luck had it that night at the check out counter, rather than receiving my order for one, I was handed a bag that included a dinner fit for a family of four. They briskly insisted that this was my order, and after convincing myself that they must have given me seven portions of rice, I walked out with the all too large bundle of food and returned to Macalester where I unwrapped each surprise dish.

First on the table were two orders of spring rolls, one order deep fried and filled with ground pork, shrimp and rice noodle served with fish sauce, the other order freshly wrapped with rice paper and filled with shrimp, herbs, bean sprouts and rice vermicelli served with sweet fermented peanut sauce.

My main dish was a chicken plate, with a white sauce and various vegetables, and my third course was a spicier beef curry dish with sautéed onions and shallots. It was quite difficult to remove myself from each dish in order to save room for the next, as both were sophisticated meals within themselves. The flavor of the meat was easy to separate from the flavor of the vegetables and the sauce was complementary to the whole meal. Contrary to most take out meals, the ingredients were added proportionally, and the dishes were politely packaged just like they would be presented at a Hoa Bien table. The fried rolls were freshly fried and fresh rolls were crisp. There was no greasy aftertaste, as this authentic Vietnamese meal was rich and savory.

With hopes of discovering an equally authentic Vietnamese restaurant within walking distance from Macalester, the next night I ate from Houng Sen Restaurant, located just a few doors down from Tea Garden, at 1702 Grand Ave. Proclaimed as ‘Vietnamese style”, the menu at Houng Sen also included dishes more commonly found at a mediocre Chinese delivery joint than at a Vietnamese restaurant. I tried to order a meal that I could compare with the food I ate at Hoa Bien, and settled on lemongrass chicken with vegetables, Vietnamese curried beef with onions and an order of fresh spring rolls. I received the order I placed, and brought the food back in standard Asian takeout white food boxes.

The spring rolls were on the stale side compared with those at Hoa Bien, and the foundation of the filling was more like angel hair pasta than the Vietnamese vermicelli noodles that are expected. The lemongrass chicken was awkwardly served with rice on the bottom that could not be mixed in with the chicken without spilling some of the meat. It was tasty, but on the salty side, and it lacked the proper vegetable to chicken ratio that the chicken at Hoa Bien had. The curry dish had a kick to it, the spice made the rest of the dish bland, neutralizing any flavor that could have been extracted from the sautéed onions and beef.

If you are looking for a meal that you could find on the streets of Hanoi, Hoa Bien is your place. But if you want a more starch based and westernized Asian meal, Huong Sen is a decent bet. Both restaurants are modestly priced, at about $4 an appetizer and $8-$11 a main dish. Granted it was a Saturday night compared with a Sunday, Hoa Bien attracted a broad range of diners who gave the restaurant a bustling vibe, while the diners at Houng Sen were quiet, less numerous and seemed to be mostly from the immediate Macalester-Groveland area. My advice is to make the trip down to Hoa Bien on a Saturday night, where you can indulge in a fresh Vietnamese meal and then pop in the restaurant’s discotec.

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