Ode to Lemongrass

Ha Long Bay shines with its underappreciated Vietnamese offerings

Wake up, Tucson. It's time to get to know Vietnamese food.

It's a fact that Vietnamese cuisine is one of the most underappreciated ethnic genres in all of Tucson. I just snuck a peek at the online Best of TucsonTM ballots, and as of this writing, a mere 11 percent of voters have selected a best Vietnamese restaurant. There's no reason for this dearth of votes; Tucson actually has several good Vietnamese restaurants, where fish sauce, lemongrass, lime and mint are melded with meat and vegetables to create wonderful, savory dishes.

One of those good restaurants is Ha Long Bay.

Garrett and I first visited the eastside restaurant on a recent weekday evening. The dominant décor element is a large, beautiful mural on one wall of Ha Long Bay. Beyond that, the restaurant won't win any interior-design awards, but it's well-kept and impeccably clean. The other walls are green and yellow, the tables wooden brown. The servers seem to first seat most of the patrons in a smaller section of the restaurant looking out on the intersection of Broadway Boulevard and Wilmot road; the larger section includes a big window into the kitchen. An indoor water feature gurgles along, and a TV facing the smaller, busier section shows off landscape scenes of what I am presuming is southeast Asia.

The dinner menu features 70 items--each numbered from, well, one to 70--starting with the Vietnamese crispy spring rolls appetizer ($3.95) and ending with the single dessert, the Vietnamese tropical fruit cocktail ($3.95). In between are a variety of soups, "traditional Vietnamese dinners," combo baby rice platters, steamed vermicelli noodle dishes, sizzling meat dishes, pan stir-fried soft-egg noodle entrées, stir fry dishes, fried rice and even a handful of vegetarian "delights." Above and beyond all of that are a series of family combination dinners. Yum!

We ordered the volcano appetizer sampler ($14.95), along with three entrées: the Viet cube beef with five spices ($10.95), the Ha Long Bay house special baby rice platter ($8.95) and the lemongrass spicy chicken ($7.95). Our server was attentive and helpful, explaining the dishes as he brought them and keeping our water glasses nice and full.

The volcano appetizer arrived after a slight delay--but it was worth the wait. In my covert notes, I scribbled "presentation: wow." A miniature pot containing Sterno sat in the middle of the dish; the server lit it on fire and told us we could use it to further barbecue the already-prepared meats "for fun." Surrounding the pot were crispy spring rolls (decent, albeit greasy; the skin dominated the flavor), the lemongrass chicken and beef on sticks (deliciously marinated, and each with a maraschino cherry on the skewer's end), the summer rolls (minty see-through rolls containing a fantastic mix of shrimp, pork, lettuce and noodles) and the diamond shrimp paste (delicious triangular cakes). Other than the ho-hum spring rolls, everything on the plate was sumptuous. On my next visit, I may order this as my meal.

On this visit, Garrett and I had more food--and a lot of it--on its way. It arrived with perfect timing. First came the house special baby rice platter. The dish featured some more of that fantastic diamond shrimp paste, shredded pork, steamed egg meatloaf and a grilled lemongrass pork chop, along with cucumber, jasmine rice, tomatoes, lettuce leaves and dipping sauces. (I looooove fish sauce!) The surprise hit was the slice of steamed egg meatloaf. The mixture of pork, eggs and spices won both Garrett and me over, big-time. All of the vegetables were fresh, and all of the elements were fantastic, with one exception: The shredded pork was served cold, and it had almost no flavor. Nonetheless, we were impressed.

We were similarly impressed by the other two entrées, most of which we ended up taking home due to food overload. The Viet cube beef was perfectly prepared, with garlic dominating the flavor, and hints of salt, pepper, onion and lime providing support. The blend of steaming hot elements (the beef) and refreshingly cool elements (tomatoes and lettuce) added another pleasant sensation. The flavorful lemongrass chicken came with a lot of vegetables (including celery, onion, carrot and bamboo shoots) and had a nice little kick, as promised.

Full, carrying to-go boxes and more than satisfied, we anxiously anticipated our lunch visit, which would come a couple of days later.

The lunch menu, offered weekdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., comprises a trimmed-down set of 38 offerings, nothing costing more than $6.95. (We were also given a dinner menu.) We chose to calm down and each order only one item this time (although I sure did enjoy the dinner leftovers). I picked the exotic "hue" spicy beef soup ($6.50), and Garrett selected the chicken with black bean sauce stir-fry ($5.95, including the soup of the day and a spring roll). They were delivered right away; we had the same pleasant server as we did during our dinner visit.

Garrett was pleased with his meal. The spring roll was OK, and the egg drop soup truly had egg as the dominant flavor. The chicken with black bean sauce tasted terrific, with the chicken, sauce and vegetables (including carrot, onion, celery and water chestnut) mixing nicely. My soup, however, was only so-so. The soup (with an ample supply of thin noodles) came with a plate of fresh add-ins, including bean sprouts, mint, lime, peppers, cabbage and cilantro. I threw in a lot of the veggies, and the soup was somewhat refreshing, but the broth itself was a bit weak. I poured in some of the fish sauce that Garrett received with his spring roll, and it helped. In the end, it wasn't a bad soup by any means, but it wasn't nearly as flavorful as many other Ha Long Bay offerings.

If you're part of the 11 percent of Tucson that appreciates Vietnamese food, you should be quite happy with Ha Long Bay. And if you're part of the other 89 percent ... give this cuisine a chance. Most of you will be elated that you did.

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