Eating at Vietnam Kitchen transports me somewhere else, somewhere far away from the Iroquois Manor Shopping Center.
With one slurp of rich pho broth I’m perched on a tiny plastic stool in Hanoi. I have a 10 cent beer in my hand and motorbikes are weaving in and out of crowds of people.
As my chopsticks cut through the crispy banh xeo shell I am in Saigon watching an old woman pour batter into a row of hot skillets that line the ground.
The taste of cold vermicelli noodles covered in nuoc cham and fresh Thai basil brings me to the beaches of Phu Quoc Island.
While I don’t believe ethnic food has to be completely authentic to be good, the authenticity of Vietnam Kitchen is why it’s one of my favorite Louisville restaurants. It’s why I’ll drive across town for a bowl of pho, or skip trying somewhere new in order to get my bun bo hue fix.
Alex Lam, who escaped Saigon on a fishing boat in the late 1970s, arrived in Louisville in 1980 and dreamed of opening a Vietnamese restaurant. For 13 years he saved money and studied English and in 1993 Vietnam Kitchen opened its doors.
Now Vietnam Kitchen is a Louisville institution known for its inexpensive, authentic Vietnamese fare in a no-frills setting, which happens to be my favorite kind of place.
What to Order
The menu at Vietnam Kitchen is extremely long and can be a little overwhelming, especially if you’ve never been there or are unfamiliar with Vietnamese cuisine. While I think you’d be hard pressed to order anything bad at Vietnam Kitchen, these are my 6 favorites things to eat (and drink) when I’m there.
A17: Bánh xèo
Meaning sizzling cake in Vietnamese, this dish can best be described as a savory pancake. Rice batter is poured into a hot skillet and when finished it’s folded in half and stuffed with pork, shrimp, and bean sprouts. Served with a sweet and sour fish sauce, bahn xeo is big enough to share with several people and my favorite way to start a meal at VK.
Pho is no doubt the most popular Vietnamese dish in the US, and for good reason. It’s simple- rice noodles, broth, meat, and some herbs- but delicious. A good pho broth takes hours to prepare in order to achieve depth of flavor, and its apparent they do it right at VK. I prefer the beef varieties, especially the thinly sliced beef with meatballs, with a squeeze of lime, a few jalapeños, a bunch of bean sprouts, and a squirt of Sriracha.
J1: Bún bò Huế
Originating from Hue, the former royal capital in central Vietnam, bun bo hue is a spicy noodle soup with a fiery red broth. The spiciness of bun bo hue is balanced nicely with plenty of lemongrass and some fermented fish paste. The VK rendition includes beef, pork hock, and pork roll and is served with fresh herbs, lime wedges, and raw onions.
J7: Bún thịt nướng chả giò
This cold noodle dish was one of my favorite discoveries while traveling in Vietnam. Vermicelli noodles are topped with grilled pork, cucumber, lettuce, bean sprouts, lemongrass, peanuts, and slices of fried spring roll. Fresh herbs are added and the entire dish is dressed with nuoc cham, Vietnamese fish sauce. The light freshness of bun thit nuong makes it my go-to summer order.
Cà phê đá
Brewed by the cup in a small metal French drip filter, Vietnamese iced coffee is a strong pick me up. The sweetened condensed milk takes some of bitterness out of this dark roast and adds a touch of creaminess. Probably best to only order this if you’re here for lunch or don’t plan to sleep that night.
Sinh Tố Bơ
An avocado milkshake might sound weird, but it’s actually quite delicious. I once read avocados described as a textural food kind of like tofu- they can adapt to just about any flavor but provide a lovely creaminess. In sinh to bo, avocados are blended with ice, milk, and sweetened condensed milk to create a milkshake that is a perfect sweet contrast to bun bo hue or an interesting after dinner treat.