After goodness knows how many visits to various Thai restaurants around the Valley, it was time for me to get Dad to branch out a bit. Considering that my father was stationed at various bases around Asia during the Korean War, I was a bit surprised at his trepidation at trying other forms of Asian cuisine besides Chinese.
I got Dad to try sushi (a monumental feat that shows I do have the skills to be the next ambassador to somewhere) and, of course, he is now in love with Thai, so I was a bit surprised when he gave me the “Dad look of disapproval” when I mentioned Vietnamese food. “I am not sure about that,” he said. After assuring him that we would not be having some bizarre dish, I allayed some of his fears when I informed him that Vietnam had once been a French colony.
I wasn’t really sure where to take him until I remembered a little divy place on 19th Avenue called Da Vang, which had been recommended to me on several occasions. I was told the place was nothing to look at, but the food was excellent, inexpensive and the service great. So, with Dad in tow, I headed over near Camelback and 19th Avenue, cursing the light rail construction as I went.
We found the place with no problems and it was, indeed, nothing to look at, but the place was quite busy. After parking and entering, we were immediately seated by one of the staff members who would eventually end up being our server. Reviewing the menu, I could see Dad was a bit puzzled, particularly by the bahn mi. I told him to relax and I would take care of the ordering. Since I know what Dad likes and doesn’t like, it was an easy choice.
Our server arrived and I placed our order. We would start with the Cha Gio Egg Rolls ($2.00) and the Goi Cuon Spring Rolls ($2.00). This would be followed by the Bun Bi Cha Gio ($4.75) for Dad and the Pho Ta Bo Vien ($4.75) for myself. I also ordered Dad a Vietnamese Lemonade ($1.75) and a Diet Coke ($0.99) for myself.
As we waited, I filled in the gaps for Dad as to how this cuisine was different and similar to Thai food. He was all eyes and ears as dishes were passing the table and he kept pointing to bowls of Pho and asking what they were.
The interior of the place was spartan at best. There wasn’t much in the way of decoration, but the staff members were efficient and friendly, so we weren’t put off by the lack of atmosphere.
About five minutes after we had placed our order, our Spring Rolls arrived. Sitting in the slightly elastic rice wrappers, the mixture of vegetables, shrimp and pork were inviting. Also brought to our table was a huge plate of lettuce leaves, bean sprouts, cilanto and basil leaves. I showed Dad how to lightly dip these delights in the fish sauce and enjoy. I was pleased these rolls were very cold. So often, I have had Vietnamese spring rolls that end up with rubbery wrappers and limp vegetables because they are room temperature. These were fresh and the shrimp, pork and vegetable filling was outstanding. Dad was enjoying them as well, noting that they would be perfect for a snack on a hot summer’s night.
Only a few moments later, our Egg Rolls arrived. These were blazing hot from the fryer and I again showed Dad how to make these work. Wrapping one in a big lettuce leave and adding a few sprigs of cilantro, I was ready for a bite. The rolls were good. The filling was satisfying, but I thought it could have used just a bit more seasoning to bring out the flavors. The lettuce leaves were ice cold, dark green and crunchy. Dad was struggling a bit with the lettuce while using it as a sleeve for the rolls, but he made due and found the experience quite delicious. “Hey, these are just like real egg rolls,” Dad beamed as I tried to muffle a laugh.
After finishing his rolls, Dad tried his Lemonade. He said it was “different” but loved every drop. The lemonade was both sweet and sour and we both liked the fact that you could adjust the tartness of the drink as our server brought an extra bottle of Club Soda to make the lemonade to our liking.
Before we knew it, our entrees had arrived. Dad’s Bun Bi Cha Gio was a large bowl of rice stick noodles with a chopped egg roll, shredded pork, lettuce, mint, bean sprouts and crushed peanuts. Dad dressed his bowl with a mixture of hot sauce, soy sauce and fish sauce and mixed the concoction together fully. His eyes lit up at the first bite. “Wow!” he exclaimed. “This is really good, but it needs more peanuts.” I took a bite and Dad had put a bit too much fish sauce on for my taste, but it was quite good. I liked the mix of textures and the satisfying nature of the dish. Dad was very pleased.
My Pho Ta Bo Vien was a classic Vietnamese soup. The large bowl of simmering broth perfumed my area of the table and I was busy adding bean sprouts, cilantro and basil leaves and a jalapeño pepper to the soup. I was very happy that the soup also had a hefty portion of sliced beef and meatballs added. After allowing it to stew just a bit, I was ready for a great soup. I wasn’t disappointed. The broth was exceptionally rich and had a wonderful, addictive flavor made even better by the herbs that I threw in for good measure. The meat was not as tender as I would have liked, but had a good taste. The meatballs were heavenly. I offered Dad a bite and while he said he liked it, he was in love with his Cha Gio.
We polished off our meals and our waiter returned to check in on us. At this point, I suggested dessert. Dad was more than happy to try something. So, I ordered the Che Dau Den ($1.50), as well as an Iced Vietnamese Coffee ($1.75) and a Hot Vietnamese Coffee ($1.75).
Our server returned in about two minutes with our dessert and coffees. The Che Dau Den was a tall pint glass filled with crushed ice, black beans and coconut milk. I did a quick mix of the ingredients and took a taste. Fantastic. Three ingredients and an outstanding dessert. The beans were soft and somewhat mushy and the ice and milk made it all sweet, savory and cold. Dad took a bite and smiled. “This is great!” Although, he did admit he initially thought the beans were chocolate chips. “I never knew you could make beans into a dessert,” he said.
We then enjoyed our coffees. Dad loved the super strong coffee stirred into a puddle of condensed milk at the bottom of his cup. After drinking it, he realized that he probably would not get much sleep from the caffeine high. My Iced Coffee was exceptional. I was very happy they didn’t serve it with crushed ice as that would have diluted the drink and I wouldn’t have had that “shock” of strong coffee and sweetness.
Our bill was presented and the total was a paltry $23.77. This was a remarkable value. Our server was completely on the ball and very engaging helping me and my Dad pronounce the names of the dishes in Vietnamese.
We left Da Vang and Dad was very happy. He was quite amazed at having beans for dessert, but even more amazed at how good the food was and for such a low price. I thought the place was a true gem. Sure, it sits in yet another run down, old strip mall, and the interior will never make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, but we were there for the food.
Great food, good service, very inexpensive. That is my kind of feast.
Da Vang Restaurant
4538 North 19th Avenue
Phoenix, AZ 85015
Hours: Sunday through Saturday - 8 AM to 8 PM
Notes: Ample parking.
Additional photos can be found at www.feastinginphoenix.com