Seattle is full of ambitious Vietnamese bistros — think Monsoon, Bambuza and Green Papaya. They have wine lists, fancy (or minimalist modern) décor and prices that put them outside the reach of this column.
While I enjoy all of those restaurants, most days I'd rather find myself at a place like Pho Kien Giang in Mountlake Terrace. It's no bistro. It's more like a diner, a bright and bustling little restaurant, already more than half-full before noon on a weekday.
There's no wine list, but they serve a lot of Vietnamese iced coffee ($2).
While takeout is popular at Pho Kien Giang, it's not the sort of restaurant where the tables are perfunctory. In fact, the dining room is rather cozy and conducive to lingering, although service is downright speedy. The menu is inexpensive and, like a diner, sticks to the basics. The basics here, however, aren't omelets and burgers; they're banh mi, pho, and rice and noodle plates topped with meat, tofu and vegetables.
The pho (noodle soup) is available in two sizes: small ($4.95) and large ($5.95). Places that serve pho are the opposite of Starbucks, in a sense. At Starbucks, the smallest size is "tall," which is small. The smallest size at a pho restaurant is "small," which is huge. The "large" is the size of President Taft's bathtub. Pho Kien Giang is no exception to the rule, and it offers the standard array of beef choices as well as chicken and tofu versions.
Banh mi ($2), the ubiquitous Vietnamese sandwiches, are also worth trying here. It's a pared-down selection (you can have sliced pork, chicken or shredded pork) that exemplifies Pho Kien Giang's approach: simple, cheap and fresh-tasting.
Pho Nam, Ve Don: According to the menu, this beef noodle soup contains "well-done flank and crunchy flank." Nothing about the beef was crunchy, but this was quality pho, with hearty broth and a nice plate of accompanying vegetables and herbs.
Bi Cuon: I judge a Vietnamese restaurant by its salad rolls. If they are tasteless and the rice paper is beginning to dry out, that's a bad sign. If, as at Pho Kien Giang, they are moist, flavorful, full of shredded pork and accompanied by a bowl of nuoc cham dipping sauce, then I can relax, and maybe even grin.
Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio: If I had to name my favorite version of pork on a stick, it would be the Vietnamese thit nuong, with its slightly sweet marinade. Pho Kien Giang's pork skewers, served over salad greens and vermicelli with an egg roll, are exceptional.
Com Suon Bo Nuong, Hot Ga Opla: This one didn't work. A meager slice of grilled beef short ribs was served over rice with an overcooked fried egg. It was reminiscent of a bad diner breakfast.
Ca Phe Sua Nong: It was too cold out for Vietnamese iced coffee, so I chose the hot version, where the condensed milk doesn't float atop the coffee, so it's harder to pretend you're drinking something sophisticated rather than very sweet cafe au lait — not that there is anything wrong with that.
Itemized bill, meal for two
Pho Nam, Ve Don $4.95
Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio $5.95
Com Suon Bo Nuong, Hot Ga Opla $5.95
Bi Cuon $2.75
Ca Phe Sua Nong $2.00
Matthew Amster-Burton: firstname.lastname@example.org