Minh Hai

Uncommonly bright and fresh flavors
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  January 28, 2010

If I tell you that I was close to tears upon discovering that my take-home bag of curried tofu and vegetables had been left behind, could you understand just how good it was? The new Vietnamese restaurant Minh Hai is cooking up home-style food that could make us all book flights to Saigon — or drive to Park Avenue every day.

I kid you not. Everything we tried had such bright, fresh flavor that the conversation at out table of four slowed to “Mmmm,” “Wow!,” and “Try this!” Those of us who think we’ve learned a bit about Asian food at restaurants that serve dishes from four or more Far Eastern cuisines had forgotten the breadth and depth of focusing on just one of those countries, such as Vietnam.

Brothers Minh and Hai Huynh opened this eatery just three months ago. Minh had been living in Rhode Island, and his brother joined him from California, where he had cooked in an aunt’s restaurant for more than 20 years. Though the décor is spare, the brothers’ pride shows in the sparkling clean tables and in Minh’s cheerful demeanor as he explains menu items.

We started out with the spring rolls that have become widely known as nime chow, whereas the Vietnamese name is goi cuon ($5.50). Translucent in their rice paper skins, they contained shrimp, vermicelli, bean sprouts, lettuce, and cilantro. The peanut sauce they were served with was nice and thick, with extra peanuts on top.

Our friend Mary Ellen chose goi bò ($8.50), a spicy grilled beef salad, for our other appetizer. The very thinly sliced grilled beef was tossed with crunchy pickled carrots, slivers of daikon, celery, cilantro, and mint leaves in a smoky and slightly hot dressing that had us switching chopsticks for forks.

Mary Ellen also led the way on entrées by homing in on a “rice plate” with marinated grilled pork ($8.95), which came with rice and salad (iceberg, cucumbers, pickled carrots, and daikon with a light rice vinegar dressing). She was very happy with the flavor of the pork and of the “special rice,” cooked in chicken broth with onions and garlic.

Bill followed with an unusual preparation of squid stuffed with ground chicken (muc don thit, $9.95) in a spicy shrimp sauce. The stuffing also contained black mushrooms, onions, black pepper, and cilantro, and the squid was super-tender. This dish was very delicious.

I had zoomed to the lat xá ($8.50), one of 11 vegetarian offerings that were differentiated by the heat of their sauces (mild or spicy); the main ingredient in those sauces (lemongrass, coconut milk, soy sauce, tomatoes, shrimp, or pickled plums); whether they had egg noodles, vermicelli, or rice; which veggies they included; and how the tofu was prepared in the ones with tofu. I liked the sound of fried tofu with shiitakes and black mushrooms simmered in coconut milk, lemongrass and curry spices. It was so good, I saved some to bring home, but alas!

Mary Ellen’s mate, Harold, waited patiently for the rest of us to make our final decisions and he then opted for the shrimp with eggplant and onions (tom xao da tim, $9.95) in a spicy shrimp sauce. His dish was the overall winner, because the eggplant was so delectable, like no eggplant we’d ever had before. The half-dozen jumbo shrimp were almost overshadowed by their friends.

Minh Hai has luncheon specials for each day of the week, and that day it was pork chops with “special rice” and salad ($6.95). Bill took this home for supper and found the pounded pork paillards tender and tasty. We asked Minh which dish was particularly popular, and he pointed out the fresh tofu with eggplant and onions (dau hu xao ca tim). We took an order home and were again amazed by the eggplant.

We were so thrilled with our dishes, and we’d only tried eight out of 69. We didn’t even get to the 10 variations on Vietnamese noodle soup (pho) or the five bun offerings — a bowl of iceberg lettuce, bean sprouts, cukes, carrots, and daikon with vermicelli tossed with fish sauce. Variations on the rice plates abound, with a clay pot rice dish served only on Fridays and Saturdays. Just one more enticement to return to Minh Hai! 

401.383.8071 | 1096 Park Avenue, Cranston
Daily, 10:30 am-9:30 pm | Major credit cards | BYOB | Sidewalk-level access

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Johnette Rodriguez:johnette.rodriguez@cox.net.

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