Van Loi – Restaurant Review

It’s been a long while since I’ve written a restaurant review here at the Hedonist. This was originally written for The Stranger, but they’ve decided to pass on it, for reasons I quite understand. I now find myself with a review and no place to put it.

At any rate, this review will mean nothing to any one not living in the Seattle area.

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From the moment we pulled into the parking lot, I knew this place was going to be trouble. The sky was gray and the rain helped form little psychedelic puddles of motor oil and water upon the pavement. Looking up for the sign of the restaurant, the color within the name Van Loi seemed to have partially drained upon the rusting aluminum backdrop. I was half expecting a flash of lightening and a clap of thunder to help complete this visual cliché.

Van Loi is the kind of place that often gets missed by the various food guides and newspaper reviews. Instead, it is a place that caters almost exclusively to the Vietnamese community. The popularity of Van Loi is best described by the vast swathes of empty chairs that greeted Tara and myself during the Saturday dinner rush. Out of the 40 some-odd chairs within the room, two were occupied by two gentleman finishing up their Café Den Da (French Iced coffee), while in the back of the room three gentleman were involved in a game of Chinese chess.

One of the chess gentlemen was the host and waiter for the Van Loi, and he quickly sat us down at a table next to a row of mirrors that looked as if they were last washed back in 1997. He handed us menus and quickly departed to get us some ice water.

The cleanliness of a restaurant can often be determined simply by looking at two items: the restrooms and the menus. At Van Loi the menus complimented the décor of the place quite well, as each were sticky, unwashed, and carried a dull, yellow tinge about them. I decided then and there to not take a look at the washroom.

When the waiter came back, we ordered some Café Sua Da ($2.00) and waited for our food. The sweetened dark coffee was palatable enough, but failed to keep my interest. Perhaps I was missing the ritual of watching the fresh coffee drip into the condensed milk, as the coffee had arrived pre-mixed.

We started with an appetizer of Banh Beo Bi ($3,00), a collection of shredded pork and chopped green onions scattered atop of a bed of steamed rice cakes. The rice cakes were okay, and it was clear that they were made on site, but the pork was dry and coated with what I presumed was a dusting of rice flour, which made the dish unnervingly gritty. While fish sauce had covered up some of the dryness of the dish, no amount of flavor could get rid of the grit.

The Bahn Thit Nuon ($5.25), with its rice noodles , cucumbers, roasted peanuts and barbecued pork on a stick was marginally better. With the rice noodles carrying little or no flavor, it contrasted the sweetness of the pork fairly well, although it was difficult to ignore the fact that pork itself was dry.

While waiting for the various dishes to arrive, we noted that although we were the only diners in the place, they did do a fairly steady take out business. With the fresh rice noodles and cakes shoved delicately in the display counter, it looked like they make the vast majority of their money outside of the dining room. Perhaps the regular patrons of the place knew something that I had only just learned – the food is good enough to eat, just as long as you don’t stay in the restaurant for too long.

By the time the final dish showed up, I was hoping that things would get better. The Banh Cuon Thit Nuong ($5.50) didn’t make me love the place, but it did allow me to see the possibilities. The rice flour crepes, with the barbecued pork rolled up like a jelly roll convinced me to not to hate the place. But even this dish had a bit of the grit which gave this dish an odd mouthfeel. What pushed the restaurant out of the dregs and into the “mehˮ column was their use of mint in their side salad that came with this dish. Outside of their ubiquitous use of green onions , Van Loi was notable in it’s lack of use of herbs or foliage for flavoring, making the mint all the more striking upon its discovery. It was a nice touch, but if the best thing I can say about a place is that their side salads are “not badˮ, then there are clearly problems with the place.

Not that I think that the regulars mind. As we were leaving, I counted three cars pull up to the restaurant, the drivers having that “I must get dinnerˮ look in their eyes. As long as they were planning on take-out, I foresaw little problem.

Van Loi
3226 Rainier Ave S,
7 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon.-Wed.,
6 a.m.-7 p.m. Thu.,
6 a.m.-7 p.m. Fri.-Sun.

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