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BEN THÀNH VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT 

Gentle Bên Simple decor, complex food One of the top tourist sights in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is the large Ben Thành market, which has been a source for fresh foods and negotiated prices since the 1800s. In March, owner Cuong Duong opened Bên Thành Vietnamese Restaurant on a small strip of Central Avenue real estate (around the 4900 block) that has fostered a plethora of international eateries. Duong isn't new to Charlotte nor to Charlotteans' affinity for his family's food. He worked for his oldest sister No Duong, who is the owner of Lang Van, one of Charlotte's oldest Vietnamese restaurants, which opened in 1990 and has subsequently garnered frequent awards from CL while remaining a favorite spot for many of Charlotte's best chefs. Duong's mother, Ngan Nguyen, had been the cook at Lang Van for many years. Now Nguyen has moved to her son's kitchen. "It is my turn," Cuong Duong explained. The Duong family consists of ten children: eight girls, two boys. Both Duong's mom and dad and many of his sisters who formerly worked at Lang Van are on hand at Bên Thành to help. Bên Thành is located in what had been Mr. Paul's for years and then Joy Lucky Chinese. The interior has that raw, minimalist look, prime for an extreme makeover. This is a no glam canteen. The expanse of windows on either side of the dining room overlooks parking areas in need of repaving, and the front atrium overlooks Central Avenue. If you've been a steady customer of Lang Van over the years, this will remind you of that restaurant's initial sparse interior. The menu at Vietnamese restaurants can be intimidating. I don't mean the food, but the actual words. If you were proud of finally getting the French accents correctly identified, try the Latinized alphabet (transcribed by a Portuguese missionary no less) of the Vietnamese language. Some letters have not one, but a double dose of diacritical marks. Fortunately, the menu at Bên Thành is written with clear English descriptions and many of the 114 items are subtitled in English as well. Or you can simple opt to order from the reliable Asian restaurant numbering system. The menu offers the full complement of soups, Vietnamese hot pots, stir fries, noodle and rice dishes, Vietnamese French coffee and avocado shakes, grilled meats, and many vegetarian selections. Most entree prices are under $10. Traditional Vietnamese dishes are lighter and crisper than Chinese dishes and not as fiery as Thai. Clean herbaceous flavors are the hallmarks of Vietnamese cuisine and seem the perfect choice for spring and summer evenings. There is nothing suburban about the food at Bên Thành. Nguyen prepares traditional dishes that are a competent and delicious amalgam of classic Vietnamese cuisine. Appetizer rolls come fried or not. The best is the fresh summer roll with shrimp. But if you prefer to interact with your food, you can order #54 and do it yourself. Submerge the plate-sized rice paper disc into a bowl of steaming water until softened, spread it on a plate, add tofu, purple basil leaves, bits of mint, cucumber, green leaf lettuce, bean sprouts, and vermicelli to your taste and roll. Then fill your table with other crowd pleasers and see if they make it back to you. The hot and crispy quail app is gloriously spritzed with cooling lemon. Try to sit near the large bowl of coconut milk yellow curry, spiked with shrimp and chunked up with potatoes, and fan the heady perfume toward you. Or divert your table with the curry while helping yourself to large wedges of an extraordinary simple yellow rice flour pancake filled with shrimp, tender pork slices, and bean sprouts. For the less adventurous, there is the flavorful charbroiled chicken in lemon grass on steamed rice without sauce. For the more adventurous, try one of the hot pots. Bên Thành does not offer slow moving overhead fans, palm trees, and a cozy faux French colonial feel. Nor does it offer wine or high prices. The kitchen staff here is considerably more accomplished than the decorator and consistently executes well crafted traditional Vietnamese dishes. If food is your main reason for seeking a restaurant, then you should add Bên Thành to your list.

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