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Splendor in the Lemongrass 

by Mike Corrigan


Kim Do -- on Hamilton between Mission and Illinois -- makes it easy for everyone to enjoy authentically prepared and presented Vietnamese dishes. And the clientele reflects it. On any given day, you'll find folks of many different ethnic backgrounds all spending their lunch breaks together, enjoying the same fresh, healthy food and attentive service.


Kim and her husband opened the restaurant in April 2003, and she's got her brother, mother and daughter all involved in the business. This lady runs a tight ship. The dining room is cheerful, very tidy and spotlessly clean. Ornamental flowers, Asian art and television sets playing Vietnamese karaoke hang from the walls. Each table is outfitted with a stainless steel spoon/fingerbowl/chopstick caddy and a stunning array of condiments. And the hospitality you experience at Kim's namesake restaurant really makes you feel more like an honored guest than a mere customer.


Vietnamese food differs from other Southeast Asian cuisines in subtle but significant ways. Most dishes are simmered rather than fried and they feature ingredients of contrasting flavors and textures. It's both tasty and healthy due to a minimal use of oil, a tendency to go easy on the meat portions and a heavy reliance on rice, noodles, vegetables and fresh herbs. It's the kind of food that makes you feel refreshed after a meal rather than all bloated. Noodles are the most popular food in the country and are eaten everywhere, both in the finest restaurants and at roadside noodle stands. They're made from wheat, rice or mung bean and appear in soups and in vegetable and meat combinations. Unlike Thai food, Vietnamese cuisine is not traditionally fiery (although it can be made so). Key ingredients include cucumber, basil, coriander, mint and a number of related herbs found principally in Southeast Asian markets.


Menu items at Kim Do are thoughtfully arranged into primary categories (appetizers, noodle soups, rice dishes, noodle dishes, etc.) and can be ordered two different ways: by number or by Vietnamese name. There are also brief and accurate English descriptions under each dish name, making ordering a simple -- and educational -- experience for Westerners. If you're still confused after all that, just ask, as the staff always seems very happy to answer questions.


There isn't a separate lunch menu here, but there are so many inexpensive choices available combining meat and vegetables with some kind of noodle or rice that ordering even a single dish will get you a filling, well-balanced meal. Appetizers include egg and spring rolls ($2.50-$3.75), fried crab wonton ($3.75) and chicken skewers with peanut sauce ($4.75). You can get your daily Pho (the popular noodle soup served with a side of fresh bean sprouts, peppers, mint leaves and lime wedges) with beef shrimp or chicken for $5.50 -- and it'll serve at least two. The steamed rice and noodle dishes are all in the $6 range.


Our Inlander team chose an appetizer (spring rolls), a Pho (the chicken), a rice plate (with chicken in lemongrass and chilies) and a noodle bowl (with grilled pork, egg rolls and bean sprouts). To our delight, the food arrived very quickly and was lovely to the eye. It was also a kick to be able to tweak the flavors of the various dishes by applying sauces -- smoky-sweet hoisin, fish and three kinds of chili sauce -- from the conveniently located tableside condiment tray.


And you really have no idea how good veggies taste dipped in peanut sauce are until you give Kim Do's No. 2, the Goi Cuon (two fresh spring rolls for $2.50) a shot. The cold, tightly wrapped translucent rolls filled with shrimp, noodles and vegetables are crispy-chewy terrific -- and they're made even more tasty when you smear them with the very peanut-y house sauce.


The delightful Pho Ga noodle soup (No. 14) is satisfying and rejuvenating, filled with hunks of chicken breast meat, long, thin rice noodles and green onions in a light broth that makes it warming without being thick or heavy. We each adjusted the soup to our own tastes with the addition of the fresh sprouts, mint leaves, lime and various sauces. Absurdly delicious.


But the real slam dunk may have been the bun thit nu'ong cha gio (that's No. 32 to you), a rice vermicelli noodle dish mixed with grilled, sliced pork, deep-fried egg rolls, bean sprouts and lettuce. The pork was sweet, tender and grilled to mouth-watering perfection. The noodles were plentiful and paired with fresh veggies and sprouts. It's a great dish for beginners, a fun and diverse sampling of the many tastes (savory to herbal) and textures (delicate to crunchy) of this exotic and soulful Asian cuisine.





Publication date: 09/02/04

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