Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Ben Thanh (first look)

I love Vietnamese restaurants. The ones that I have been to are family owned by first or second generation Vietnamese immigrants that care about their food and their customers. Many were cooks in Vietnam and are still close to the roots of their food, unlike Chinese food served in most restaurants today, were the original technique and recipes have been lost in a sea of short cuts and the ubiquitous brown sauce.

That said, I a Vietnamese restaurant in Charlotte for the first time, Ben Thanh. The space is nicely decorated and you get the idea that this is a family restaurant and they care about how it looks.

We order a couple of apps and some other Vietnamese dishes that we recognized from other restaurants. Therefore, we had a frame of reference for what we were expecting, which may or may not have been affected our perception.

The apps were crispy spring rolls and an uncooked spring roll. The egg roll appeared to be stuffed mostly with an unidentifiable stringy meat, which the menu says is pork and chicken. The filling is not very flavorful, and has an unpleasant texture.

The spring rolls consisted of a rice paper wrapper wrapped around lettuce, rice noodles, and shrimp. It tasted to me more like a salad roll, with too much lettuce and not enough vegetables or other tastes and textures to make it interesting. The shrimp was mostly uninteresting. The dish was mainly a vehicle to eat the peanut sauce served along side, which was tasty, but I would have prefered a mixture of other vegetables, such a carrot, cucumber, and more of the noodles and a few more herbs, for interest and flavor.

For our mains, we had a bun, which is a type of Vietnamese noodle salad, and a stir-fried noodle dish (bun xao thap cam).

A typical bun has a base of lettuce and fresh herbs, covered with a bed of vermicelli rice noodles, and some bits of meat, which in this case was a chargrilled pork. Rice noodles are very light, and have a nice stickiness, but these weren't the rice noodles that I am used to seeing. This was more light spaghetti, which makes for a much heavier dish.

Now, let us pause a moment to consider the chargrilled pork. A moment of silence please.

Thank you.

It was a gift from heaven. No matter what I thought about the rest of the dish, the well seasoned and perfectly grilled bits of pork on the top of the dish was the highlight of my day.

The final dish, the stir-fried noodles, had a steamed quality about it, with a mixture of onions and broccoli combined with overly wet, slippery noodles. It lacked in interest in texture or flavor.

Ben Thanh
4900 Central Ave.
Charlotte, NC 28205

My Philosphy (Restaurants)

What makes a good restaurant?

When I go to a restaurant, I look for a meal that is better than I can make for myself at home-- I cook a lot at home and do pretty well, if I say so myself. For that reason, I will rarely go to a meat and 3, because (other than fried chicken which I am incapable of making well) I always make food better than a meat and 3.

Next, I want a sign that someone cares--that person can be the chef or that person can be the owner, but food without passion is just food. I have found that if the food is mediocre and doesn't hit the right spot, I overeat. I think I am looking for something in the next bite that I didn't find in the last one.

I am not well traveled or fed enough to determine whether a food is true to its ethnic origins. I have some sense about Mexican food, but have no idea whether a pasta dish is "true" to Italy, or a Vietnamese dish is "true" to Vietnam. Nor do I care. All that I care about is that someone with a passion for food, assembled this dish and wants it to taste good.

Farmers' Markets

From the time I moved to Charlotte in 2005 to now, the quantity and quality of the local farmers' markets have improved dramatically.

The Matthews Community Farmers' Market is a beautiful thing, with a fair number of local organic farmers. From spring to fall, the Matthews market is open only on Saturdays beginning at 7:15 a.m. I really doesn't matter much when it closes, because most of the quality produce is gone by 8 a.m., so you need to get up and get there early. The last few beautiful mornings that I have been there, there are large lines. Matthews may be starting to exceed its capacity.

The largest area farmers market is the Charlotte Regional Farmers' Market, a state owned facility. Its a large place, with multiple sheds selling everything from local organic produce to produce that has been trucked in. It is open every day, but most local farmers are there on Saturday morning starting at 8 a.m. Most local farmers are gone by noon. Although the quality at times may not be quite as good as the Matthews market, there is a much greater variety. There is even a rancher that sells fresh (not frozen) pasture raised beef (Underwood Farms).

Why the farmers markets? I buy food at the farmers markets that I will not buy at the grocery. Strawberry are only available in a few short weeks in May and June at the farmers markets--they are much smaller and more delicate than the strawberries you can get at the mega mart, which an intense sweet flavor. Blueberries are the same: small and intense, not large flavorless and pale.

More on farmers markets as the season goes along.