The Vietnamese restaurants in Sonoma County represent some of the best bets for inexpensive chopstick-able food in the wine country. Heres a run-down of six places, in alphabetical order.
CAM RANH BAY My first attempt to eat here, I was turned away at 7:20pm because the kitchen had run out of both rice and noodles. The next time the chicken stock for the seafood noodle soup was an artificial shade of bright almost fluorescent yellow reeking of an unappetizing petrochemical odor that matched the color and aroma of the chicken soup at Second Avenue Deli in New York. Maybe they came from the same manufacturing plant? In addition, despite asking twice for my drink to be served along with my meal, it did not arrive until I was ready to go, when I asked that it be deducted from my bill. No return visit needed here.
CROSSROADS - Not strictly Vietnamese, this newcomer in Cloverdale opened in November to offer a mix of world cuisines. My first time here I had ordered an Angus Burger ($6.50, 1/2 lb.) and was waiting for my food when the staff sat down to lunch. The Vietnamese mother of the two brothers who own the place, Mai Cook, introduced herself and asked, would you like to try some of the cabbage-egg dish I made for us? Its good with rice, and I know that we Asians like some rice every day. I had a taste of this homey dish and ended up spending some time chatting with Mai seated on the comfy leather couch in the pool room. She had owned a coffee shop in town before my time in the county preparing an occasional Vietnamese dish for her regulars.
The regular menu includes two Vietnamese offerings. Cha Gio (imperial rolls), $5.50 are served with a small pile of spicy cabbage slaw and a nuoc cham dipping sauce with very good balance of sweet, sour and spicy warmth. When I mentioned to Mai that the flavors were fine, but that the ingredients werent wrapped as solidly as they should be, she shook her head and said that the employees arent skilled in pulling the wrappers as tightly as she can. Mien Gai (chicken broth with bean threads), $6, has a lightly colored, subtle yet intense broth with poached chicken breast and slices of carrot. It was somewhat skimpy on the bean threads, given the price, also they were not soaked adequately to plump and soften. I gave Mai my phone number and asked her to call me when shes making the daily specials of her own style of Vietnamese cooking. Thats probably the key to getting the true execution of her recipes.
BTW, the Angus burger turned out to be the best thing Ive had here. The oversized burger on a toasted onion roll was very good, after the first one was sent back for being too done and not medium-rare. The fries ordered well-done were wonderfully golden and crisp.
PHO VIETNAM The young men who wait tables here could use a lesson in basic manners, let alone in service, to teach them to not throw menus on the tables or shout at each other across the room. The place has been crowded with high turnover each time Ive visited. But this continues to be my favorite Vietnamese food in the County with more intensity and heartier flavors than the rest. I like the pho as well as any of my stops in the City. The broth is a touch sweet from palm sugar, but its also very deep and anise-y, the way I like it. This is one of the few places where Ill use the limes, which balances the tastes. The basil is the freshest and most plentiful here, and the bean sprouts have been plucked of the beans and root ends to leave only the silver. The feathery tripe is cut properly and the fatty brisket is richly flavored. The serving of meats in the pho bo is very generous even for the small size bowl.
Grilled meats pork, chicken, beef, and shrimp offered in an array of bun and rice plates are carefully cooked and well-seasoned and dont just rely on nuoc cham dipping sauce for flavor. Other favorites are the imperial rolls, combo rice plates with pork skin, fresh lemonade, and young coconut drink. My only disappointment so far has been the seafood egg noodle soup.
SAIGON CUISINE Id been turned off after one visit by the Vietnamese pancake, $5.50, with pork tasting of stale refrigerator and some that had gone off. It was truly inedible. But Michele Anna Jordans post (linked below) caused me to take a second look. Unfortunately, as of June, it still seems to be in one of those slumps she describes. Her touchstone dish, Spicy beef and pork noodle soup (bun bo hue), $4.50, contained barely five mouthfuls of rice vermicelli. Besides being stingy in proportion with noodles, there was only a small amount of dried out and overcooked meats, plus the seasonings were overly spicy with too much burn and little else in the way of flavor. I abandoned ship to get a taco from the nearby trucks on Sebastopol Road.
THANG LONG The room here is more sedate and quiet with murals on the walls. The menu has the most variety and goes beyond noodle and rice plates with several daily specials rotating. My overall impression of the food is that it is also more sedate and subtle, although sometimes its plain bland. Recommended are the simple and straightforward green papaya and beef jerky salad, $4.25, and the stuffed chicken wings, $5.95.
The catfish in claypot, $7.95, was decent but inadequate carmelization robs it of flavor potential. The shrimp and pork Vietnamese crepe, $6.50, was tasty and I liked the technique of embedding the halved shrimp and pieces of bbq pork in the outside shell to crisp in the pan. However, the bean sprout fillling was overstewed and exuded too much moisture causing the bottom of the crepe to disintegrate. Bun with bbq pork and egg rolls, $5.95, showed off the kitchens grilling skills and deft hand with imperial rolls. Yet, the less than crisp iceberg lettuce, watery nuoc cham, and puddle of water in the bottom of the bowl diluted the flavors. The pho bo dac biet, $5.95, had lovely high-toned broth, however, the quality of meats was disappointing. The fatty brisket lacked flavor, the tendon was overly soft and unseasoned, the tripe was cut too thick, and the slices of eye of round were submerged in the hot broth and did not remain rare. Yet, I was entranced by the broth and would shift to a chicken or seafood noodle soup that would better suit its character.
Though the menu says the lemonade is fresh, its made from powder. A better bet is one of the tapioca drinks, $2.50, especially mango. The tapioca pearls are a bit softer than I would prefer, but are good enough.
Pho here had a muddled taste and the rice noodles were overly soft. The room has a vaguely mildew aroma. nuff said.
In summary, Pho Vietnam is most reliable for simple and hearty pho and rice plates. Thang Long has potential for more elaborate preparations with careful selection from the large menu. Saigon Cuisine appears to be in a down period. Crossroads remains a question mark. Vy Vy and Cam Ranh Bay are not recommended.
Cam Ranh Bay [Sonoma County]
966 N. Dutton
Crossroads [Sonoma County]
116 East 1st Street
Pool room and bar menu until midnight on Friday & Saturday
Pho Vietnam [Sonoma County]
711 Stony Point Rd.
Saigon Cuisine [Sonoma County]
320 W. Third
Thang Long [Sonoma County]
175 N. McDowell Blvd.
Vy Vy Restaurant [Sonoma County]
443 Dutton Ave.