Traipsing Around Town: Coconuts and Curry at Hoa Bien

By Taylor Uggla

Hoa Bien, located at the intersection of University and Lexington in the heart of Frogtown, is the place to go for savory and affordable Vietnamese cuisine. The vegetarian-friendly menu contains a variety of options, and over half of its items are available for fewer than eight dollars. The restaurant offers everything from fried yellow rice cakes filled with shrimp, pork and vegetables to pho (beef noodle soup) with sides of basil, bean sprouts, lime and jalapeño. Portions are large, and the typical Macalester student will be happy to know that you can get eight cream cheese wontons for only $3.75.I’ve dined at Hoa Bien more than once, and each time my experience has been delightful. The restaurant may not look like much on the outside, but the interior is large and airy. Light pours in through a variety of windows, and plants and white tablecloths provide a clean and fresh vibe. Red doors accent cream-colored walls, and a painting of the ocean near the front adds a nice pop of vibrant color to the mix.

Customers are never rushed here, and it’s a great place to meet up with someone you haven’t seen in a while. You can chat over huge plates of steaming food, or even order fun drinks like coconut juice. (This may sound uninteresting, but it’s served with a straw in an actual coconut-who wouldn’t want to order that?) A decent wine and beer list is available as well.

My favorite dish is the hot and spicy mock duck, served with a variety of vegetables and the perfect amount of piquancy. The mock duck comes in large and tender pieces, and the accompanying rice bowl seems almost bottomless. Other vegetarian options include tofu chow mein and curry tofu, and for the less adventurous, vegetable fried rice and lo mein are always on hand.

Hoa Bien offers an extensive range of seafood choices, ranging from crab and asparagus soup to squid with cauliflower, and their hot and sour soups are also worthy of note. There are so many options to choose from at this restaurant that virtually anyone can eat and be satisfied.

Another thing I love about Hoa Bien is its customer service. I’ve never had to wait more than a minute to be seated, and I’m always greeted with a smile. Servers come to the tables eager to please. For example, one day, my meal came without the mock duck. When I notified my server, he apologized and told me he would tell the cook to double the serving for my inconvenience. When he came back just moments later, my plate was practically overflowing with mock duck-there was so much that I had to take most of it home!

Another time, during a reception for a friend’s wedding, I couldn’t find anything vegetarian to eat. I told the server it wasn’t a big deal, but she insisted on bringing me something. She came back with a delicious vegetable platter that I ended up sharing with the whole table-there’s nothing that the Hoa Bien staff won’t do for their customers.

So, if you’re sick of all the neighborhood Asian restaurants, go the extra mile to Hoa Bien. It’s on the 16-bus route, and if you drive, you can park in the vast and convenient lot next door. It’s so close you could even ride your bike there, and I certainly wouldn’t hesitate. Hoa Bien is an experience that no one should miss, and when you’re done, you can get a free mint or two at the front counter. Who would refuse?

Hoa Bien Vietnamese Restaurant
1105 University Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55104
651-647-1011