My Own Private Quang
2719 Nicollet Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 870-4739
Hours: Sunday-Thursday: 10 a.m-8:30 p.m. (closed Tuesdays); Friday-Saturday 10:00 a.m.-9:00 p.m.
Where do I eat when I'm not reviewing restaurants? It's a question I get asked a lot, at parties, by strangers. Usually I just deflect the question ("well, what are you looking for?") because it seems to miss the point: Even if what you do is inherently recreational, once you're doing it constantly, with an eye toward rent, it ceases to be all that entertaining. What sort of basketball do basketball players play when they're not playing basketball?
Honestly, when I'm not reviewing a restaurant, I'm mostly looking for a restaurant to review. I hang out in dingy Mexican joints looking for something extraordinary, I zip into breakfast places hunting for the elusive hash brown that doesn't taste like a seared cellulose sponge. (Somewhere you await, my prince!)
But there is--or was, until recently--one secret retreat. A place where I would throw down a newspaper, order, and never look up again. No need to observe the service (which I knew to be a good-faith effort), evaluate the décor (best described as utilitarian closet), time how long other people took to get a table (nits to them, I'm off the clock).
So it was with a mixture of joy and snarky annoyance that I received news of Quang's move from the tiny Nicollet Avenue spot it has occupied for the past ten years to a snazzy new space across the street. Joy because no one deserves to succeed more than the hard-working, good-cooking Truong family. Annoyance because, well, what the hell? Now I've got to tell everybody about it, and the hordes formerly frightened off by the decrepit environs will zoom in. I called it first! Go find your own restaurant! Mom! They're bugging me!
All right, all right, sharing. I was supposed to have mastered this one by now. Sharing. Sniffle.
So let me (sigh) introduce you to the Quang Restaurant, which on July 31 hauled itself to light-and-bright, hospital-fresh 2719 Nicollet, more than doubled its number of tables, expanded its menu, and is doing a land-office business. Customers are stacking up in pursuit of fresh, simple Vietnamese food made with an emphasis on clean flavors and bright herbs, delivered quickly, and priced reasonably.
For starters, don't miss the spring rolls ($2.75), made with Thai or purple basil and sprigs of fresh mint. Goi cuon chay rolls (bland to my taste) are filled with fried tofu, bi cuon with ground pork (though the menu calls it "shredded") and goi cuon--the best--are made with sweet, red-edged, spice-rubbed barbecued pork and a few boiled shrimp.
Next, keep an eye out for the banh tom chien ($3.50), big, deep-fried patties of grated sweet potatoes and shell-on shrimp; I don't remember them being served at the old location, but manager Daniel Truong assures me they've long been available as specials. The crunchy, addictive bundles--something of a cross between tempura and those ultracrunchy potato sticks that come in pop-top canisters--are served with a dipping cup of dressing made with rice wine vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce, shot through with a tiny bit of chile, and decorated with floating shredded carrots. If you're not familiar with Vietnamese food, pay particular attention to this dressing: It's used frequently to unify disparate flavors, binding the alternating notes of rich and bright with their comforting, starchy counterpoints.
Truong (whose mother is Quang's chef, owner, and mastermind) says the restaurant has been seeing more customers familiar with Vietnamese cuisine since its move into the larger space. Still, there are plenty of neophytes. When asked, he typically recommends that they try the grilled beef salad, or maybe the tofu-mock-duck salad: "They're popular, and they're pretty easy to understand. Then you can try the wilder ones later--the walleye-noodle soup, the hot and spicy noodle soup."
Personally, whenever I bring someone to Quang for the first time I point out the com tam thit nuong ($4.99), a pair of sweet, thinly sliced barbecued pork chops served on a bed of slightly sticky glutinous rice with a bundle of lettuce, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs--it looks so side-dish plain and pork-chop familiar, I think Archie Bunker would accept it. But for vegetarians I agree with Truong: The bun chay ($4.99)--fried tofu and mock duck with herbs on a bed of room-temperature rice-noodles (bun, pronounced "boon") that resemble angel-hair pasta--is a perfect introduction to the cuisine, showcasing a wide variety of textures and flavors with simple ingredients.
I must admit it was sort of difficult to venture, for purposes of this review, beyond my traditional favorites, like the so-simple hoanh thanh lon ($4), a large bowl of translucent, flavorful broth filled with handmade, silky wontons stuffed with shrimp. But I also discovered a few new favorites in my ventures beyond the familiar. Banh mi bo kho ($4.99) is a thick curry soup made with "tendon" (Quang-speak for the fatty cut of stewing beef cookbooks call shortplate; if you're lucky, your plate may also contain a three-foot, ghostly-white tendril of actual tendon).
The thick, collagen-silky stew is studded with long-cooked, pot-roast-style carrots and egg noodles; so rich and smooth it could be an Asian beef bourguignon, the dish is appropriately served with a loaf of French bread. I also developed a fondness for bun ca ($5.99), a fish-and-rice-noodle soup. On my visit the fish was steamed walleye combined at the last minute with a lightly chile-touched shrimp broth--excellent.
Other forays into uncharted territory were less successful. Banh hoi is a fried pancake of bun noodles cut into wedges like a pizza, served either with grilled pork meatballs ($5.99) or with a kebab made of grilled ground-shrimp balls skewered on sugar cane ($6.25). To me both ensembles seemed greasy, even when combined with the accompanying platters of bean sprouts, basil, cilantro, cucumber, and lettuce. A weekend special of banh cuon ($4.99), steamed rice noodles rolled around ground pork and topped with slices of head cheese, was the low point of my Quang dining--simply, terribly bland.
Daniel Truong says the restaurant is hoping to get a wine and beer license sometime this fall. Until then, satisfy yourself with Quang's simple, and delicious limeade ($1.95), a brisk beverage made with fresh lime and soda water. I've grown to like, but will never love, needle-textured fresh sugarcane juice ($2.50). And I've grown strongly fond of nuoc cam ($1), a narrow can of mandarin-orange juice that looks particularly attractive emptied into a glass of ice, where the pulp sacs float around like tiny goldfish. It's a nicely sour and bitter soft drink--if you like Campari or blood oranges, you should give this one a try.
Or maybe you shouldn't. The new Quang already has lines out the door at lunch and anytime on weekends, and while the queued-up masses move quickly--helped by an efficient teenage waitstaff that scurries as if in a treasure hunt--still, a line's a line.
So maybe what you should do is go every day. Twice a day. Then the Truongs will be so successful they'll be forced to open more locations, and we'll each have our own private Quang to revel in.
When I raised this theory with Daniel Truong, he skillfully avoided responding, noting instead that the restaurant's clientele does seem to be growing in an interesting way. "When we first opened 10 years ago, nearly 100 percent of our customers were Asian," he recalled. "But even though we haven't Americanized our food, we get more Caucasians every year. Now it's probably something like 60 percent Asian, 40 percent Caucasian.
"Yeah, we still get people who come in and say, 'I want sweet and sour chicken and fried rice,' and when we tell them we don't have it they walk away. But we get a lot more people who don't care about fried wontons with cream cheese, and since the number of Asians in this city is so much smaller than the number of Caucasians--" he breaks off, laughing nervously. As if he's betrayed too much. What? Are there new Quangs in the works? Truong won't say. C'mon, c'mon, I beg. Finally, he promises that City Pages will be the first to know. Nice save.
OFF WITH THEIR (TEA) HEADS! Hard to believe it's been a year since Highland Park's Tea Source threw open its doors. "Fastest year I ever lived," says Bill Waddington, the bright little shop's proprietor. To celebrate, Waddington is putting a bounty on each and every tea ball in the state: "They make lousy tea, so we have got to remove them from the general population," he explains. "When hot water hits tea leaves they increase in size dramatically, gaining two or four times their original volume. When they expand they release their flavor into the water. But tea balls are like a stainless steel cell, and the tea's flavor is trapped in there while you're drinking tepid water." Waddington plans to imprison the offenders in Mason jars and display them in his store, as a warning to all. The bounty is one dollar off the purchase of a new Swiss Gold tea filter, a thin, open-topped mesh cylinder that allows the tea to expand while still keeping messy leaves confined. If you've already abandoned your tea ball, you might be ready for one of Waddington's classes--like "Darjeeling Day," October 10. On D-day you'll be able to sample a whole range of what's often called "the champagne of teas" from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m., for a fee of five dollars. Make reservations by visiting or calling Tea Source: 752 Cleveland Ave. S., St. Paul; (651) 690-9822. Hours are Monday-Saturday 10:00 a.m.-10:00 p.m., Sunday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Or check out www.teasource.com.
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