Review: Minh Hai

Vietnamese cuisine only, wonderfully so
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  August 17, 2010

The silences were fascinating. Usually with five people around a table eating, there's conversation. But at Minh Hai, whenever we descended on an arriving platter, the consensus was to replace words going out with food going in. Although I do think I heard some thoughts in the air: "Hmmm, what is the aroma?" "Ummm, what are those spices?"

We first reviewed this Vietnamese restaurant in early 2006, just three months after it opened — the unusual promptness was because we kept hearing reports that tended to end with verbal exclamation points. Not being pan-Asian, it had focus. We went, we ate, we loved it. Minh Hai hit the ground running and has just kept zipping along.

Minh Hai| 401.383.8071 | 1096 Park Ave, Cranston | Wed-Mon 10:30 am-9:30 pm | Major Credit Cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-Level Access
The place was established by brothers Hai and Minh Huynh, Hai having come out from Oakland, California, where he had worked for 20 years at their aunt's restaurant, Pho 84. Hai went back a year ago because his wife didn't like New England winters.

The spacious restaurant with widely separated tables, convenient for conversations, is clean and bright, with exotic wall hangings, such as a couple of Vietnamese musical instruments. At our latest visit, Asian-Americans outnumbered others at tables and coming in for takeout. Two such families included small children apparently under careful culinary instruction.

Minh Hai recently gave up its liquor license because customers preferred bringing their own, so the wines on the menu are no longer available. The drinks listed, in addition to sodas, include Vietnamese versions of coffee and iced tea, plus hot ginseng tea. There are also milkshakes featuring jackfruit and lychee, as well as bubble "teas" with those enormous balls of tapioca.

We started with the obligatory goi cuon ($5.50) spring roll, usually listed at non-Vietnamese restaurants as nime chow. We had the kind containing fried tofu rather than shrimp, which was an interesting change of pace. Instead of bread, tables get a pile of banh trang me, puffy slabs of goi cuon rice-flour wrappers with a hint of sesame. We also ordered a cold shrimp salad called goi tom ($8.95), which was bright and refreshing, with lots of mint as well as marinated cucumbers and carrots.

Minh Hai has a dozen kinds of pho, of course, those beef-broth noodle soups featuring such ingredients as meatballs, steak, or "soft tendon." Instead, we all shared a big bowl of canh chua ($8.95-$10.50), choosing chicken over shrimp, fish, or fried tofu. The choice worked nicely in the spicy-hot lemongrass chicken broth that had an equally restrained hint of fish sauce. (Muttered a spicy-hot-averse one of us between sips: "It's better the more I have.") The accompanying vegetables included okra that was not rendered glutinous from overcooking. The dish was a hit with all of us.

That became so with everything else we had. If anything stood out as especially remarkable it was the ca chien mam gung ($10.95). The menu said we could have salmon, catfish, or red snapper, but the last was replaced by tilapia for our choices. Salmon worked wonderfully: pan-fried to crispness for a nice texture contrast, with a scrumptious mildly spicy tamarind fish sauce that was tantalizingly sweet. I could see stopping in just for this dish.

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