Cafe Reviews

Rice Paper's Pricey Vietnamese Food Could Use a Touch of Soul

Rice Paper is unquestionably stylish: a renovated small home with exposed brick walls amid a gray and white color palette, miniature chandeliers, and lacquered-wood tables and chairs that fill the main room and enclosed porch and spill onto a patio where the sounds of Seventh Street traffic mix with lively conversation.

And if you're in this midtown neighborhood and willing to sacrifice the more authentic and wallet-friendly dishes found in fluorescent-lit, no-frills Phoenix Vietnamese favorites like Pho Than and Da Vang, then spending a few hours steeped in Rice Paper's chic scene, nibbling on semi-satisfying fare alongside a cold Sing Ha or glass of cucumber-infused water, shouldn't be a problem. Besides, you'll be joining other like-minded diners who pack the place on a regular basis.

San Diego sisters Lan and Hue Tran brought Rice Paper to the Valley this summer, the name a nod to its selection of nearly 15 made-to-order varieties of rolls wrapped in moistened rice paper. In addition to the rolls, the restaurant's "modern Vietnamese" offerings — think approachable versus avant-garde — include starters, salads, sandwiches, pho, and, after 4 p.m., entrees.

Given the restaurant's name, Rice Paper's dizzying selection of signature spring rolls would be a good place to start. Although not cheap (ranging from $3.50 to $4.75), they arrive nearly the size of small burritos, with two or three orders easily making a light meal. As a whole, most are acceptable, with flavors elevated by the addition of miso ginger, peanut hoisin, and Asian pesto sauces. But some are better than others: The Spicy Asian, with fresh jalapeños, sriracha, and Asian sausage, packs a punch; the Traditional, stuffed with pork and poached shrimp, fares better than its fanciful friend the Spider, which is filled with tempura soft-shell crab, barely there mangos, and avocado. And the vegetarian tempura, with crunchy asparagus, can take the place of my ho-hum Surf 'n' Turf anytime.

If rolls of spring aren't your thing, a small platter of crispy wings in a light fish sauce or plate of crispy shrimp tossed with a spicy aioli may satisfy, and they have the extra benefit of being share-worthy.

And for those who have never experienced the fresh and lively taste of a Vietnamese noodle salad or the comforting and satisfying depths of flavor from a steaming bowl of pho, two of the country's staples, Rice Paper's versions will be adequate but disappointing to those who have. The Saigon Salad (bun goi), with rice vermicelli, lettuce, sprouts, cucumbers, mint, shallots, and peanuts in a Vietnamese vinaigrette dressing is fine, best ordered with grilled pork, but is missing the kick that comes from additional fragrant herbs and the Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham.

The soul of pho is the broth. But its flavor in the Combination (dac biet) at Rice Paper, with sliced steak, Vietnamese meatballs, brisket, and scarce tendons and tripe, is dull and lacks meaty richness. Along with a side plate of scant and wilted greens, you may find yourself adding dollops of sauces in an attempt to cover up culinary shortcomings.

Thanks to the French, who introduced baguettes to Vietnam and combined them with various local ingredients, we have the popular Vietnamese sandwich bánh mì, famous for being relatively cheap. Rice Paper's bánh mì come with a somewhat shocking $8 price tag, which, for some, may not be justified by the fact that this sandwich is bigger than usual and served with fries or a salad. Mine, the braised pork, certainly was tasty — with cucumbers, pickled carrots and daikon, shallots, cilantro, jalapeños, and homemade mayo on fresh, crispy-crust baguette — and made for a textural and multi-flavored affair. Was it worth $8? Probably not.

Entrees, served after 4 p.m., include classic Vietnamese comfort dishes. The standout is the Shaking Beef (bo luc lac), the translation describing the tossing of the dish's beef back and forth in a wok after it's been seared. Served up sizzling, the cubed filet mignon was tender and marinated in a satisfying sauce of soy and garlic. Of the two hot pot offerings, the caramelized salmon was woefully undercooked, and the law of diminishing returns easily applied to the braised pork and quail eggs hot pot — once the tiny eggs were gone, the pork wasn't flavorful enough to stand on its own.

Service at Rice Paper can be sketchy, varying between glacier-pace slow — with dirty dishes sitting on the table — to meals coming out too quickly and busers clearing plates (and $9 cocktails) not yet finished.

The stylish Rice Paper isn't out to compete with the bare-bones Vietnamese favorites in the Valley, but given its simply acceptable fare, I'd rather slurp my pho under fluorescent lights than chandeliers any day.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld