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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Vietnamese Variety

Phan’s Garden of delights

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Vietnamesepeople know their food. Last year at this time, I visited the nation for 16 days, traveling between Hanoi and Saigon. Hanoi was memorable for its street vendors, each with a different specialty, such as banh cuon cha lua, a dish of minced pork and rice flour crepes that looks easy to prepare but is actually quite difficult.

Here in Milwaukee, we only have a few options for Vietnamese food (Thai and Lao are far easier to find). Most of the city’s Vietnamese restaurants can be found on National Avenue, between 16th and 40th streets. The oldest is Phan’s Garden, which shares a building with a Buddhist temple.

Phan’s is a very popular place for Asians and non-Asians alike, speaking to its authenticity and overall appeal. Fanciful scenes of Southeast Asia grace an outdoor mural. Inside, the “garden” theme is echoed with artificial hanging plants and a few real ones. Tables are topped with pink linens and glass, and the reddish chairs appear to be vintage 1960s. Bypass the first few pages of the menu, where the Chinese dishes are located. Some patrons will find the egg drop soup and pork egg foo young quite tasty, but look around at the other tables and you’ll see people ordering rice-paper rolls and large steaming bowls of soup with noodles—these are the flavors of Vietnam.

There are two types of rice-paper rolls: bi cuon and goi cuon ($4.50 each). They are nearly identical to Thai fresh spring rolls. The first adds roast pork to thin cooked rice noodles; the second adds a few shrimp to the mixture. Dip them in the thick and sweet peanut sauce.

Cha gio ($3.45), fried egg rolls made of a firmer rice paper, appear at nearly every meal in Vietnam. The seasoned pork filling comes with nuoc cham, a sweetened fish sauce with very thin slices of hot red pepper. It’s a delicious sauce that will appear with many other items. Phan’s Garden has by far the most extensive Vietnamese menu in this area. It’s also the sole place to try banh cuon cha lua ($6.25), the aforementioned steamed rice crepes filled with minced pork, bits of wood ear and the flavor of black pepper unique to Southeast Asia. The rolls are served over fresh bean sprouts, with slices of pork pate on the side. This is listed as an entre, but also makes a good appetizer. Banh bot loc ($6.25) adds shrimp to the pork, but this time the rice is gelatinous and almost rubbery in texture. Stick to the steamed rolls.

The heart of the menu is the section labeled “Bun, Pho, Hu, Tieu, Mi, Banh, Canh and Com.” This is where you’ll find the soups and a few other items served dry with rice or noodles. Though the Vietnamese enjoy hot peppers, only one of these dishes is prepared with them. The bowl of soup will arrive with bottles of sriracha (hot pepper sauce) and sweetened soy sauce, and there is also a plate that may include bean sprouts, lime wedges, sliced jalapeos, fresh basil and cilantro. This allows you to season your dish to your preferred taste.
The sole spicy soup is bun bo hue, which has thin slices of slightly fatty beef that are added at the last moment, and slices of pork pate with thin rice noodles. Mi do bien ($6.95) is a clear broth, this time with egg noodles and mixed seafood, including mostly shelled shrimp and scored slices of tender squid that are buttery in texture. A few fish balls also appear, as do some pieces of surimi and leaves of lettuce. Add beans sprouts, a dash of sriracha and some lime juice to create a fine finished product.

A month of daily visits would still be inadequate to explore this extensive menu. Prices are very affordable—few items cost more than $10. Though the dcor could use an update and the kitchen can be slow at times, Phan’s Garden still offers the best Vietnamese dining experience in Milwaukee. Just order a bottle of Saigon or “33” beer and nurse it until the next item arrives.

PHAN’S GARDEN
1923 W. National Ave. (414) 384-4522 $-$$ Credit Cards: MC, VS, AX Smoking: Yes

Photos by Tate Bunker