Ever since I was a Wee Munch, a pint-sized child that packed a frightening appetite, I have loved -- nay, obsessed -- over Vietnamese food. For my birthday dinner, I got to pick any restaurant I wanted. Did I steer my parents toward Chuck-E-Cheese? Toward a greasy pizza shop? Toward the dessert-only diner? No, without fail I picked Andy Nguyen's, a barely-above-average Vietnamese joint next to a check cashing place in my hometown.
And the rest of the year, I dreamed of the meal, of the dish I knew as "North Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup," of its richly beefy but slightly sweet broth, of the garden of herb accoutrements, sauces and of the do-it-yourself fresh rolls. I loved that restaurant dearly, even after I learned it was briefly shut for health code citations, even after a friend's mother, who worked for the district attorney's office, pointed out a number of building code violations. OK, so I might die in a restaurant fire, but I would be full, right?
Lucky for totally grown-up Munch, Pittsburgh and its suburbs have not been lacking of Vietnamese restaurants. But Squirrel Hill, with its rainbow's array of ethnic food, has. That is, until Tan Lac Vien Vietnamese Bistro moved in last month, across the street from an Indian restaurant and Japanese bakery. Real Dining Critic Friend of Munch sent me a photo of the restaurant's pho (beef noodle soup) that she was slurping up last month, and I nearly drooled on my iPhone.
Munch, who took along Photographing Pescatarian Friend of Munch, was thrilled to see the menu go beyond the standards. In addition to a wide range of pho, there were less common offerings, such as Vietnamese crepes (banh xeo, $11) and escargot in coconut milk (oc xao dua, $10), dishes reflective of the cuisine's French influence.
The decor is, well, interesting. The walls are decorated with raised panels backlit with lights that change, the kind of display you'd more likely find in a cheap South Beach Miami lounge. Despite this, the small space -- tucked away from busy Murray Avenue by the kitchen -- managed to feel cozy. In other words, you're close enough to your dining neighbors to hear their conversations.
PPFOM and I started with the goi cuon ($4), rice paper wrapped tightly around bundles of noodles, lettuce, herbs and shrimp. They were scrumptious, with plump, succulent shrimp and a nice combination of herbs.
Our first dish out was the rau muong xao toi ($12), a large portion of sauteed water spinach. They were out of water spinach, so they served us soy leaves instead, which was a worthy replacement. The greens came out with thick chunks of garlic and a soy-based sauce, the stems lending a bit of crunch to the dish. Up next was a seafood soup, the hu tieu mi do bien ($12). The broth was slightly sweet -- reminiscent of pho -- and came laced with crunchy scallions, a thick tangle of egg noodles and a generous amount of seafood: calamari, chewy fish balls, shrimp and mussels. PPFOM and I happily slurped up its restorative ingredients and it warmed us right up.
Finally, came the meal's centerpiece, the ca chien don nuoc mam xaoi (market price), a whole, deep-fried fish served atop a bed of shredded green mango. The fish was scored on the side, giving us full access to the tender fleshiness underneath the skin. It was accompanied by a puckering sweet vinegar chili sauce, a worthy accompaniment. PPFOM's main complaint: It was a bit undercooked on her side.
If you're new to Vietnamese cuisine, don't be intimidated by the unpronounceable dishes. The wait staff was exceedingly patient with diners who seemed a little tentative about the menu.
For Pittsburgh, even with its handful of Vietnamese restaurants, Tan Lac Vien represents a bit of a leap forward with a bold menu that banks somewhat on the intrepidness of locals diners.
Tan Lac Vien Vietnamese Bistro is at 2117 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill; 412-521-8888. Hours: Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.