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Viet-Thai Noodle House 

Cultural Exchange A tasty blend of Thai and Vietnamese cuisine For years, this column has noted the differences between Thai and Vietnamese cuisine. Vietnamese dishes embrace clean herbaceous flavors like basil and cilantro while Thai dishes can be a fiery meld of Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, Cambodian, Laotian, and Indian foods. Both cuisines are heavily dependent on the trained palate of the cook to create a tapestry of textures and flavors.Now one enterprising family has decided to combine these cuisines. Mark and Nancy (or Mai Sinh) Nguyen opened the Viet-Thai Noodle House last May on the back side of a strip shopping center in Pineville. You don't have to twist my arm to visit a new Southeast Asian restaurant; in fact, one of the benefits of living in Charlotte is the preponderance of them. The exterior, not changed since it was Tango Argentino years ago, has white woodwork and curtains drawn closed. One would think that being in such a secluded space the owners would open up the entrance. The decor is not funked up with halogen lighting, walls of water, and contemporary colors found in trendier Asian spots, but it's also devoid of the kitschy travelogue artifacts common at the other end of the restaurant spectrum. The 65-seat divided interior strikes a formal pose with glass over white linen tables and walls that are off-white dotted with small framed landscapes. A massive dark wood, 10-seat bar stretches against the right wall. This side is currently unused, pending the issuance of a liquor license. The Nguyens hope to have a wine and beer license by the end of August. Servers, not all of whom are fluent in English, wear black shirts and pants which add to the formal feel. However, the service is less than formal and, at times, haphazard. Mark Nguyen said the couple, new to the restaurant business, is from southern Vietnam near what used to be called Saigon. "This is her (Nancy's) dream. She has always wanted to have a restaurant, to be a chef," he said. Currently Nancy Nguyen works solo in the kitchen. Many of the recipes she uses are her mother's. Why the combination of cuisines? "Because Thai food and Vietnamese food are 80 percent similar," Nguyen said. They are hoping to succeed in an area that lacks a Vietnamese restaurant. Mark Nguyen, who has another business in Asheville, spends time in both locations. Viet-Thai's menu is lengthy -- not encyclopedic, but it is time consuming. The first several pages are devoted to Vietnamese offerings, which include 16 pho and mi soups, nine vermicelli bun salads, and stir-fried dishes. The last page offers 13 Thai items including a couple of curries and a few stir-fried noodle dishes. The Vietnamese dishes here are magical. The brace of grilled lemon grass prawns served with a pool of tamarind sauce disappeared as quickly as the dish arrived. Wonderfully tender strips of chicken and quickly cooked vegetables tasted sweetly of a soothing mix of lemon grass and chilies. Dishes arrive garnished with origami-shaped vegetables. The large bowl of Mi Hai San noodle soup was too much to consume. Soups are commonly eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner in Vietnam. Pho, with a complex cilantro-scented beef broth, is from the north, while Mi, or egg noodle soup, hails from the south. Our egg noodle seafood soup was both straightforward and uncompromised, although the minced fish balls were a bit perfunctory. An accompanying tray of condiments allowed us to add flavors at will. That is part of what I enjoy about Vietnamese cuisine: clean herbaceous flavors and interactive to boot. The Thai dishes seem to lose in translation. Although the lusciously tender Thai chicken satay appetizer would stand up to the finest scrutiny, Viet-Thai's Pad Thai is a much lighter dish than found in traditional Thai restaurants. Brian Nguyen, one of the three sons who also works in the restaurant, explained, "Thai is too sweet and spicy. This is the same version, just lighter." I found this version of a Thai classic bland, almost mushy, but not entirely surprising. It's like having pork barbecue in Maine: smokeless and without panache. The Vietnamese dishes at Viet-Thai Noodle House are the more rewarding option. But I still like the concept of trying the Vietnamese spin on Thailand's Pad Thai. It serves to remind me that Charlotte's melting pot is heating up.

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