Cultural cuisine

Vietnam Bistro serves up dishes full of flavor—and meaning

The vermicelli with grilled shrimp and egg rolls.

The vermicelli with grilled shrimp and egg rolls.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Vietnam Bistro
788 East Ave., 433-7108
Hours: Daily, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.

Food and travel are two of my favorite things. And though it’s been quite some time since I ventured beyond the borders of the United States, I feel that food has the ability to transport you—to other countries, other cultures.

Chico is lucky to have a good variety of cuisines representing flavors of different regions of our country and beyond. Last summer, we got a real gem when Vietnam Bistro opened on East Avenue, where Fast Eddie’s used to be, across from the movie theater. If nothing else, go there for the pho.

I am no expert on Vietnamese food, so I did a little research, and what I learned was pretty awesome. The Vietnamese approach food in a very deliberate way. Each dish is expected to represent five elements, which correspond with flavors: wood (sour), fire (bitter), earth (sweet), metal (spicy) and water (salty). They also emphasize balance, both in flavors and temperature. Knowing that makes it simpler to understand why many meals are served compartmentalized, to be assembled by the eater rather than the chef.

My first visit to Vietnam Bistro was a late-afternoon takeout order of wonton soup with egg noodles, which is pho with shrimp and pork wontons and, of course, egg noodles. This is the best soup I have had in a very long time, and that’s saying a lot. I love soup. I make my own stocks and have perfected chicken noodle, matzo ball and pork belly ramen varieties. I also make a mean wor wonton soup. But I have a new challenge on my hands if I want to compete with Vietnam Bistro’s pho.

The flavor of the broth was bright and rich while maintaining that light, somewhat sweet flavor that pho is known for. The wontons added depth to that flavor, while the noodles provided substance. The serving size, too, was substantial—I had to drink a good portion of the broth before I could add the noodles and other accoutrements (bean sprouts, a mix of green herbs). Perfection.

I returned with my boyfriend, Chuck, to try a few of the noodle dishes. He ordered the vermicelli with beef; I opted for the shrimp and egg roll. We also tried the popcorn chicken and potsticker appetizers. First, the latter: The popcorn chicken, little bite-size pieces of fried chicken, was divine. Nothing particularly Vietnamese about ’em, but delicious. The potstickers, too, were very good. If anything, I prefer mine more like gyoza than the thicker, softer, Chinese variety. These were somewhere in the middle. Satisfyingly flavorful, nonetheless.

As far as the vermicelli is concerned, I preferred the beef over the shrimp. There was something about the texture of my protein that was off-putting, and it lacked flavor without adding a dash of the accompanying lime chili fish sauce. These were both meals that highlight the five elements as well as a balance of hot and cold. The noodles (wood), for instance, were served at room temperature, while the protein (earth) was hot and the herbs (fire) were cold. It made for a serious full-sensory experience, with the additional variety of textures.

Speaking of textures, there was something about the shrimp that I did not find appealing—they were rough, rather than plump and juicy. The egg rolls provided a satisfying crunch, but not a whole lot of flavor. The barbecued beef, however, was heavenly, giving me a serious case of plate envy. Chuck described his dish as “exceptional”; I’d return for the pho (and, in fact, already have), but not the shrimp vermicelli.

Reviews online indicate inconsistency with service—perhaps the language barrier or cultural differences turn some people off, but I experienced only friendliness. The dining area is minimalist, but nice. The outdoor patio offers a change of scenery, though the view of the backside of Tinseltown is not all that interesting.