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If you can't make something from scratch, customizing it is the next best thing.
When I bought a new car, I could hardly stand to drive it until I got some new rims. If I get bored with my wardrobe, I start doing wacky things with accessories, or even (in an extreme case) take a pair of scissors to something with the hope of making it interesting. And when it comes to dining out, customization with sauces and fresh add-ins lets me please my own palate.
That's what I love about a good little Vietnamese joint, where the options go well beyond salt and pepper. You can dress up your dish with the fiery, Christmas-red Sriracha chili sauce and sweet hoisin sauce found on every table, plus heaping plates of crisp mung bean sprouts, fresh basil and cilantro leaves, lime wedges, and slices of jalapeño, meant to be added to soups or rolled into wraps that you assemble yourself. While the spiciness factor at other kinds of Asian restaurants can be inconsistent, with Vietnamese cuisine, it's up to you to turn up the heat or the sweet, or the salty.
4538 N. 19th Ave.
Phoenix, AZ 85015
Region: Central Phoenix
Barbecued pork sandwich: $2
Pho Da Vang: $4.95
Seafood and pork hot pot: $11.99
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
I get grouchy if the kitchen skimps on these traditional veggies, or if they're not ultra-fresh. But at Da Vang, a hole-in-the-wall eatery nestled amid a cluster of Vietnamese businesses on 19th Avenue, the huge platter of leafy greens that inevitably landed on my table was a sign of good things to come. Admittedly, I wasn't thrilled with every dish I tried, but at these prices, I didn't mind taking a chance.
Among people who love real-deal Vietnamese food, Da Vang has quite the following. It's been around for 18 years and is owned by the Ly family. You'll typically find the place crowded with Vietnamese, especially on weekends, but the clientele really is a mixed bag of ages and ethnicities: businessmen taking a lunch break, hipster kids sharing plates of spring rolls, elderly couples slurping their noodles.
I doubt they're here for the decor. Pale pink Formica tables and baby-blue-and-white checkered floors are set against a dingy backdrop of white and pistachio walls, adorned with framed posters and silk flowers. There's a tiny red altar shelf with a smiling porcelain Buddha placed up in a corner, but it's next to a Coyotes-logo Bud Light sign. Yeah, it's an odd mix.
Still, the vibe is friendly and seat-yourself casual. Service is swift at the outset food starts appearing within minutes but later in the meal, there's no rush to leave. You can linger over your super-strong iced coffee, listening to piped-in Vietnamese love songs until you're ready to pay at the register.
With 79 items, the menu seems sprawling, but just look at the common denominators: plenty of pork, seafood, and beef. Sometimes it's just a question of what you prefer to eat it with. Egg noodles or rice noodles? Rice paper or steamed rice?
Take the banh hoi thit nuong, for example. If you dig this appetizer's smoky-sweet barbecued pork it comes with rice vermicelli noodles, cilantro, and a platter of moist, stretchy rice paper to wrap it all up you'll probably like it in sandwich form, too (banh mi thit nuong). Tucked into a crusty baguette with cool slices of carrot, onion, and cucumber, sprigs of cilantro, and mayo, it's a jaw-dropping steal for only two bucks. That said, I was disappointed to find the roll on the stale side the last time I ordered it.
The summer rolls make a light, healthful starter, kind of a handheld salad. I preferred the goi cuon with juicy shrimp, pork, rice noodles, and crisp greens wrapped in rice paper over the bi cuon, which were almost the same, but dry-tasting without shrimp. And while the greasy-good banh xeo, a rice flour crepe bursting with shrimp, pork, sprouts, and onions, sounded heavy, it was refreshing, wrapped up in frilly leaves of lettuce and dipped in sweet nuoc cham (the ubiquitous Vietnamese dip made with tangy fish sauce).
Da Vang did seafood quite well. Lau thap cam nho a hot pot containing pork, shrimp, imitation crab, tender squid, sweet, lightly fried fishballs, and mussels had a clear, savory broth. Cabbage and bok choy gave it a delicious, almost buttery taste, but I could've done without the imitation crab and the too-tough pork, which detracted from the abundance of perfectly cooked seafood. Bun tom nuong, a noodle dish with lettuce, mint, sprouts, crushed peanuts, and nuoc cham to pour over it, was also a standout, with plump barbecued shrimp.
I never go to Vietnamese places for tofu, so I was surprised to like it here. Firm and lightly fried, it was stir-fried with egg noodles and crunchy vegetables (mi xao chay). On the other hand, I expected to love the rice noodle soup with duck and bamboo (banh mang vit), but didn't. The broth was bland, and the duck meat was still on the bone, covered in rubbery skin. The waiter said I should dip the meat in ginger sauce (which was tasty, I concede), but the only way you'll find me happily gnawing at duck skin is if it's fried to a crisp.
As for the pho the fragrant soup that's the pride of almost any Vietnamese restaurant I could eat it all the time. The house special, pho Da Vang, is a big bowl of beefy broth, full of chewy rice noodles, onions, scallions, cilantro, brisket, tripe, and soft, gelatinous tendon again, it's served with fresh vegetables to suit your taste. If tripe and tendon sound too authentic, try pho tai, which sticks to thinly sliced beef.
If you make it to dessert, there are several kinds of che, all sweet, refrigerated treats you eat with a spoon. The red bean with coconut milk was soupy and sweeter than it sounds; corn and sweet rice pudding was light, with a stronger coconut taste; and the creamy coconut milk tapioca pudding was appealing, with chunks of banana.
Okay, so you can't customize these. But they come in plastic cups, so you can take them home.
And that's the next best thing.