Hoa Cookin’


You won’t find the city’s best cheap baguette sandwich at a French bakery — or any bakery. Instead, you’ll find it at David Du’s two-month-old Vinh Hoa in North Kansas City. There’s a $2 version or a generous $3 number — “The $3 is mo’ better,” Du told me. The freshly baked loaf comes filled half a dozen different ways: with grilled pork, barbecued pork, vegetables, cold meat or, for a little mo’ money, grilled beef. Du jazzes up the meat with sliced cucumbers, jalapeño peppers and pickled julienne carrots, and squirts it with an addictive spicy fish sauce called nuoc cham.

You may never want a hamburger again.

My friend Lou Jane turned me on to Vinh Hoa, calling to tell me that she’d finally discovered a Vietnamese joint in Kansas City that served the kind of stuffed baguettes she’d found in other cities. If the concept of an Asian baguette seems odd, remember that the French occupied Vietnam from 1859 until World War II, and the former Saigon (today’s Ho Chi Minh City) was once compared to Paris for its sophisticated cuisine.

I wouldn’t call the food at Vinh Hoa sophisticated, but it’s excellent and inexpensive. The closest it gets to le cuisine de la France are those crusty baguettes; the rest of the menu — which boasts nearly 50 appetizers and entreés — is heavy on Vietnamese favorites such as bowls of pho with soft rice vermicelli noodles or comforting broth dishes. (It also claims to offer Chinese dishes, but that’s limited to seven versions of chow mein.)

Let’s just say that Du takes a multiethnic approach to dining, which is a good thing, because he has taken over the Spanish-inspired building on Burlington Street formerly occupied by the venerable Acapulco Mexican Restaurant. Du told me recently that a few older diners still straggle in hoping to order a taco combination plate, but he draws the line at food from south of the border.

Du was born in Vietnam but moved to the United States as a teenager. “I’m half-Chinese, half-Vietnamese,” he said between puffs of a cigarette. There is a small town called Vinh Hoa in Vietnam’s Quang Tri province, but that’s not the reason Du chose the name for his restaurant. “The word Hoa is the name for the Chinese minority in Vietnam. It’s just a popular name in Vietnam.”

I’m not sure he knows why he chose the name, which isn’t easy to pronounce. A friend of mine, who loves the restaurant, just refers to it as “David Du’s place.”

In any event, the interior hasn’t changed since the joint was called Acapulco. The tables are covered in vinyl, and the fluorescent lighting is so cruel, it could make Dakota Fanning look like Courtney Love. To the right of the front door, there’s still a tiny bar with an odd assortment of booze left behind by the previous owner. “We have this liquor here,” Du said, pointing to a shelf of bottles, “but I don’t sell many mixed drinks. My customers order Vietnamese coffee and bubble teas.”

And fresh-squeezed limeade served in plastic cups, which is what I drank on my first visit. I had come with Lou Jane, who sipped iced Vietnamese coffee made with sweetened condensed milk, and Bob, who ordered iced Vietnamese tea.

While we waited for our dinners, we went to work on a couple of fabulous starters: plump spring rolls stuffed with roasted pork, pink shrimp and cilantro; and a pile of banh khoai tom chein, crunchy, tempura-battered sticks of sweet potato and shrimp, which we wrapped in sheets of cool lettuce and dipped in topaz-colored nuoc cham.


As soon as our spiky-haired young server swept away the appetizer plates, Du and some of the kitchen crew arrived with steaming bowls and a white-hot earthenware pot. The latter was particularly exciting for Lou Jane, because clay-pot cuisine (which San Francisco chef Charles Phan calls “the bedrock of Vietnamese cooking”) isn’t easy to find in Kansas City. Vinh Hoa offers three variations on the type of dish that most Vietnamese cookbooks define as “peasant home cooking,” made with a modest amount of poultry or fish and eaten with lots of rice.

The excited Lou Jane wanted to taste a lot of things, so besides her clay pot, we also shared a soothing bowl of pho ga, the Vietnamese version of chicken noodle soup. I spiced up mine with a fistful of fresh cilantro and a splash of hot chili sauce. Bob nibbled bravely but halfheartedly on the sliced meatballs and fried eggroll in his bowl of bun nem bo nuong cha gio. “You know how I am about eating food I don’t recognize,” he said.

I’m not sure I recognized the chopped-up fish bubbling in the bottom of the clay pot when I pulled off the lid, but it sure was tasty. Even better was the rich, mahogany sauce — a kind of delectable, sweet, tangy caramel and ginger sauce — surrounding the seafood. They might be peasant cooking, but hot pots are the most expensive entrées on Du’s menu. I’m not complaining, though, because the bony fish and satiny sauce were worth it. I soaked up every last bit with a hot baguette, fresh from the oven.

It was a wonderful meal. But, Bob said as we walked out the door, “Too bad the dining room’s so ugly.”

My friend Patrick had the same reaction when I brought him to Vinh Hoa for dinner several days later. We were the only customers in the place, and Patrick gave the dining room a withering appraisal. “They need to paint it a brighter color and get rid of these terrible light fixtures. Not even the best food in the world could look appetizing under this glare.”

But his mood improved when Kevin, the same spiky-haired waiter I’d had before, served him a plate of cam tam bo nuong: slices of tender, charbroiled beef sided with a hefty mound of steamed “broken rice” — like regular white rice, Patrick concluded after a few bites, but slightly gummier.

I dumped a little bowl of fish sauce on top of my bowl of bun, which was filled with beef, meatballs and a sliced eggroll. Once again, it was good and satisfying. But as much as I enjoyed my dinner, the dowdy décor and the fact that we were the only customers in the place took away some of the pleasure of the meal. To be honest, most Vietnamese restaurants in town are downright unattractive in my book, but David Du’s place has an extra-forlorn air.

Du must have been reading my mind. When he stopped by the table, he said, “We’re very busy on weekends, but the weeknights have been very slow. It’s taking people longer to find out about us than I thought. But when people do come in, they like it very much.”

Du said he’s slowly building a loyal clientele of American and Chinese patrons. “And what about Vietnamese customers?” I asked him. “Are they coming in, too?”

“Oh, no,” Du said, smiling softly. “They don’t eat out. They make this food at home.”



Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews