One of my favorite memories as a child in St. Louis was making the 40-minute drive with my mom for pho and shrimp summer spring rolls after Saturday morning piano lessons.
It was the late 1980s, early '90s, and back then, the Midwestern palate for Asian food was only beginning to expand beyond sesame chicken and greasy lo mein. My parents would cook Chinese at home, and even owned a Chinese restaurant for a time, but the Vietnamese restaurant was my first regular interaction with an Asian cuisine that wasn't my own.
Most often, it would just be my mom and me -- my baby sister left with dad on those Saturday mornings of long car commutes to the piano teacher, little hands clanging away on the Steinway, then back into the car for errands and the long drive home. The Vietnamese restaurant was a respite from the striving immigrant life for my mom, who worked through the week only to hit a weekend of ferrying us kids to piano lessons, double bass lessons, church, Chinese school and chores.
Twenty years later, Van's offers that soothing respite from harried days for the immigrant's daughter -- the quiet clinking of soup spoons against china, the comforting click of chopsticks, steam rising off of big bowls of pho -- the Vietnamese staple of translucent rice noodles, thin slices of onion and cilantro simmered in a fragrant clear beef broth.
There are many types of pho, but my go-to is the classic pho bo, which features thin slices of beef, which are usually served rare and left to cook in the hot broth -- my preference -- but usually served well done at Van's. (For a delicious but pricier version with the rare beef, go to My Linh's on Delaware Avenue.)
During my first dozen trips to Van's, I ordered the same thing I did in childhood: shrimp summer rolls ($5.50) and pho bo.
The summer rolls are fresh, firm shrimp, bean sprouts, mint, lettuce and rice vermicelli wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with tuong ngot, a thick sweet-and-savory plum sauce lightly mixed with pineapple juice. Like my mom, I always ask for a side of nuoc mam, a pungent fish sauce made from fermented anchovies and salt and finished with lime, hot pepper and garlic, that is ubiquitous in Vietnamese cuisine. Dipped with moderation, the nuoc mam enhances, rather than masks, the fresh flavors of the roll.
After the rolls are consumed, a plate of raw bean sprouts, basil, lime and chili sauce arrives, followed soon after by the piping hot bowl of pho. I add most of the bean sprouts, all of the basil, a squeeze of lime and a dab of chili sauce to the broth and let the sprouts cook just a bit before digging in.
But one can't ignore the rest of the expansive menu at Van's for long, so a friend and I recently took a weekend jaunt to try some of the other items on the menu.
We started with an order of canh ga tom chien ($6.50), which are fried boneless chicken wings stuffed with crab meat and shrimp, served with nuoc mam sauce. The three chicken wings came to the table scalding hot out of the fryer, as they should, and golden brown. They were, in short, crispy, juicy and delicious, with bits of crab meat poking out of the well-seasoned stuffing.
My eating mate ordered the house special version of bun, which is a dish featuring cold rice vermicelli, shredded lettuce and fresh bean sprouts, served with scallions and shredded carrots, and a side of sweet pickled crinkle-cut carrot and daikon radish, finished with nuoc mam and crushed peanuts. You can order this base topped with fried spring rolls, grilled pork, beef or shrimp, or in my friend's case, a combination.
The price was hefty at $19.99, but the portion of fried springs rolls, grilled pork and shrimp that arrived was massive, even for my 6-foot-2 eating companion. It would be enough for two moderately hungry people who like each other enough to share. The large grilled shrimp were fresh, seasoned just enough to complement the sweetness of the shrimp and the smoky char of the grill. The grilled pork -- a Vietnamese specialty -- was tender and juicy, packed with the sweet, strong flavors of garlic and fish sauce. The fried spring rolls were dense affairs stuffed with minced pork, shrimp, carrot, onion and rice vermicelli, held together in a crispy, chewy wrap. The strong toppings go well with the cooling vermicelli and veggies. Order the bun with the nuoc mam on the side; otherwise, the vermicelli is soaked in the potent sauce.
I ordered the ban hoi with sauteed beef ($15.99), which is a generous, two-meal portion of delicate, thinner-than-angel-hair rice vermicelli served with the curry-spiced beef and onions. The dish is accompanied by a separate plate of fresh, crisp lettuce, cucumbers, cilantro, basil and fresh rice paper wraps (the same as in the summer rolls). Take the rice paper in hand, place a few slices of beef, onion, vermicelli, lettuce, cucumber, and herbs, wrap like a mini-burrito, and dip gently into the nuoc mam. Labor-intensive, but worth the effort.
To wash it all down, I chose the fresh lemon soda ($3), a favorite. My eating buddy ordered an avocado shake ($3.50) --a tasty blend of avocado, ice, sweetened condensed milk and regular milk. The shake may seen counterintuitive for the Western palate, but avocados are used mostly for sweets in Vietnam.
And harkening back to childhood, one cannot leave Van's without the Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk ($3), a sweet, strong affair that is great on ice in summer and hot on blustery fall days.