Rice Paper Fills a Niche, But Will Guests Pay the Price ($8 for a Banh Mi?)

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When I popped in for lunch the other day at Rice Paper, the new modern Vietnamese eatery in midtown Phoenix, I wasn't alone.

Packed with downtown suits, Vietnamese locals, and a few hipsters, the chic little house-turned restaurant at 2221 North Seventh Street was bustling with activity.

My server said a lot of work had gone into transforming the one-time household into a stylish eatery which included adding a full bar and design features like wood accents, exposed brick, a gray and white palette, and small metal chandeliers. It certainly looked great and the small space made it all the more engaging.

And with Rice Paper's menu of fresh and crispy spring rolls, bahn mi, salads, pho, and entrees including curry tofu and lemon grass chicken, this new restaurant seemed to fit a niche of both style and sustenance for Vietnamese cuisine in midtown Phoenix.

But would the food live up to the fashion-friendly decor? Let's take a bite and find out.

With nearly twenty types of fresh and crispy spring rolls to choose from at Rice Paper, there's certainly variety a-go-go. My friendly server directed me to three: the traditional with lean pork and hoisin sauce, the Spicy Asian featuring Asian sausage and imitation crab with Asian pesto, and the Spider with tempura soft shelled crab, mangoes, and miso ginger sauce.

The traditional was fair, the Spider better (although I sadly could not taste the mangoes), and the spicy Asian the best with its bit of pop. Were they interesting enough to warrant price tags of $3.50 (traditional), $4.50 (Spicy Asian), and $4.75 (Spider)? Probably not.

The same could be said of the thirteen dollar Saigon salad (bun goi) with grilled pork. While the ingredients were fresh, overall, I missed the liveliness of this cool noodle dish. Maybe more of a dynamic dressing or enhanced flavors from the marinated pork would have saved it.

Unfortunately, the pork banh mi at Rice Paper was my most disappointing dish. At a whopping eight dollars, the bun was brick-wall hard, the taste average, and the side of fries a curious accompaniment.

Here's hoping Rice Paper will work as hard on their modern Vietnamese cuisine as it did on the decór -- at least enough to justify the prices -- or this niche may be history.

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