The Vietnamese obsess over fresh herbs. The word for herbs is rau thom, which translates as fragrant vegetable. Fragrance is primal in Vietnamese cuisine. Consider what pho would be without the side plate of fixings to "doctor" the soup: Thai basil, cilantro, mint, and, perhaps, rau ram (Vietnamese coriander).
Much of Vietnamese cuisine is dependent on herbs that are hard to find in Charlotte: culantro (similar to cilantro and, ironically, native to the Caribbean); rice paddy herb (rau om); and betel leaves (la lo), small heart-shaped leaves that are used to wrap minced beef and are then grilled for a dish called bo la lot.
Creative Vietnamese chefs in the U.S. tend to substitute these unattainable herbs with similar ones that are readily obtainable so a dish can be placed on a menu. This is what Chef Ricky Lai has done at his delightful Vietnam Grille: Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine. In place of la lo leaves, he uses grape leaves to create bo nuong la (stuffed grape leaves) appetizer, an addicting delicacy.
Owners Tommy and Ricky Lai are brothers. The former came to Charlotte in 2005 and eventually lured his older brother south, away from the family-run Vietnamese restaurants in center city Philadelphia. Ricky Lai says that Philadelphia has the fourth or fifth largest population of Vietnamese émigrés in the U.S. and that moving to a smaller community has had its challenges. From that larger community, he learned to mediate his cooking styles. Lai says, "The dishes from the south [Vietnam] are sweet, those from the middle are salty, and the ones from the north are light." Lai chooses not to emulate one regional style, but combines these flavor profiles into his dishes. He attributes the 30 years of success his family has had in the arduous restaurant business to this.
The Lais' 42-seat Vietnam Grille opened last April in an outparcel along South Boulevard. The space has hosted many fast food joints and the windows front the parking lot and busy South Boulevard just beyond. The interior is clean, but perfunctory with lemongrass-hued walls accented by a ruddy red below the wainscoting. Tables are set with the Chinese horoscope place mats, and a bevy of condiments: hoisin, Huy Fong sriracha (an American product) soy, and chili oil.
Freshness of ingredients is essential to Chef Lai. Since the kitchen is quite small, Lai has a limited menu, which is divided into appetizers; soups including seven phos; bun (rice vermicelli dishes); co'm tam (steamed broken rice); traditional dishes such as curries, lemongrass sauce, and stews; and vegetarian items.
We like Ricky Lai's attitude a lot. His menu is clean and unforced, light but not weightless. The grape leaf app is a clever idea which loses nothing in execution. All the food from his kitchen arrives stylishly plated on a canvas of white. The concentrated flavor of the grilled squid starter is torqued up by a heady dose of lemongrass. Another app, the simple meatball roll, hit every bell in the taste department with sweet spices, herbaceous basil, crisp bean sprouts and an added hit of chile sauce.
These capable early dishes lead into a series of remarkable entrées. The broken rice house special is quite lush with ingredients and lovely to look at. Much of what the kitchen does is in the mix: grilled meatballs, bites of crisp and meaty spring rolls, char-grilled chicken and shrimp. However, the accompanying tepid nuoc mam (fish sauce dip) is less "fishy" than the traditional sauce served in most Vietnamese places around town. In fact, it is so occidentally modified that we added other condiments to ramp up the dish. More ambitious and successful is the salt encrusted baked large shrimp with a toss of stir fried slivers of bell peppers, onions, garlic and chilies.
The wait staff is attentive and well versed in the chef's recipes. Entrées range from $7.50 for rice vermicelli dishes to $13.95 for cu lao thap cam, a soup with seafood, chicke, and vegetables. Alcohol is not available; beverages include iced coffees, juices and smoothies. The portions at Vietnam Grille are not so large to provide take-home packages, but then this is consistent with Lai's dedication to well-composed, fresh food. If he's fishing for repeat customers, after a few bites, we were totally hooked.
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