Restaurant review: A Taste of Vietnam

G.A. Benton
Pho bo tai nam

A Taste of Vietnam, which opened in August, represents something new for Vietnamese food in Columbus. The cuisine there is unquestionably respectable and affordable, but that's not what stands out — several local eateries feature more interesting dishes and more forceful flavors. Where A Taste of Vietnam distances itself from the competition is in the perks and creature comforts that it offers.

In other words, when it comes to the complete package of dining out for most Central Ohioans — authentic yet unintimidating meals, good value, appealing ambience, convenient hours (Taste serves late), a winning happy hour and adult beverages — this Worthington establishment has it all.

Upon taking over the former Rivage Atlantique space, Taste wisely left the upscale-casual setting largely intact. In fact, the few obvious design alterations — adding pretty, flower-shaped lampshades and ethnically appropriate knick-knacks and photographs — notably enhance the comfortable, stone and soft color-toned surroundings, which still encompass two dining rooms and a back-chamber sports pub. My only niggling complaint in the atmosphere department: the tinkling piano “elevator music” is woefully out of place.

A recent menu change has added Chinese and Thai dishes to the menu; the dining for this review took place before the change. Also, price alterations may not be reflected in this review.

Try exploring Taste's lengthy beer list (best deal: a recent happy hour special of $2 Rockmill Brewery saison drafts), small but workable wine selection (best cuisine-appropriate deal: $5 glasses of Pacific Rim organic Riesling) or relatively inexpensive cocktails (best one I sampled: the invigorating $8 Little Dragon, shaken with tequila, ginger beer, jalapeno and cilantro).

Prefer a caffeine jolt? The Ca Phe Sua ($3.59) is enticingly sweet-and-strong Vietnamese iced coffee enriched with condensed milk and properly presented with a little drip-filter contraption.

Any of these drinks would go great with the nifty grilled pork banh mi ($7.85). Like much of Taste's fare, it hits all of its marks: soft-yet-crisp, toasted sub-style bun; plenty of seared, aromatic, slightly sweet meat; rich house mayo and pate; fresh cilantro and jalapeno; plus pickled daikon and carrot.

Except for one quibble — the thinly sliced, tender beef arrived fully cooked instead of still-cooking in its hot broth — the Pho Bo Tai (rare beef pho, $8.90) was similarly pleasant and on-target if unexceptional.

You could say the same thing about another easy-to-love Vietnamese favorite from Taste's straightforward, manageable menu: Bun Thit Nuong Cha Gio ($10.25). Like its name, this three-course meal in a bowl is a mouthful.

It's a texturally dynamic, rice noodle-anchored combo of grilled pork, crisp and flavorful spring rolls and a salad made with shredded lettuce, mint, Thai basil, carrots, sweetened fish sauce and deeply roasted, crushed peanuts.

The same refreshing salad components resurface — along with green peppers and sliced beef (mine was uncharacteristically overcooked and seemed boiled rather than seared) — in the Vietnamese Beef Salad, which is only $6 during happy hour (daily, 4-7 p.m.).

Despite its misleading name and description as a grilled chicken, ginger and rice dish, the Com Ga ($9.49) is a big and delicious highlight. Half a bird that appeared to have been skillfully pan-fried arrived with crackly crusted skin and juicy, falling-off-the-bone meat. On the side: a bowl of lovely, light broth; sweet-and-salty, dark soy sauce; steamed broken rice; sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

Banh Cuon Thit Nurong ($11.95) is another big and terrific composition with numerous elements: six hefty yet delicate, glutinous rice-flour crepes filled with minced mushrooms and pork; lots of smoky grilled sliced pork; crunchy deep-fried onion bits; sweetened fish sauce; and a deconstructed salad. As with most items I tried here — including a comforting but nuanced beef stew (Banh My Bo Kho, $8.45) — it hits a sweet spot between exotic and accessible for Midwestern-raised diners.

You could say the same thing about this restaurant.

Taste of Vietnam

652 High St., Worthington