Yes, I do have a favorite restaurant. The question comes up from time to time, and usually I hem and haw, and demur on the grounds that, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, for every restaurant there is a season, and my favorite omelet, steak, bowl of chowder or cold sesame noodles don’t all come from the same kitchen.
And yet, after all the hesitation, I generally wind up naming a place that I’ve loved for 20 years. It’s a place where I’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries, and where I’ve taken out-of-town visitors. It’s a place where I can order the same dish year after year — until I feel guilty about my lack of curiosity.
It’s a long, narrow restaurant with three columns of tables, two that abut sky-blue walls, and a third that runs down the center of the room. The owner is a slender, calm, smiling man who walks the dining room, filling orders, and sharing news of the day.
It’s a place that for many Louisville gastronomes symbolizes the best in casual ethnic dining.
This year marks 20 years since Alex and Kim Lam opened Vietnam Kitchen in the Iroquois Manor Shopping Center. Alex Lam was a South Vietnamese naval officer who fled his homeland after the war. He and Kim came to Louisville in the early ’80s, working until they’d put by enough to open Vietnam Kitchen in 1993.
And opening the restaurant was just the beginning of a hard, long haul to make it profitable — when they opened the restaurant, the couple gave up their steady incomes to run a speculative business. “It was like starting over again,” Alex says.
It took four years for the business to show an operating profit.
Now, the Lams’ sons have finished college (one is in medicine, the other in business). And at 20, Vietnam Kitchen is one of the city’s best-loved dining institutions. It’s a great American restaurant — that happens to serve Vietnamese food.
My favorite dishes? Well, sup man gua ($3.75) for one, a jade green bowl of asparagus soup seasoned with crabmeat (A14 on the menu). Or bo tai chanh ($8), a salad that features thin slices of lime-marinated roast beef, onions, carrots and peanuts (A10). Or banh xeo ($6.75), a big savory pancake stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and onions (A17).
This time of year, I often resort to the curative powers of Asian soups. That might mean the simplest pho tai — just an austere broth with plenty of rice noodles and slices of beef that I can doctor to my taste with jalapenos, sprouts, basil leaves and sriracha (B1, $7.95), or my condition might call for bub bo Hue, spicy and enriched with the flavors of pork hock and beef, lemongrass and mint (J1, $9.35).
There are plenty of dishes served with rice — like bo xao dau, a saute of beef and green beans in a gently fiery sauce (E6, $8.75), or ga xao ca ry cay, a genuinely fiery green curry with chicken and vegetables (F9, $11).
But I’m a noodle nut, and when my wife, Mary, and I visit Vietnam Kitchen, the only real question is, “which one of us is going to order K6, hu tieu ca Trieu Chau?”
This dish ($8.75) has changed pretty significantly over the years. In the beginning it was a sparingly sauced tangle of wide noodles (with a choice of beef, chicken, pork or tofu), bean sprouts, lemongrass and peanuts. The sauce was a captivating accent, but never the main focus — a brick-red spicy complex of balanced flavors with elements of sweet and hot, ginger and garlic, and an elusive finish that might be the very definition of that oh-so-mysterious thing called umami.
Over the years, customers kept clamoring, “more sauce, more sauce!” And nowadays, if you ask, your K6 may come to the table as a gloriously saucy delight (or, if you prefer, the old way). And if you want an extravagant treat, you can order it with a full array of proteins: chicken, pork, beef and shrimp ($11.70).
Go with a group and share the dishes. There’s a good chance you’ll find plenty of favorite dishes of your own.