Friday, August 7, 2009

Heights Bites: Vietnam Restaurant

I believe the understanding is typically "new = improved." Sadly, I really don’t think that is the case with beloved Vietnam Restaurant on 19th Street. There was great anticipation when they closed for a month last winter to renovate and expand. The restaurant certainly looks more… I dunno… upscale but everything else about the experience has suffered. I think the root cause of this is probably that no one really expected (or dare I say even wanted) Vietnam to be fancy. It was the kind of place that was never meant to go upscale and that is probably why the attempt has failed, right down to the plastic covered dining chairs. I can see where maybe they thought they had to compete with newer spots like Thai Spice, but did they really? Thai Spice never has a line out the door on Friday nights.

This was not my family's 1st trip back to Vietnam Restaurant post-renovation. We have been twice before but it was very soon after they reopened and we have waited, giving them some time to work out (what we thought were) kinks before we returned. We were never “regulars” at the old location but it was one of those "neighborhood places" that was here before The Heights was such a popular destination.
EDIT: Per comments, I took out a two-line story regarding comment a friend had made about the metal security shutters on the restaurant. The story implied that Vietnam Restaurant had been in the Heights for 20+ years, but apparently was in midtown before coming, like so many other smart people, to The Heights.

On this last trip, the whole night started with nonsense. Our friends, frequent dining partners of ours, arrived first. We would have 5 adults, 2 toddlers and a baby. The baby would not require a seat, so they told the hostess “5 adults and 2 high chairs.” She escorted them to a round table set for 5 and said “We will just cram the highchairs in.” This wasn’t going to work regardless of the baby, because our toddlers are older and require a full place setting like an adult. We just like them in highchairs to keep their craziness strapped in. So, they told her we would need a bigger table and that there would also be a baby. She said “Yes, I know. Five adults and 2 babies.” No, 5 adults, 2 toddlers and a baby. We would need more room. She gave them a lot of push back and made the situation very awkward. She finally acquiesced but only after asking our friends “Well, how long will you be here?” After 10+ years in the restaurant business, I can tell you that is one of the rudest questions a table of customers can ever be asked.

The new interior of an old favorite

But they got the table and sat. One of the reasons we eat with them often is because they brought beers and a bottle of wine. Well, we like their company, but still they are always good for vino! Seeing the bottles, the hostess (who might also be a manager) says “Let me ask you another question…” and follows with inquiries about if they are going to buy drinks or pay the corkage fee. Now, the corkage fee is only $1.50, best deal in town, but they said they would have water (which you have to buy at $1/bottle. This is nothing new, but I always thought it was straaaange). Hostess/manager lady then proceeds to lecture them on how the whole table had to buy drinks if they wanted to avoid the corkage fee- not just them. Including the kids. So they said fine, everyone or we’ll pay for the bottle opener. Then they ordered their mandatory-or-pay-the-fee-drinks and asked for milk for their daughter. One of the strangest drink ordering conversations ever got so much stranger when she said that “Well, all I have is my personal milk. “ Um, what? They got her lemonade instead.

By the time we got arrived, all this had already gone down and they were just shaking their heads and drinking beers. We got a good chuckle out of the table story and thought the worst was behind us. Until our waitress arrived. Now, remember I said that this wasn’t our 1st time back? Well, service was a big issue on our last two trips but they obviously had new servers after the re-do so we were understanding. After this dinner, I think you might have to fail an IQ test to work there. Our friends were having beers while they waited for us, but also brought a bottle of wine. Hubby and I also brought a bottle of wine, prompting our waitress to ask how many wineglasses. We said 4 (ones of the adults was not of drinking age). She stared at the table for 10 seconds that felt like 10 minutes trying to figure this out. We told her we would all be having wine and she literally could not compute that the beer drinkers would also have wine. At this point I was not yet aware of the milk comment and ordered milk for my son. She didn’t say anything and he got a cup of it, but we all had a good laugh wondering whose it was.

It’s hard to explain with words how dim the waitress is. She looked confused with every order. We wanted spring rolls for the table. She was confused. We had questions about the menu. She was confused. The kids were going to split an entrée. She was confused.

But the food came and we did get to eat, despite all the drama.

We started with Spring rolls and Imperial Rolls. They were all good, although the Imperial Rolls were a little on the small side compared to other places we eat (Vietopia, Miss Saigon). Pretty standard and good finger foods for the kiddos, although the sauces were too spicy for the little ones to share.

Imperial Roll fixins and the wee rolls themselves

We ordered several entrees for the table to share (which also seemed to confuse the waitress even though I think this is pretty typical).

Orange Chicken:
This was tasty but it was almost like the sauce was burned or over cooked. You couldn’t really taste orange/citrus at all. It still tasted good, though, so maybe that was how they intended it. The chicken was mostly white meat and it was still crunchy-ish under the sauce.
Fried Rice:
Basic. Nothing to complain about. Nothing to write home about.

Fried rice was the usual and not-so-orangy Orange Chicken

Sweet and Sour Shrimp:
My husband ordered this after he was told he couldn’t order some dish he used to love off the menu. Oh well...

While the S&S sauce was pretty standard, it was a little too heavy (maybe "thick" is a better word?) for shrimp. It was acceptable, but again not really “good.”

Just more "average" when it came to Sweet&Sour Shrimp

Black Pepper Chicken:
This was the biggest disappointment. As the person who ordered it said “I keep eating it, but it’s not great.” It was very bland. There was no real sauce to speak of and, even though you could see flecks of pepper and spices on the chicken, it tasted more like friend chicken strips with no flavor in the breading.


Chicken with Egg Noodles:
This isn’t the exact name of this dish, but it is under the “Noodle” section on the menu. This order once again confused our waitress- we ordered this for the 2 toddlers to share. We had to tell her 3 times, in 3 different ways, that this dish was for them. To share. Odd, I tell ya.
This dish is really pretty good and my son eats some variation of it whenever we go out for any Vietnamese or Chinese food. It had a light, white sauce and lots of noodles. All the usual veggies were present- broccoli, snow peas, carrots, bamboo shoots, bok choy, water chestnuts and baby corn. They happily accommodated our request for extra baby corn, as well. In the end, I think the toddlers got the best meal on the table!

Yummy noodles covered with veg and sauce. "Toddlers' Delight" should be the new name :)

So, as I reread my comments above, I see that the food wasn’t bad, just not great. So, why did I leave so disappointed? The service has certainly been questionable in the new space and I feel the real loss after the renovation has been the atmosphere. It’s all new waitstaff and they just seem clueless. I don’t know if it’s bad hiring or bad training, but it’s just bad. Their attempt at fancy leaves the restaurant so unwelcoming and patrons no longer get warm’n’fuzzy feeling that comes with eating an old school, divey, neighborhood joint. Even the new hostess stand seems so close to the door that I feel like it keeps me out instead of welcoming me in.

Plastic covered chair. My Italian grandmother would be proud!

All's well that ends well, though, and our night ended well indeed:


  1. Thank you for your review! Personally, I never "got" this place even before the re-do. I guess having a Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood makes up for something, but not much in a multicultural city with numerous excellent Vietnamese restaurants.

  2. I would not agree that it was at the current location when it was a ghetto. The restarant was originally in mid-town, but suffered badly during the construction of the light rail line on the street it was on. It moved to the Heights during that period - and I would hardly say the Heights location was "ghetto" at that time. I will say that I was shot with a bb gun by someone on the street outside, while sitting with my back to window, at the old midtown location - now that's ghetto.

  3. I agree with anon #2 that VR hasn't been around too terribly long at the 19th St. locale. They have a long way to go if they want to survive in this relatively new location. I've been 3 times and always get the off menu eggplant dish because it is really good.
    What sno-ball flavors did you get? Do you have a personal fav? I am pondering a run at trying every flavor. So far, I am up to 3.

  4. I guess I am not really as much of an investigative reporter- so much of what I "know" about the Heights comes from oral history. The sign at the restaurant says "Since 1980" and, when discussing it, I have always heard that it's been here for a long time. I took two parts and thought I made a whole, but possibly not. However, the timing really has little to do with the uncomfortable experience and average food we experienced, so I hope it doesn't detract from the rest of the post.

    As far as snoballs, the yellow is sugar free Mango, which my toddler eats. My niece got the green lemon-lime. Mine is the red/purple which is a blackberry/raspberry combo. I like pretty old school flavors that remind me of childhood-cherry, grape, orange, but the berries are really yummy! Not pictured is the bright purple "vanilla orchid cream" that my husband gets. It has the condensed milk on top and he loves it. It's a little too rich for me to ever eat a whole one, but it definitely tastes good.

  5. My husband used to love the Vietnam Chicken before the remodel. We ordered it to go after the remodel and it was awwwfffuulll! It is not cheap either. I thought it was because we had gotten it "to go" but from your reivew I know that it is just not that good.

    Now I only order the Chicken Noodle Soup and the Imperial Rolls "to go". Nothing else...

  6. I eat here (carry out and in the restaurant) at least once a week. I don't think the food has changed a bit since the remodel.

  7. "Their attempt at fancy leaves the restaurant so unwelcoming and patrons no longer get warm’n’fuzzy feeling that comes with eating an old school, divey, neighborhood joint."

    When people find a dive with decent food, they feel they have "discovered" something. The poor service is a novelty to be endured to have a "real" food experience.

    The same food and same service (*at the same price) in a nicer dining room gets a crap review.

  8. They renovated, made the dining room nicer, did not raise the prices, and serve the same quality of food that they served prior to the renovation-- why is everyone so upset? I have been eating at Vietnam's for over 3 years and really not much has changed. The waiters have always been slightly flighty, the food good and consistent, but not spectacular, and now a nicer, bigger seating area-- why complain. Plus must I emphasize the price! great for 2 people who want to split dishes. Basically everyone is going to have their own experience and depending on the overall circumstances it could be good or bad, but I find this place pretty good.

  9. I agree with the post about the service. I was a pretty regular patron of this restaurant before the renovation due to its good food at a fair price and easily accessable location from my house on 16th St. However, they lost alot of their original and long time staff when they closed for a month last year. People have to make a living. The new servers don't know the menu or even how to waitress. The staff turnover has been a big issue and I have seen this refelcted on many sites like as well.

  10. First Sara doesn't like Shade and now Viula don't like Vietnam. What's wrong with you gals?? :)

  11. This is my favorite restaurant review so far.

  12. please correct me if I am wrong, but you seem to eat a lot of chicken for a vegetarian???