Trying to find decent Vietnamese cuisine in Tucson is no easy task. We have a very select handful of restaurants, and though I've supped at some interesting and outrageous Vietnamese restaurants on the coasts, I'm always curious about what we sprout right here at home.
Hoa Mai, "Spring Flower," opened its doors a year and a half ago in a venue that's been passed from owner to owner for 15 years. Currently owned by the Trang family, who originally hail from southern Vietnam, the menu features some of the spicier fare associated with the south.
Initially, the business got off to a fairly brisk start. The fact that these little home-grown venues manage to survive in Tucson often surprises me, but this one actually has a fighting chance. Hoa Mai has an interesting location, nesting near the intersection of Broadway and Tucson Boulevard. Verging on the rather homogenous neighborhood of Sam Hughes--which apparently embraces some odd sense of "diversity" by painting all the houses or at least the trim on the houses some rustic Southwestern colors--should provide Hoa Mai with an informed clientele. But that's a tricky crowd to call. Of course they travel in a herd to Wild Oats to buy their organic "diverse" and politically correct food, and one hopes that they frequent an honest-to-god small ethnic restaurant right in their back yard.
If they don't, they should.
Stepping into Hoa Mai feels as if you've stepped into someone's home. That sense of intimacy and camaraderie is something that arrives exclusively with a small venue. Owned by a husband and wife team, Hoa Mai serves what they bill as "authentic Vietnamese cuisine." When the place gets really busy, the diner must exercise a bit of compassion and patience, but watching the family in action is kind of endearing.
The Vietnamese have a certain genius for combining fresh and cooked ingredients in fresh rice paper-wrapped rolls, and the appetizer section of Hoa Mai features five different types of rice paper rolls or spring rolls. The rice paper rolls that we tried, Fresh Shrimp and Pork ($3.95) and Fresh Vegetable with Tofu ($3.50), were turned with a nimble hand. Rice paper can be difficult to work with, but these were plump, tender and moist, served with several bright dipping sauces, including a hoisin-based sauce as well as a fiery chile sauce. The combination of cooked, cooled meats, offset with mint and rice noodle, make a great way to start a meal.
The Deep-Fried Tofu ($3.25) is a generous portion of tofu sticks served crispy golden brown. The children in our party made short work of these, refusing to believe that they were actually eating tofu--"that cold, nasty white stuff? No way!" I stilled the impulse to tell them it was snake (hey, it tastes like chicken). No matter, they left the platter clean.
Depending on how busy the restaurant is or how much time you have to spend with a meal, you might want to consider moving onto one of the pho soups. We sampled the roast duck with rice noodle ($6.95), and it was a redolent, velvety broth. True to form, the pho is an enormous bowl (easily enough for several people to sample) that is both warming and comforting. If you don't receive enough garnish or accompanying seasonings, just be sure to ask. You might want to tweak it with a bit more lemon or nudge it with some cilantro or chile oil. Since there is still enough chill in the air to warrant it, you might want to venture forward with the spicy sour vegetable shrimp soup. The broth in this is both incendiary and slightly sweet. The vegetables vary on occasion. Once when I visited the balance between shrimp and vegetables was just right, while on another occasion I found too much soggy celery and not nearly enough shrimp. In any case, the comfort found in the broth alone is worthy of a visit.
For entrées, we've found the best approach is to be nosy and watch what other people are selecting. Weekend nights usually find Hoa Mai packed, and since the crew is all family, you might want to time your visit earlier in the evening before it reaches capacity. The stand-out dish always ordered in our party is the rice noodles with charbroiled beef, pork or chicken ($6.95). An enormous bowl of noodles is topped with the charbroiled meat of your choice. All the meats have been marinated in lemon grass to impart a smoky, lemony flavor. The bowl is topped with fresh mint, bean sprouts, lettuce and cilantro. This is a great noodle dish, and don't be surprised if the recipient of it gets seriously quiet, begins eating rapidly and is reluctant to share.
Some of the other menu items require a bit of negotiation. I usually avoid any items that feel like a blatant attempt to pander to tired Asian-American fare: Kung Po anything or sweet-and-sour dishes. If you have real weenies in the group who must have sesame chicken, they'll find a decent rendition of it ($7.95) along with some of those crab puff jobbies, a dab of cream cheese deep-fried in a wonton wrapper ($2). Neither the barbecue pork fried rice ($6.95) nor the seafood combination ($13.95) had the sparkle or zip of some of the other dishes that we tried, and this indicates that a bit of guidance is needed to ferret out the gems on the menu. The safest bet is to ask the friendly owners what they suggest. Tell them if you like your food spicy and hot, or more delicately flavored, then place yourself in their care. You won't be disappointed.
If you are in the mood to join that happy fray of a dinner party you're too tired or overwhelmed to prepare, you might want to slide into one of the booths at Hoa Mai. You'll find happy faces, loud voices, laughter, and a generous sense of being well fed and at home.