By Cameron Lee
July 18, 2018 (updated)
Often incorporating sweet, sour, spicy and salty elements on a single plate, traditional Vietnamese cuisine offers an extensive range of dishes sure to awaken your senses. Whether it be the crispy and slightly greasy texture of Bánh xèo (Vietnamese fried pancake) contrasted by the freshness of mint and cilantro, or the mouthwatering combination of marrow-infused stock and lemongrass in Bún bò Huế, Vietnamese food is a fusion of heritage, history and terrain.
Perhaps the climate and topography is what makes the flavors of Vietnam so wide-ranging. In North Vietnam you may find less spices and better use of seafood due to colder temperatures and the mountainous contour. Dishes like Bún chả, a grilled pork and rice noodle dish with fish sauce might be more prevalent. In the central region where the weather is warm and spices are abundant, vibrant chili peppers and shrimp-based sauces are better utilized. In the south, much like in the states, the tropical temperatures allow for fruits, vegetables, and herbs to flourish with ingredients like coconut milk, coriander, and basil being more widespread.
While Charlotte’s no mecca for Asian cuisine in the south like maybe Georgia’s famed Buford Highway, we do have a worthy selection of Vietnamese restaurants that provide a myriad of regional specialties.
Ben Thanh – 1806 Windsor Square Dr, Matthews, NC 28105 – (704) 566-1088
Opened in 2003 off Central Avenue in a very unassuming building, brothers Phung and Cuong Nguyen relocated to a more spacious updated restaurant in Matthews in 2016. Ben Thanh offers a solid selection for vegetarians from their popular Jicama and Temple Rolls to their Tofu Garlic and house specials. Bún (rice vermicelli) dishes and hot pots are also popular items at Ben Thanh, as their menu might be the most comprehensive and all-encompassing. From the summer rolls to the lemon grass curry’s, to a deep list of traditional Vietnamese beverages including an assortment of boba teas (bubble tea) and iced coffees.
Saigon Palace – 5215 South Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28217 – (704) 529-0098
Maria Hoang is the bubbly hard-working owner of Saigon Palace, a Charlotte establishment since 2002. The authentic Asian decor and adept service staff always make for a satisfying dining experience. Their beef broth is slow-cooked for a startling 16 hours and you can taste the richness in the Phở and Bún bò Huế. Saigon Palace is also the only Vietnamese restaurant in Charlotte that currently serves a buffet. On Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. they offer a hangover-friendly brunch buffet fit with endless spring rolls, do-it-yourself noodle soups, crispy quail, and Bánh xèo (Vietnamese fried pancake) with all of the fresh accompaniments.
Pho Hoa – 3000 Central Ave, Charlotte, NC 28205 – (704) 536-7110
One of the few Vietnamese restaurant franchises you’ll find in the Southeast, Pho Hoa is not your typical chain. Focusing mainly on Phở, rice plates, and vermicelli bowls, this Central Avenue staple has been dishing fresh and consistent classics since 1998. It’s also one of the rare restaurants in the region that offers the central Vietnamese dish Mì Quảng (rice noodles, shrimp, pork, herbs, turmeric, peanuts, sesame rice crackers, chili peppers, and lime.), a noodle dish with a plethora of flavors and textures that exemplify Vietnamese cuisine in one bowl. Also, if you are into dangerously delicious heat, the ghost pepper sauce is a must-try. Add at your own risk.
Lang Van – 3019 Shamrock Dr, Charlotte, NC 28215 – (704) 531-9525
Charlotte’s oldest Vietnamese restaurant Lang Van might be difficult to find, tucked away in a covert corner off Eastway and Shamrock, but it’s worth the adventure. Owner Dan Nguyen and her staff welcome diners with fervor and pay close attention to their patrons, making them feel right at home. While the very Instagrammable pineapple stir fry dish might be one of their most popular items, it’s the tofu that really stands out. Lightly seasoned and delicately crispy on the exterior, it works well in a multitude of dishes. The Bánh xèo is also highly recommended here: the crunchy crepe-like pancake folded into fresh greens and herbs makes the perfect appetizer.
Le’s Sandwiches and Cafe – 4520 N Tryon St #41, Charlotte, NC 28213 – (704) 921-7498
Le and Minh Nguyen have perfected the art of the Bánh mì sandwich, a delectable standard in Vietnamese cuisine. The Bánh mì is an amalgamation of French and Asian cultures that began with the introduction of the baguette in the mid-19th century. The slightly toasted baguette provides a distinct crunch that complements the freshness of the cilantro, pickled daikon, jalapeño, carrots, and the delightfully pungent spread of pâté. Le’s also specializes in a freshly made nectarous cane juice but it’s their classic frozen avocado bubble tea that makes this Asian Corner Mall hideaway the perfect summertime lunch spot.
Vietnam Grille – 5615 South Blvd, Charlotte, NC 28217 (Under new ownership in May of 2019) – (704) 525-2408
Originally opened by Philadelphia brothers Tommy and Ricky Lai in 2008, the restaurant is now owned by Julia Tran, an artist from Wilmington who took over three years ago. Tran takes pride in maintaining the original North Vietnamese menu created by Chef Ricky Lai. She’s also adamant in letting you know there is no MSG used in their food.
Sticking to their Northern roots, Vietnam Grille offers a healthy selection of seafood from catfish and shrimp to calamari. Their Phở broth is slow-cooked for six hours and contains a distinct spice blend that distinguishes their soup from any other Vietnamese restaurant in the region. Tran and Chef Lai have yet to divulge on the secret ingredients (trust me, I tried). The quality and freshness of both their meats and vegetables also set this South Blvd. establishment apart. Did I mention you can bring your own beer? You can bring your own wine or beer (up to eight liters) to enjoy with your newly found favorite dishes.