My first memory of Vietnamese food has a dateline of Paris in the 1980s. Narrow stereotypes about what was tasty in Europe’s cities had been crumbling, all for the best. Nothing could have tasted fresher than that first herb-salad-packed Vietnamese rice noodle wrap from a streetside stand after a week of cheesy croque-monsieur sandwiches and creamy sauces in French cafes.
Early in this gray Michigan winter, I was pleased to find equally fresh Vietnamese spring rolls at VKitchen, in the semicircular Colonnade strip mall on Eisenhower near Ann Arbor-Saline Rd. Settling into the bright dining room, I was handed a multipage menu–and there in front was a tantalizing photo of perky pink shrimp pressed with a translucent rice noodle wrap into a green filling of lemongrass, lettuce, and herbs like mint, basil, and cilantro. I ordered that cheerful goi cuon up quick. Though the double fresh spring roll appetizer came with more light rice vermicelli noodles than are often included elsewhere, a crunchy peanut sauce was a welcome complement.
The good start continued with fried egg rolls: a colorful variety of shredded veggies, ground pork, and full flavor in a crispy wheat flour wrapper. The fine execution of the egg rolls and the crab Rangoon–light on grease–foreshadowed a promising meal ahead.
Pages upon pages of menu entrees are divided by type, like pho soups, curries, noodles, and banh mi baguette sandwiches, the latter served with a default spread of chicken pate and mayo along with choices of meats and pickled veggies. All the entrees I tasted ranged from good to great, topping out with the hearty, meaty “special dishes” like bo luc lac, “shaking beef.” The name refers to the preparation, in which small cubes of spiced, soy-marinated meat are shaken while searing in a wok. The result is a compelling layer of caramelized crust on the slightly smoky-sweet beef, onions, and peppers. It’s served over rice, with brown rice $1.50 extra, but the dish itself seems a bargain at $15–and that’s more than anything else on the menu except seafood combos.
The vermicelli combo bowl is just the kind of refreshing vinegar-sugar-salt-veggie-meat amalgam that makes Vietnamese cuisine so addictive: grilled shrimp and pork balanced perfectly with fresh salad veggies and pickled carrot and daikon, with a sliced egg roll atop. It’s served at room temperature, letting the flavors blossom and provide a complex dressing for the underlying noodles.
The aromatic chicken curry is an excellent sum of simple parts, mainly tender bone-chopped thigh meat and big chunks of potato adrift in a slightly sweet yellow-curry coconut milk. There’s a stew-like aura to the huge bowl, and you will probably want to opt for the baguette when choosing among the starch accompaniments, because neither rice nor noodles go as well with the potatoes and curry sauce.
Among several pho options, I tried only the chicken. The menu said it was made with beef broth, but I didn’t expect the beefiness to be so overpowering. The dish of accompaniments, while tasting fresh and fine, was not as neatly laid out as I’ve seen elsewhere.
Service, too, can get slapdash when the dining room is crowded, to the point where it can distract from the good food. We had to ask twice before a spoon was brought for the pho, and our table of five’s drinks arrived nearly fifteen minutes apart. But then, the drinks are creative, non-alcoholic concoctions that probably benefit from being made to order and served right away. You get the sense strawberries and plums were macerated right before being poured over ice in a tall glass with ginger ale and sea salt. Soaked basil seeds swam like bubble-tea tadpoles and gave nutty texture to a drink of malva nut and grass jelly. A thick straw also is necessary for the pulpy sweet soursop. And Vietnamese coffee arrives picture perfect, dripping via a quaint metal percolator lid into a glass tumbler with a thick band of condensed milk at the bottom. If you’re going to order dessert–and the banana-coconut-peanut ice cream is a good reason to do so–it would make a superb accompaniment.
In addition to improving on the friendly but disjointed service, VKitchen needs to bring the elegance of the cuisine and dining room to the dark back hallway where the restrooms are–and where a lack of tidiness is off-putting. With a back-of-the-house cleanup and a few more people on hand to help serve the delicious food, VKitchen will be a strip-mall gem.
883 W. Eisenhower Pkwy. (Colonnade)
Appetizers $6-$9; sandwiches $5-$8; entrees $9-$16; smoothies and fruit drinks $4; desserts $3.50-$6
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.