DooWee & Rice, on the outskirts of the Tufts campus, has a downright perfect location. Had this Vietnamese-inspired, fast-food joint existed in my college town, I might never have set foot in a dining hall. Spicy, crispy, savory, garlicky, and addictive seem applicable descriptions for most of what’s coming out of the tiny kitchen.
Owner Duy (pronounced DooWee, hence the restaurant name) Tran, 25, is barely older than the students who fill his 22-seat, counter-service restaurant. Born in Hong Kong to Vietnamese parents who moved to California when he was very young, Tran has been in Boston since he was 8. There is nothing traditionally Vietnamese here except the noodle bowls. He uses Cajun spices with a lot of food, rice dishes are accompanied by chimichurri and pita, but his Southeast Asian flavor profiles influence a lot of the food.
A small order of crispy chicken hearts ($4) gets us a heaping mound of the tiny crisp bites. Rich, livery, and dusted with an addictive spice blend, they are served with chili garlic aioli. This “small’’ order could easily serve six as an appetizer. Tran says later on the phone that he first tried chicken hearts at a Brazilian restaurant years ago, served simply with salt and pepper and he loved them. “There’s nothing weird about it, it’s just another bite of chicken,’’ he says. We like them even more with hearty fries ($8), where the deep crimson bits top thick, golden fries, and are smothered in a garlicky yogurt mixture, dubbed “great white sauce’’ on the menu, and more chili garlic aioli.
Wings come in several flavors and levels of heat ($6 for a small, $9 large), with shatteringly crisp skin. Spicy soy is savory with a touch of sweet heat and a delicious, serious burn. Vietnamese egg rolls ($1) arrive hot and crunchy, filled with shrimp, pork, jicama, and vermicelli. Tran knows his way around a deep-fat fryer.
For something a bit lighter, Vietnamese marinated beef noodles is a riff on the classic Vietnamese bun (vermicelli). After all the fried snacks, this generous mound of rice noodles, salad greens, flavorful beef, crunchy peanuts, and a sprinkle of cilantro and scallion, tastes bright, even a little virtuous.
Some entrees are not as dynamic. Chicken and rice ($7) is a hearty meal of yellow rice with grilled chicken (the marinade is secret, says Tran) and that great white sauce. It comes with a side salad and a slice of pita. Our table prefers the chimichurri version ($7.50), but either way it’s filling comfort food, just not as exciting as some other dishes.
Baobaos ($5), a pair of small, fluffy steamed buns, with pockets of meaty filling, come in a few flavors. We try the pork, which is meltingly tender braised shoulder and belly meat, cloaked in a sweet garlic sauce, crispy shallots, and scallion. Tran also offers chicken, steak, and whatever special he dreams up that day. The light-as-air Vietnamese wheat buns showcase Tran’s skill making bread. When asked about them he laughs, saying they are what take up the majority of his time in the kitchen. Please never take them off the menu.
Tran grew up cooking with his mom. “I always thought I was pretty good at this but never thought I could turn it into a career,’’ he says. After high school, he toyed with the idea of going into business or architecture, but the 9-to-5 grind didn’t feel right. So after a long talk with his parents, he decided to pursue his passion for food and enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Cambridge.
Tracking down Tran to talk about his food is nearly impossible. Several phone calls, and a couple of e-mails later, we finally connect while he is at the market, where he starts every morning, buying what he needs for the day. He makes everything but the pita and ketchup. Well, and the sriracha.
But who needs that when you can order three heat levels of homemade hot sauce for 50 cents each?