1100 Washington Ave.
Credit cards accepted
Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Family dinners available
My friend Lynne bought a house in South Philly several years ago, and she’s thrilled to be surrounded by restaurants, shops, a corner grocery and hair salons. "Where else in the city can you get mussels to go?" she pointed out.
She recently told me about Nam Phuong, a new Vietnamese restaurant at 11th and Washington. "I’ve been there several times," said Lynne. "The food is delicious, portions are generous and the prices very moderate. You must try the summer rolls." That was enough motivation for me — not to mention, Vietnamese cuisine is my favorite Asian fare. The flavors are generally clear, pure and in perfect balance. Herbs such as basil and mint pop up in any number of dishes. The French influence on Vietnamese food is still evident, not just in Philadelphia but in Vietnam as well.
Like many Asian restaurants, Nam Phuong is a family business. My husband Edward and I arrived around 6 p.m. on a recent weeknight and the dining room was filled with couples and families digging into big bowls of pho, the famous beef noodle soups of Vietnam. Pho comes from the French pot-au-feu, which is beef boiled in broth with vegetables.
The staff at Nam Phuong is friendly and courteous. They doted on children, bringing extra plates and bowls to a table where a family of six was ready for dinner. Two waiters took good care of us. One explained the condiments on our table and told us to take care when sampling one of the hot sauces. They filled our wine and water glasses, served and cleared with ease.
Many patrons were enjoying a glass of beer, but we thought a nice, light white wine would fare well with dinner. We ordered a bottle of Woodbridge Chardonnay ($18) and perused the large menu. There are 254 dishes listed, but not to worry: Each dish carries a clear definition and the wait staff will help you.
Since Lynne recommended the summer rolls ($2.95), we had to try them. Two plump rolls came with the order. Also known as soft salad rolls, these were made with paper-thin rice-noodle wrappers that were so transparent, we could see the ingredients tucked inside each roll. Shrimp, shredded cabbage and sprouts were nice and crisp, a delicious foil for the melt-in-your-mouth wrapper. We each received a small bowl of peanut dipping sauce, which is made with peanut butter, a bit of hoisin and chopped peanuts. This sauce is traditional with soft rolls and was downright delicious.
You may think it unusual to find stuffed grape leaves in a Vietnamese restaurant, as they are classic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fare. But I suppose the French may have had a culinary hand in the creation of bo nuong la ($7.50). Our waiter brought us a large platter of about eight warm grape leaves filled with beautifully spiced ground beef with bits of vermicelli. A large mound of fragrant basil leaves and large fresh mint leaves was placed on the platter along with slices of cucumber, carrot sticks and pickled daikon, a mild, crispy Asian radish. A plate of paper-thin rice wrappers arrived and our waiter showed us how to fill the wrapper with a grape leaf, basil, mint and vegetables. We had a choice of either peanut dipping sauce or a slightly sweet fruity sauce for the grape leaves. I tried both, and both enhanced the flavor and texture of this dish just right.
Next up was banh xeo, a large rice-noodle cr�pe ($5.50) and one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. Nam Phuong’s version did not disappoint. The word "banh" means cake in Vietnamese and the "xeo" means sizzling, the sound the cr�pes make when they are being cooked. The large, flat cr�pe was filled with shrimp, pork and mung beans. The contrast of tastes and textures was glorious in this dish. The cr�pe was silken, the shrimp and pork provided a meaty texture and the mung beans were nice and crunchy. The aforementioned herbs and vegetables came with the cr�pe, providing a tasty contrast.
Edward and I received small bowls of nuoc cham, a fish dipping sauce that doesn’t taste like fish but is the sauce most used in Vietnamese cuisine. It is made with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, the right touch of chili peppers and thin slices of shallot.
Mi & hu tieu xao, pan-fried sizzling noodle dishes, are classic Vietnamese. These are prepared with egg noodles rather than rice noodles. Mi xao don do bien ($9.95) consisted of a large mound of thin, crispy pan-fried egg noodles fashioned into a nest. It was filled with large shrimp, squid, scallops, crabmeat and vegetables, including carrots and water chestnuts. The sauce was light and delicate, so a bit of hot sauce gave it a delicious kick. The shrimp were actually large, not the usual small ones I’ve been seeing in any number of restaurants recently. They were cooked just right, as were the good-sized sea scallops.
The only fault we found was the strange pieces of squid. I suspect it was frozen because it was chewy. Each piece was a small rectangle with a crisscross diamond cutting on each piece. If the restaurant takes such care in the quality of all the ingredients we enjoyed, why not the squid?
Since the late 1970s, Philadelphia has been fortunate to have a number of fine Vietnamese restaurants. Edward and I clearly recall when the Tran family opened Vin Hoa at Seventh and Christian. When Mr. Tran retired, he sold it. I thought it then became Nam Phuong but wasn’t sure; I reviewed it three years ago and recalled the dinner and service were first-rate. Within the past year, we saw it was closed. Our waiter explained why.
"It was our restaurant, Nam Phuong," he said. "We moved here because we needed a bigger place."
Three tips of the toque to Nam Phuong.