Anh and Chi (“brother and sister” in Vietnamese) opened mid-April and has been sporting line-ups and a crowded room ever since.
Anya Levykh | Westender | June 6, 2016
It’s always sad to see a local institution close its doors. After over 30 years in business, Pho Hoang, the casual Vietnamese mom-and-pop operation in South Main known for its classic pho, spring rolls and lemongrass chicken, closed its doors almost a year ago, shortly after the passing of the pater familias.
The space didn’t stay shuttered for long, however. Amelie and Vincent Nguyen, the daughter and son of the original owners, decided to carry on their father’s legacy, but with a slightly more modern concept. Anh and Chi (“brother and sister” in Vietnamese) opened mid-April and has been sporting line-ups and a crowded room ever since.
There’s a lot to like in the new room. It’s been completely redone, with warm wood, imported Vietnamese tiles, and a lovely bar backlit with stained glass and an impressive array of bottles. Bar manager Guy Stowell (formerly of Bao Bei) has crafted some solid food-friendly cocktails, such as the refreshing Pisco-based Grass is Greener Here ($9). Elderflower liqueur balances out the lemongrass notes, with a hint of lemon to liven things up.
There are a handful of wines by the glass, some good local craft beer, as well as some southeast Asian imports (Lucky Buddha, anyone?), but it’s the cocktail list that will keep me coming back. That jug of Vietnamese Pimm’s looks too interesting to pass up.
While some staples from the original restaurant have remained (based on their mother’s recipes, and often executed by her), the new menu focuses more on modern Vietnamese street food. Rice paper rolls ($4) are pleasant, with jicama, carrots, roasted peanuts and Thai basil and sided with peanut sauce. An inserted long, thin curl of crispy rice paper gives a satisfying crunch. One version, with fermented sausage and dried shrimp, was disappointingly one-dimensional in taste. Bean sprouts and prawn was slightly better.
Chicken wings ($11) were excellent. The slightly sticky and crisped skin of the butter and garlic version covered plump, juicy and succulent meat. Served with a simple side of peppered lime juice, these are definitely worth ordering again. Another winner, the grilled beef bún ($13), was a large bowl of vermicelli topped with grilled beef and prawn, spring rolls and mixed herbs. Just drizzle the chili fish sauce over the whole thing, mix it up and go to town with a friend—it’s definitely large enough to share.
Rice paper salad ($8), off the “bucket list” of menu items, was a complete fail. Fresh mango, beef jerky, runny quail egg and fried shallots all make for a promising beginning, but the rice paper itself, un-soaked, tough as leather, and cut with glass-sharp edges, was inedible. A server kindly informed me that I should mix the salad before eating, to allow the juices to soften the rice paper. Twenty minutes later, after repeated mixing and drenching, I gave up. Rice paper needs to be soaked in hot water for at least 10 minutes for proper softening. And, yes, too much soaking turns it to mush. In this case, even a five-minute soak would have reduced my required dredging significantly and meant I might have actually finished the bowl, as opposed to leaving virtually all of it behind.
The food overall here is fair to good, although there’s a lack of the pungency that one looks for in Vietnamese food; a dash of star anise, a lick more of heat, a touch more salt in some dishes. Anh and Chi is off to a good start, however, and I’m hoping that a few more months – and a bolder approach in the kitchen – will yield more exciting fare.