Knowingly or not, restaurants aspire to one of two ideal forms: One is a gateway to the exotic, offering the strange, the rare, the novel, and the elegantly delightful. The other is home: casual comfort, familiar flavors, a friendly embrace of service and food.
There's a lot to like about restaurants that manage to do both, by the simple virtue of being an aw-shucks, pretense-free "home" to someone from a culture very different from your own. Marla's on 38th brings Trinidadian food to south Minneapolis; Azuki brings a relaxed and welcoming approach to Japanese food to Stadium Village; and the newly opened Hoàng Thiên Ý Deli brings a fresh wave of authentic Vietnamese food to a part of Eat Street already wonderfully awash with the stuff.
While as unpretentious as a Hibbing diner, Hoàng couldn't be more exotic to someone raised on meat-and-potatoes fare. Plastic-wrapped trays of colorful and bewildering Vietnamese desserts line the front counter, and handwritten menu boards proffer an imposing collection of dishes. The food intrigues and tantalizes: black sticky rice with coconut shavings and powdered nuts, lotus shoot salads, leaves and bean sprouts being tossed into massive bowls of brightly flavored soup containing crab meat and perfectly fried tofu (the Bún Riêu, $6.50). The menu is helpfully parsed into English equivalents, but that won't fully prepare a newcomer to the cuisine for the wide array of stuff that arrives on his or her plate. Like any good Vietnamese restaurant, Hoàng Thiên Ý Deli serves few dishes that aren't "fine-tune it yourself," multipart mix-and-match affairs.
That, plus the ambient sound of Vietnamese being spoken by the families who dine here, and the rumble of the blender making lychee or durian smoothies larded with fat black pearls of tapioca ($3.50), makes Hoàng Thiên Ý warm and overwhelming all at once.
To get down to brass tacks for a minute: For $2.50 to $3.50, the tasty and surprisingly substantial báhn mì here are among the best food deals in the Twin Cities. Made with toasted French bread, cucumber, cilantro, pickled daikon, meat, and a special umami-rich sauce, the báhn mì is a wonderful little package of contrasts, crunchy and soft, sweet and sour, both meaty and stuffed with crispy vegetables. If you're feeling tame, order one with marinated pork or grilled meatballs. If you're feeling frisky, go for the jambon/meatloaf/headcheese combo, or the Bánh Mì Chà Bông, which comes with finely shredded dried pork. And don't forget to grab a smooth, cold, creamy-as-butter, perfectly sweetened avocado smoothie for the road. It's easy to forget that avocado can successfully go sweet as well as savory; this deli is a handy reminder.
Repeat visits are a must: A couple of trips to Hoàng Thiên Ý can only scratch the surface of its standard menu, to say nothing of the board containing written-in-Vietnamese-only specials. Like the slightly less wild-and-woolly Jasmine Deli just up the street, Hoàng Thiên Ý makes itself accessible to all without compromising its roots. Welcome home to Vietnam.
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