Thoa’s tempts Vietnamese tastebuds

Thoa\'s Vietnamese steak fritesAlright, it’s safe to say that Vietnamese is the new Thai. I can’t quite keep up with all the openings. Moxie is now The Signature, Tamarind Tree’s owners have opened Long in the former Qube space. And there’s finally pho in Fremont.
 
Coinciding with the Vietnamese boom is the breakout of restaurant business at 1st and Union. On the south side of the intersection, wearing uppercase letters, TASTE is in the Seattle Art Museum, while ART is in the new Four Seasons Hotel. (I know, I know…seems like ART should be in the museum, and taste in the hotel.) On the north side, you’ll find Union, and my choice for a recent dinner.
 
Twas a good night at Thoa’s Restaurant & Lounge. (Thoa’s is pronounced almost like “twas” and is named for the restaurant owner, Thoa Nguyen.) Yes, this is the same location that previously served upscale Hawaiian food when known as The Islander, but inspired by a trip to her homeland, Thoa did an overnight transformation to a Vietnamese restaurant. When I came in to check it out, she treated me to a feast, and as I relinquished control of the menu, I enjoyed an array of aromatic dishes.
 
The spicy chili squid ($10) was made with sliced steak pieces; I generally prefer the tentacles and body parts, but these were tender and surprisingly (read: pleasingly) spicy. Summer rolls were the other starter; the jicama version are good ($7), but the soft-shell crab rolls ($10) are even better, with the fried crab giving an oceanic crunch.
 
I like seeing lesser-known Vietnamese herbs and vegetables on the menu (there’s even a glossary available), and some were evident in the “fragrant sweet-and-sour soup with shrimp” ($7). A little on the sweet side, I appreciated the inclusion of both cilantro and culantro (a leafy herb from “tropical” America), as well as ngo om (rice paddy herb).
 
Three entrées followed. Thoa sent out some pan-fried Vietnamese rice noodles (with shrimp, $14), very reminiscent of Pad Thai, made from flat rice noodles which I prefer to the thinner varieties. Tasty, as was the five spice duck breast ($19) with sautéed watercress, though the coconut kabocha squash lacked the pumpkin punch that I would have liked.
 
The revelation of the night, though, was a plate called “Vietnamese steak frites” ($20). I’m drawn to Asian restaurants because I want to escape the meat-and-potatoes routine, so I was skeptical when I saw the dish, looking a little like poutine with everything mixed together: tenderloin steak pieces, red and green bell pepper slices, onions, scallions, and lettuce and tomato for garnish. Oh…and, of course, french fries. Yet it was delicious! The fries retained some fatty crispiness while still soaking up the juices of everything else on the plate, including fish sauce, giving it some Vietnamese flair.
 
Thoa told me her restaurant represents “my interpretation of Vietnamese food now…for today’s generation.” Dishes like the steak frites invite anyone unfamiliar with this southeast Asian cuisine to dip their toes in the water and try something new. Yet I saw a lot of people in the bar area (a friendly feel, by the way, though you might want to opt for a different room if you want a more peaceful meal) eating happy hour, very American, China Beach burgers. An Islander favorite, I understand, but to complete the transformation to a destination Vietnamese restaurant, I’d like to see Thoa push a little harder to get her customers to take the plunge and discover the joys of Vietnamese cuisine. It might take time to transform tastes from burgers to bun bo Hue, but especially with all the other Vietnamese restaurants in the area, here’s hoping Thoa can do it.

Thoa's Restaurant & Lounge on Urbanspoon

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