Hoa Viet

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Hoa Viet
1022 Race St.
215-592-8540
Credit cards accepted
A few steps up into restaurant
BYOB
Open daily 10 a.m.-10 p.m.

When I finish shopping at the Reading Terminal Market, I sometimes stroll over to Chinatown. The neighborhood is usually bustling, filled with people buying Asian greens, fresh fish, fruit, lucky bamboo plants, jewelry, books or a silk jacket. Chinatown has become a major shopping destination, an outdoor mini-mall filled with restaurants and all kinds of stores.

While walking down Race Street, I happened upon Hoa Viet, a Vietnamese restaurant. Roast ducks hung in the window, while fruit and milkshake specials were advertised on brightly colored paper. The menu was posted as well, along with newspaper reviews, one dating back nearly 20 years. How could I have missed this place? I thought to myself. I soon discovered Hoa Viet is the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in Chinatown.

So on yet another brutally hot evening, Edward and I decided to have dinner at Hoa Viet. I called the restaurant and, to my delight, found it to be a BYOB. We brought along a bottle of chilled Orvietto, found a parking spot and stepped into the most welcome air conditioning.

Interior design is not a high point at Hoa Viet. A steam table contained foods that did not appeal to me. The ceiling was decorated with bunches of plastic red and green grapes, but the laminated tables were sort of interesting. One depicted big bald American eagles, another was done up with pretty, colorful fruits.

Several staff members took good care of us. A waiter opened our wine and poured. The menu is deliciously overwhelming. There must be several hundred items ranging from soups to appetizers to entr�es and everything in between. It’s a good thing we ordered course-by-course because portions are huge. Each dish we savored was perfection in a bowl or on the plate.

The person in charge is chef/owner Thang Tran, who left his native Vietnam for Hong Kong, where he attended culinary school. In 1982, he came to Philadelphia and opened Hoa Viet. He chatted with us during dinner (he did not know my identity), and explained the different styles of cooking throughout China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Thailand.

Vietnamese food is my favorite Asian cuisine. Fresh lime juice, basil, mint and coriander enhance many of its dishes. It is a delicate style of cooking; sauces are light, grilled foods are abundant.

We began our culinary journey to Vietnam with grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves ($4.95) and deep-fried squid on shrimp ($5.50). The grape leaves — there were eight of them — are among my favorite appetizers. Tran prepared a mixture of seasoned minced beef and wrapped the grape leaves around them. They were grilled and came out piping hot. The platter contained fresh mint and basil, pickled carrots and turnips, a mound of cool rice noodles topped with chopped peanuts and slices of tomato and cucumber. A slightly sweet dipping sauce accompanied the dish.

I looked at the second appetizer and asked a waitress, "Where are the squid?" She told us it was wrapped around the shrimp. Three small shrimp were, indeed, wrapped in squid, and quickly deep-fried. The shrimp were so hot, we had to wait a bit before sampling them. They sat atop a bed of shredded lettuce, surrounded by slices of ripe tomato and cucumber. We found the shrimp to be a little bland, but the dipping sauce enhanced them.

I love soup so much I even enjoy it on a brutally hot evening. The Vietnamese are famous for pho, big bowls of soups made with noodles and a choice of beef, fish or chicken. Three sizes of pho — medium, large and extra large — are available at Viet Hoa. I figured the medium ($3.95) would suit me just fine, but I was in for a surprise: The big bowl easily could have served four.

I selected meatball soup because I like the texture of the beef. The homemade beef broth was tasty and free of salt. The bowl was filled with tender seasoned meatballs and slender rice noodles. I received a side dish of lime wedges, bean sprouts and fresh, fragrant basil. I squeezed in the juice, added the condiments and finished two small bowls. The rest came home with me for lunch the next day.

Dumpling soups have roots in Hong Kong. At $3.95, Edward figured it would be a single portion. Wrong again. The big bowl was filled with homemade chicken stock, Asian greens akin to broccoli rabe but lacking the bitter flavor, wide rice noodles and about eight homemade dumplings. The wrappers were tender, thin and not a bit doughy. The filling of minced pork was seasoned just right. Some of the dumpling soup came home with us as well.

Next up was a large platter of grilled pork with all the trimmings ($7.95). The Vietnamese call grilled foods "barbecued" because they are cooked over hot charcoal. There must have been about a pound of thinly sliced pork tenderloin, which was grilled to perfection yet still tender inside. The smoky flavor was divine. A mound of fresh basil and mint leaves, pickled carrots and turnips and cool rice noodles topped with chopped peanuts were on the platter. A side dish of thin, transparent rice wrappers came with the entr�e.

"You fill them with the pork and basil," our waiter advised. When we finished the wrappers, he brought us another plate of them.

"Did you like the pork?" Tran asked. "Next time, call me and tell me what you like to eat because I make many dishes which are not on the menu. I’ll even make you sushi, although I don’t like it too much. It doesn’t have flavor."

Obviously, after more than 20 years, the restaurant has built up a loyal following. People get to know the chef and the chef gets to know what they like to eat. I asked Tran what he likes. "Do you like Italian food?" asked Edward. "Yes, my daughter makes Italian food," he said with a smile. "But what do you like?" I asked. "How about spaghetti and meatballs?" my husband interjected.

"OK," replied the chef. "But I really like hoagies."

Three tips of the toque to Hoa Viet.