good Vietnamese food in Pittsburgh

Few months ago I had a bad experience with a Vietnamese restaurant in the Strip recommended by my friend Brian. He describes his culinary inclinations by saying “I like flavor.” I don’t know how or why, but this place had no flavor. The food was prepared badly and the portions were incredibly small, maybe in order to limit all the things that were so wrong about these dishes.

On a recent Saturday morning, Laura and I drove to the Strip as we often do. As we drove around looking for parking, one of the multiple places we passed by was another Vietnamese restaurant, Mỹ Ngoc. I notice its unpretentious sign every time we go to the Strip. And every time I’ve wondered what goes on behind that old facade, and what has to offer.

Maybe wanting to give the Pittsburgh/Vietnam connection another chance, Laura and I made Mỹ Ngoc part of our lunch plans.

Outside the restaurant, Vietnamese folks sat behind a cart. A cart like many that can be seen on the streets of Hanoi. French bread hoagies, yes, the Vietnamese make excellent french bread, but, I don’t think this bread was made by them. On the other hand, the different and very interesting filling combinations for the hoagies were definitely theirs. Although they don’t have as many toppings as you would find in Hanoi, we found it very appealing.

We decided not to go for the hoagie and instead we went inside the restaurant. First table of the day for lunch. Is this a good thing? We’ll see.

“You sit here!” an older, smiley Vietnamese man tells us. He also informed us that he was helping today, he’s retired from a “handy man” business, even though he still works at it for a few hours per week. In the same breath, and always with a sincere, almost child like smile, he shares the thought of buying this restaurant. He puts two glasses of water on the table and walks away.

We start to look at the menu. This is a long menu, but we narrow it down to a salad like dish and a noodle bowl. He takes the order back to the kitchen and we are left in a dark dinning room, only lit by the outside light and a few small lights on the walls. It’s kind of romantic. We noticed an Asian man sitting motionless with a cell phone to his ear behind us. I watched him intrigued. Is it calling in an order? Why is he so quiet? I waited to hear a conversation, but he quickly blended into the decor.

We could hear the echos of our food being prepared in the kitchen.

Our smiley handy man returned to the table with our lunches. Both dishes had a simple presentation. My Tom Rang Muoi (salty shrimp) sat on a coarsely chopped bed of iceberg lettuce. Laura’s Bun Ga Cari (curry chicken with rice vermicelli) had a clean curry broth, and the noddles were cooked perfectly. The shrimp came shell on. The light coating and seasoning now flavored my fingers as I peeled the shrimp.

Handy man returned with water and showed honest concern about how we felt about our food. We had nothing bad to say. We enjoyed it very much. Soon after this he was telling us how to repair a fridge. He even gave us a home made business card with his phone number and the promise of repairs for a very small fee. Afterwards I noticed that his name didn’t appear on the card. I’m disappointed to this day I didn’t ask him, but if I ever need an appliance repair, I’ll be looking for my nameless smiley handy man’s card.

I licked my fingers once more, after eating the last shrimp. We got up and paid at the front desk. Two ladies standing behind the desk and our handy man had a short discussion about how to handle our check, or that’s what we thought anyhow, since our Vietnamese is not up to part. After they all seemed to agree, they gave us our change and said a warm, polite, always respectful good bye.

We walked out to a bright sunny afternoon. The taste of our great meal was in my lips and mouth. I was in need of a palate cleanser, but at the same time, I thought to myself, this place has flavor.

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