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

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