Three weeks of intensive pizza consumption during our PZZA tournament has been a blast, but there have been costs: Scar tissue build-up on the roof of my mouth from molten cheese, carpal tunnel from repetitive slice-folding, not to mention shirts covered in grease and tomato stains. I need a little change.
That's why I find myself in the absurdly anonymous dining room of Trang Viet on Fowler. White walls, multicolored vertical blinds and one piece of framed wallpaper don't make for much atmosphere. Seriously, if it weren't for the napkins and silverware on the tables, this room could be home to an AA meeting, a Scientology study group or a tax seminar. Instead, it's a Vietnamese restaurant renowned for vegetarian cuisine.
Let's be charitable and call the décor soothing. Since I've come to Trang Viet for a little culinary tranquility, I'm fine with the drab surroundings. When the first course starts to hit the table, my attention is on the food, which, it turns out, is just the kind of simple, straightforward Vietnamese cuisine I need as a salve for my dining soul.
So maybe stuffed chicken wings ($4.40) aren't necessarily a bite of fresh air after weeks of pizza, but I'm unable to deny the attraction of meat wrapped around other meat. The chicken is crammed full of ground shrimp and pork, then fried crisp, each slice crunchy, meaty and anchored by that soft, spongy filling.
Doughy, ethereal steamed buns ($3.40) are next, the sweet bread encircling more ground shrimp and sausage as well as sections of rich hard-boiled egg. Crunchy shredded papaya ($4.75) — the under-ripe green kind that should see more play with local chefs of all varieties — is laced with fish sauce and vinegar, and cleanses my palate for a platter of spring rolls ($3.25).
Spring rolls are the kind of simple dish that often falls short at lesser restaurants. Here at Trang Viet, the veggies and herbs are exceedingly fresh and expertly tucked into the rice paper wraps, with roast pork, beef, shrimp, noodles or sausage. This is standard stuff executed well, especially when dipped into the usual accompaniments of sweet chili sauce or deep brown peanut sauce.
Things get even better when I catch a whiff of the steaming bowl of pho ($7.35) being ushered in my direction. Across the room, the scent is teasing and subtle, a hint of anise and cinnamon. On the table — with my face directly above the pale liquid, pores opening from the steam — the soup is more elegant than subtle, beef and spices inseparably mingled.
Toss in spiky basil leaves torn to shreds, bean sprouts that crunch with moisture, slices of neon green jalapeno and tart juice squeezed from a few sections of lime, and this classy pho becomes a riot of hearty flavors and textures, just as it should. This is what I was looking for when I came to Trang Viet.
Sadly, the soup was followed by overcooked chicken ($7.35), redolent with lemongrass and the taint of burnt cooking oil, atop fragrant jasmine rice. That's not very tranquil. Neither is dry fried fish ($15.99) given the same blast of carbonized grease. To quote The Simpsons' Ralph Wiggum: "It tastes like burning!"
A seafood hot pot ($9.25) marks a return to more edible offerings. Simple chunked fish stewed in an authentic-looking (appearance is everything) clay pot with a mere hint of fresh herbs is exactly the kind of dish that Trang Viet is known for. Mix in a heaping pile of that great jasmine rice, and it's easy to forget the fry problems.
All that meat and seafood is fine, but, more than anything else, it's Trang Viet's vegetarian offerings that drag people to this anonymous space. Those pages are colored green and take up half the menu, replete with all the stuff you'd expect: noodles and tofu and sauteed veggies. But then I make out a whole section of "meat substitutes."
Almost everything over on the carnivore's side of the menu is available vege-fied, with tofu or fake meat, but there is also a surprising amount of innovation going on: imitation fish cakes with ground tofu and protein crumbles wrapped in thin rice crepes ($7.35); smoked pseudo-pork simmered in coconut milk and curry ($7.50); or, my favorite, crunchy fried potatoes wrapped around something that resembles imitation spam doused in a thick veggie gravy ($7.75).
The fake meat is the surest indicator of Trang Viet's big vegetarian clientele. Rotisseried faux chicken drumsticks ($8.25)? That's a dish that only comes into being for an American crowd trying to fill the carnivorous void with something vaguely meat-like. A little chewy, and they don't taste like chicken, these seasoned protein "drumsticks" are surprisingly tasty.
I'd stay away from the spongy and oddly flavored fake beef ($7.25), but steamed tofu with pungent lemongrass ($7.25) is a necessity for anyone out for a light dinner. Whether you are vegetarian or not, Trang Viet has, by far, the most exciting and varied veggie menu around.
After a few visits to Trang Viet, and a lot of samples from the green pages, I'm feeling a little revived. This straightforward Vietnamese restaurant with the terrible décor and astounding vegetarian menu has reset my inner eater, counteracting the effects of 64 slices of pizza on my mind and body.
What's next? Chili cook-off? Barbecue challenge? Milkshake showdown? I'm ready.
Brian Ries is a former restaurant general manager with an advanced diploma from the Court of Master Sommeliers. Creative Loafing food critics dine anonymously, and the paper pays for the meals. Restaurants chosen for review are not related to advertsing.