In recent years, the East Valley has had a lock on the city's best Vietnamese restaurants. Now North Phoenix has a serious contender. Viet Kitchen offers Vietnam's "greatest hits" as well as terrific but obscure selections that seldom show up on local menus.
Scene: Housed in a Cave Creek Road strip mall that sits just south of the 101, this sparkling-clean place is far more upscale than its immediate surroundings might suggest. The owners spent big bucks on black, formal looking tables and chairs, handsome mirrors and tasteful knickknacks, everything imported from Vietnam. An elaborately carved piece of wood frames the wall-mounted flat-screen television, tuned constantly to ESPN. Painted in soothing shades of green and tan, the place feels crisp and modern yet rooted in tradition.
Food: Crisp, greaseless eggrolls (cha giò) come three to an order, accompanied by nuoc mam and plenty of fresh lettuce, mint and cilantro ($6.50). Bánh mi - small, French-inspired sandwiches served on crusty baguettes - are offered in various combos of grilled meat and Vietnamese-style charcuterie, topped with cilantro, pickled cuke and carrot, the interior moistened with nuoc mam. Don't expect a lot of meat (I chose grilled pork and pâté, $4); do expect to love them anyway.
The grilled pork and beef in the bún thit nuóng possesses a wonderfully smoky flavor, and the huge bowl is chock full of white rice noodles and the fresh herbs and veggies that make this dish such a yummy meal-in-one ($7.25). Lemon grass chicken, stir-fried with onion, green pepper, chile and garlic, is as perfectly balanced as any version I've had, mildly spicy with citrus-y top notes, so good with plain white rice ($7.25).
I skipped the pho for bún bò dac biêt, a hot and spicy noodle soup characteristic of central Vietnam and the ancient royal capital Hue. Composed of vermicelli, pork, beef, pork sausage, onion and cilantro, it's a wonderfully heady soup, spicy enough to make my nose run ($7.75). Naturally, it arrives with a plate of fresh garnishes: lime wedge, jalapeño, bean sprouts, mint, basil and shaved banana blossom.
Another favorite is an appetizer called bánh bôt loc - eight small, flat packets wrapped in banana leaves. Unfolded, they reveal sticky, translucent dumplings filled with nuggets of shrimp and pork, ready to be dunked in spicy sauce ($6.50). But the biggest knockout might be a sesame seed-sprinkled salad called goi mít trôn ($9.50), composed of shrimp, pork, cuke, cilantro and jackfruit, which functions as a vegetable and sports a texture reminiscent of bamboo shoots.
Drink: Mocha shakes, Vietnamese sodas and fresh coconut juice are a few of many possibilities, but who can resist Vietnamese iced coffee ($3), enriched with condensed milk?