PHILADELPHIA -- Vietnamese food is all about the marriage of opposites and the unrelated. From soup to dessert, the food is punctuated by distinct flavors that somehow meld well together. Think cinnamon and hot peppers. Or lime and chicken broth.
A place that brings such pairings to exquisite heights is Vietnam Restaurant.
It is tucked into the northern stretch of Philadelphia's Chinatown, across the street from its competition, Vietnam Palace. Philadelphians argue about which is better.
I am partial to the food of Benny Lai, Vietnam Restaurant's owner. When I lived in Philadelphia I would eat his cooking five to seven times a week. His egg noodle soup with plump wontons and squirts of lime, cool rice noodles known as bun topped with freshly grilled chicken, and crispy spring rolls with succulent spices tucked inside were staples in my diet. And there were always the goi cuon, the never-fried summer rolls that I would eat morning, noon, and night. (Sometimes for dessert.)
Since moving to Boston I have yet to find goi cuon that are made fresh, with rice paper that is still pliable, rice noodles still soft, pink and plump blanched shrimp, and a translucent layer of pork, all rolled around a scallion green that teases from the roll.
Though the goi cuon is hard to beat, dinner at Vietnam Restaurant is the time to stretch. The shrimp, squid, and scallops are lightly battered, then quick-fried and coated with spiced salt. Lime chicken is tangy with citrus and a hint of garlic. The national soup, pho, is good, too, but since this isn't strictly a noodle soup house, why not sample the soups with tomato broths.
And always check the board for specials. Lai often creates new dishes using fresh catches like pan-fried soft shell crabs.
For me, the scenery is almost an afterthought. At least it was when the place was a tiny first floor of a rowhouse buzzing with fluorescent lights. In 1999 the restaurant began a slow transformation. Today it is two floors of rich mahogany and dark-stained oak with small track lights. Greenery and wicker chairs are scattered about. The new decor far better evokes the relative peace of Vietnam in colonial times.
Unfortunately, with the new surroundings have come larger crowds and half the old menu. The family says it has pared down to focus on the dishes it does best. I can't argue with that. Instead I'll just order more goi cuon.
For details on Vietnam Restaurant see the Philadelphia itinerary.
Suzanne Sataline can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.