Venue Review: Vietnam Grille
The Charlotte Observer
5615 South Blvd.
Co-owner Rick Lai appears, in his chef's whites, moments after the rice paper for our grilled meatball appetizer hit our table. He wants to make sure we know how to prepare the thin discs, sliding each through warm water to soften it, then placing meat and herbs within, then folding each side and rolling it into an eggroll-sized packet.
Such attention isn't even the best thing about Vietnam Grille – the freshness is – but it matters, particularly if you're new to the cuisine. Knowing you can get guidance, without having to ask, is a marvelous thing.
Of course, that has a lot to do with business being slow. When the place is nearly empty, you get lots of attention. But the brothers Lai (Tommy is also a co-owner) give you the feeling they'll persist in helping people learn even as Vietnam Grille gets busier.
And I think it will.
From those meatballs to big and tender shrimp in a salad with cabbage and tomatoes, from big bowls of the comforting soup called pho with flank steak to char-grilled chicken with lemongrass, portions are big and prices are reasonable.
There's a short lineup called “traditional Vietnamese dishes” (ranging from catfish stewed with garlic to salt-baked calamari) and eight versions of the rice vermicelli preparation called bun: noodles accompanied by tiny fried spring rolls, meatballs and/or grilled shrimp, pork, chicken, beef and squid. (Be sure to use the included nuoc mam – seasoned fish sauce, milder than you might guess – and to toss all the layers to mix in the cucumber and bean sprouts at the bottom of the sizeable bowl.)
Com tam – “broken rice” dishes – are the entrees that most resemble American dinner plates, with moist rice and a variety of flavorful meats not integrated together, so these are good for shy newcomers.
I'm particularly enamored of the stuffed grape leaves, with a little char on them, and the stir-fried greens are terrific as a side dish or vegetarian entrée. But each dish we had showed impeccable herbs and crisp vegetables, and seasoning that finds a middle ground among Vietnam's plainer northern cooking, sweeter southern and saltier central styles. (The Lais are originally from Cho Lon in southern Vietnam.)
Pale, lemony walls with a lower third painted rusty red enclose black chairs and diner-style tables. Glass pendants of varied colors and a few pieces of botanical art offer a little color, though the Chinese placemats and easy-listening soundtrack are less attractive. Blinds minimize the South Boulevard and parking lot view.
Rick Lai is the oldest son of a family that has run successful – and fancier – Vietnamese restaurants in the Philadelphia area since the mid-'80s. He says he wanted to do “home cooking” here, keep the atmosphere cozy and the fare brief, fresh and inexpensive. Making the place BYOB is another effort to keep costs down, so plan to bring your own Vietnamese beer.