When a friend tells you about a great Vietnamese restaurant, it’s probably because there’s an exceptionally flavorful pho or spring rolls bursting with ground pork. Chances are, you’ve never heard, “You have to try the salmon.” But not every Vietnamese restaurant is Nam-Viet Restaurant, where the menu goes far beyond pho.
Most Americans know green papaya salad as a Thai standard—Vietnamese menus are less likely to include it. That’s a shame. The more delicate, less spicy Vietnamese version is a great way to start a meal. But it’s even better when it’s topped in beef jerky. At Nam-Viet, you can get the salad with tofu or shrimp, but why would you when you can go traditional with spicy-sweet jerky that lends a compelling chew to the salad’s fresh crunch? As is the case with everything on offer at Nam-Viet, the portion is enormous—enough for a meal for one or even two—but it would be a mistake to end things there. Not when there are ribs to be sampled.
I’m talking about the Can Tho Crispy Glazed Baby Back Ribs, the very first item on Nam-Viet’s densely packed menu. The first time I ever tried fried ribs, I described the experience in terms of my world going from black and white to Technicolor. Those were chicken-fried ribs. Now imagine meaty baby backs, their fat fried crisp, sitting in a pool of fish sauce caramel. The sticky, slightly funky sauce is all the pork needs to be turned up to 11.
One of my favorite Vietnamese dishes is ca kho to, catfish that’s served sizzling to a gorgeous, crisp state of caramelization in a clay pot. Nam-Viet takes the same basic idea of caramelized fish in a pot and upgrades it for a dish worthy of the presidents whose photos line the walls. Chunks of wild-caught Alaskan salmon are woven with soft, extra-large jalapeños, as well as ginger and onions. A shower of scallions and cilantro makes the entree look as elegant as its sweet, briny flavor deserves.
More than three decades into its life, Nam-Viet has earned a place as one of my new favorites for its attention to detail. From a homemade strawberry soda with an ideally placed level of sweetness to plates that you won’t find anywhere else, but definitely should, there’s a lot to love at Nam-Viet. And I hear the pho is pretty good too. // 1127 N. Hudson St., Arlington
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