Eating Las Vegas has often wondered whether Vietnamese food in America is the ultimate revenge for that little dust-up we caused there in the 60s. They could never hope to outgun us, the thinking goes, so the expats figured they’d bore us to death with their cuisine.
Yep, ELV is definitely not a fan. Vietnamese restaurants, Vietnamese menus, spring rolls, rice, noodles and pho are so similar in so many restaurants, you would swear there is a single kitchen buried somewhere under Spring Mountain Road, cooking and delivering the food to the dozen or so pho parlors lining the avenue.
(“But you’ve gotta try my mother’s goi cuon,” we’ve heard from a couple of Vietnamese/American friends. “It’s totally different and much better than anything you’ll find in a restaurant.” “Have you been to Garden Grove, California?” another has asked us. “The restaurants there are so much better and much more authentic than you’ll find in Vegas.”)
For the record: We did, they aren’t, yes, and no they’re not.
Allow us to explain.
Beef is a big deal in Vietnam. Lot of restaurants like to feature a special they call “7 Courses of Beef” — which is usually seven courses of the cheapest meat possible, sliced, ground and marinated into an avalanche of awfulness. The only thing worse than the off cuts relied upon by the Vietnamese is the cheap-ass lunch meat they stuff into those bargain basement banh mi sandwiches.
To make matters worse, when it comes to grilling, Vietnamese cooks cook everything to well-done — which effectively makes the tough pieces even tougher. To be fair, better cuts work their way into various noodle soups — usually sliced very thin — and the poaching effect can be quite satisfying, in a shabu-shabu sort of way.
Be that as it may, we’ve chewed and chewed on so much budget beef in so many Vietnamese restaurants, our jaw deserves a Distinguished Service Cross. And when someone tells me the restaurant “…uses the whole cow” in preparing pho and other beef dishes, all we can imagine is the owner at home barbecuing prime sirloins and filets while his customers try to masticate their way through some chunk of blade roast.
So let’s get one thing straight: Vietnamese food is challenging (for all the wrong reasons) and boring with a capital B. Or so we thought.
What Chef/owner Khai Vu is doing at District One Kitchen & Bar is standing Vietnamese food on its ear, and creating glamour in a cuisine that used to have all the sex appeal of Hilary Clinton.
He’s doing this by staying true to the idom of the country — food rich in fresh herbs, accents, sour, fermented flavors and loaded with contrasts in both texture and aromas — but tweaking it into small, sexy plates (and big soup statements) that are as far from the same old same old as a soft shell crab is from a Mrs. Paul’s Fish Stick.
Take, for example, his Vietnamese carpaccio:
Thinly pounded sirloin is stretched provocatively over a rectangular plate, then “marinated” in fresh lime juice and drizzled with sizzling sesame oil. The effect is, at once familiar and strange — with the oil and acid created a warm, salad-like taste, and the sliced onions and fried garlic all by popping in your mouth with every bite. The result is so delicious you’ll be tempted to walk up to the next Italian chef you know and ask him: “why don’t you do something like that?”
Vu doesn’t stop there when it comes to mixing his metaphors. Chinese bao (pork belly buns)…
….are getting as ubiquitous as cheeseburgers, but he gives his a Southeast Asian bent with lightly pickled daikon and carrot, micro-cilantro and fresh roasted and crushed peanuts.
The schmear of hoisin and siracha doesn’t hurt a bit either. As fond as we are of Sheridan Su’s bao at Fat Choy, these give them a run for your money.
And then there is the seafood.
Despite having almost 3,000 miles of coastline, seafood isn’t the first thing that leaps into our wok when we think of Vietnam. Maybe it’s because of all those pho parlors, or perhaps it’s because of our prejudice against cheap, farm-raised Asian seafood, but we can’t remember ever ordering anything that swims in a Vietnamese restaurant. If you’re the same, cast aside your bigoted beliefs as soon as you walk through these doors, because the lobster pho alone (pictured at top) is worth a special trip, and the yellowtail collar…
…(known as hamachi kama in Japanese restaurants) is worth two. Perfectly grilled. Clean tasting. Soft, buttery and succulent. It is the apotheosis of this fish, and as good as any you’ll find in a Japanese restaurant in our humble burg.
We could go on and on about the menu (we’ve been in four times and have tried 2/3rds of it), but there’s nary a clinker in the bunch, and standouts like the Five Spices Roasted Cornish Hen and Slow-Braised Pork Belly in Young Coconut Juice will have your entire table fighting for the last morsel.
Lest you think they serve nothing but fork-tender filet and sirloin here, we must admit we’ve had a few pieces of chewy “shaken beef” (and a very fatty short rib) show up at our table. However, these have done nothing to dissuade our palate from its enthusiasm for this nouveau take on a cuisine we had written off years ago.
As for service, it is earnest and friendly but sometimes inept. (We asked for a ladle for a shared pho and the waitron brought us a giant stainless steel one from the kitchen.)
But the groceries used here are a notch or three above its competitors, and the cooking more careful, more interesting and more scrumptious than you will find in any Vietnamese restaurant in the High Mojave Desert.
So, as it turns out, ELV really loves Vietnamese food. He just needed Khai Vu to interpret it for him.
Eating Las Vegas has both paid, and been comped, for his various meals here. Prices are a flat-out steal, with apps to entrees running in the $6-$12 range. The lobster pho ran us $27 last week, and was more than enough for two people.
DISTRICT ONE KITCHEN & BAR
3400 Jones Blvd. #8
Las Vegas, NV 89146