I will admit off the bat that I have always had a soft spot for the original Vung Tau in San Jose (see link to website). They have a newer outpost in Milpitas and also own the more upscale Tamarine on the Peninsula somewhere. I've probably eaten at the SJ branch a handful of times before their renovation, and my husband and I actually ordered our appetizers for our wedding 5 yrs. ago from them. Whether in small or large volume, they have always delivered and delighted.
Before the renovation, the Vung Tau as I knew it had a funky diner ambience that was more Applebee's than SE Asia. They completed their renovation around Dec. 2004, and initial CH reports of the food were mixed at best. I didn't want to believe that my beloved Vung Tau was descending, and based on my lunch there this weekend, I needn't worry anymore...
It was comfort with a capital "C". From the ambience to the service to the food to the portions. It was all very good. First off, their renovation looks fantastic. It's stylish and modern while being understated and comfy. Soothing matte hues of aquamarine and various earth tones are offset by natural woods and flora. Soft, warm lighting sets the place aglow. The flow and the skeleton of the old place remains for nostalgic patrons.
Since moving back to the Bay Area, I've eaten at the Viet establishments around Grand Century Mall a couple of times now; however, nothing came close to the synchronicity I felt at Vung Tau. I was so happy to see that even though the place looks more polished and inviting, most of the patrons are still Vietnamese or Asian and that the menu looked just as familiar but expanded and better organized. I did notice that prices had creeped up a bit, but consider it reasonable given the high quality.
I met up w/ a girlfriend who was visiting from LA. She's not the most adventurous or large eater and it was lunch, so we ordered a few basic items but still had 2 servings worth of leftovers that I took home since their portions are generous. What we had:
Banh Khot ($7.50): Labeled as an appetizer, I've been curious to try this ever since Melanie's post and enticing photo on banh khot in SF. My photo of this along w/ the cha gio is below. I giggled when it came out looking like stuffed mushrooms. Seven doughy discs made of rice flour and coconut milk w/ shrimp embedded. Scallions and an orange crunchy "dust" that I couldn't identify are sprinkled on top. These can be steamed or fried, and I believe VT's version is first steamed and then pan-fried for some crispiness. It was served w/ the usual herbage for maximum rolling and dipping pleasure.
I liked this overall, but thought it had some shortcomings. It's best eaten fresh when it's hot and crispy on the outside but tender and creamy on the inside. I loved the sweetness from coconut milk, but my friend found it a tad too sweet. The shrimp tasted fine, but were sadly hidden. It was great to try, but I don't know if I'll rush to order it again.
Cha gio ($7.75): Six perfectly fried spring rolls w/ lots of fresh lettuce and herbage to accompany. This may sound expensive for this ubiquitous appetizer, but it was worth every penny IMO. The photo below doesn't quite capture how large and well-fried these babies were. A great spring roll is hard to produce in terms of balanced flavor, proportion of filling to wrapper, and frying technique, but VT's version hits all the right notes. The ground pork filling is so savory, meaty, yet not greasy and the wrapper is crackly w/ a hint of salt.
We also ordered com bo luc lac ($12.95) aka shaking beef and rice platter, and since I want to link a photo, I'll write a follow up response to elaborate on that dish. I will add that VT's nuoc cham (ranking in importance w/ housemade BBQ sauce) is near perfect for me. It is assertively pungent and well-balanced w/ elegant julienne of carrot, although it leans to the sweet side. The traditional herbs and romaine lettuce leaves were as fresh and overflowing as could be.
Will add a follow up to speak to the bo luc lac and the wonderful service. I plan to return w/ my husband when we're in the area next weekend for the big jazz festival so hope to try some more interesting items.