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Vietnam Cafe in University City


Vietnam CafeI’ve never had Vietnamese food. Not for any reason, really. I hold no prejudices against ethnic food of any variety, not anymore, and I’m particularly fond of Asian cuisine. I eat sushi like the oceans are closing, Chinese was an almost nightly occurrence in college and pad thai from a good Thai restaurant does wonders for the soul. Vietnamese food has eluded me mostly because Vietnamese restaurants aren’t easy to find. A simple, unfortunate fact.

Vietnam Café in University City made headlines recently, expanding from a quaint 22 seat café to a full fledged restaurant prepared to handle as many as 250 hungry diners. They’ve even renovated a separate banquet room for special events, equipped with karaoke. Expansion in the face of a downward economic spiral is a bold move, especially in an industry where restaurateurs face a failure rate of almost 80%. My interest piqued, especially paired with an opportunity to finally try authentic Vietnamese food, I made a trip on Thursday evening seeking adventure. Don’t tell owner Benny Lai that the economy is a wreck; every new seat in his restaurant was filled when I arrived, an impressive feat for a place that doesn’t take reservations. Good food speaks for itself, so I settled in to eat.

Vietnam CafeBeing a novice to this particular branch of Asian cuisine, I entrusted Mr. Lai to walk me through the basics. He explained simple flavors and techniques, and a family-portion approach with an emphasis on sharing. This was the basis of our first course, a bbq share platter of crispy spring rolls, grilled chicken, smoky meat balls and seasoned grilled beef wrapped in tender grape leaves. This was a fun, playful dish as we experimented with different proteins and fillers, from rice noodles to peanuts to mint leaves, all wrapped in sticky rice paper to create a delicious Vietnamese burrito. The portions are enormous and tasty, so proceed with caution if your party is small.

For entrees, we started with a plate of monster salt and pepper shrimp, served over sautéed vegetables and, to my initial apprehension but ultimate delight, battered and fried in-shell which, I have to admit, made me feel like more of a man after eating. There’s something primal about ripping through an animal’s outer defenses and savoring the sweetness inside, something beautiful. Try it.

Our next dish, chicken with crispy egg noodles, was equally delightful. Sauteed chicken resting in a birds nest of egg noodles soaking up an absolutely exquisite brown sauce that gave an otherwise simple dish surprising complexity.

Our last entrée was on the light side, char-grilled chicken served over steamed bok choy in a basil garlic sauce. The bok choy was tender without succumbing to a soggy mess, and the chicken packed a good amount of flavor for something so simple.

We finished with a pair of delicious ice creams, red bean and green tea, striking a fair balance between sweet and savory. A very satisfying end to a very satisfying meal.

For every new restaurant that fails or every old restaurant that just can’t keep up, there’s a lesson to be learned from Vietnam Café: Good food, fair prices and a friendly staff are sometimes all you need to find success.


816 S. 47th Street, Philadelphia, PA
Telephone: (215) 729-0260