All the snow has turned to water. I have to tell you I was pretty worried. Not because my car was on the fritz. Not because temps were down to the single digits. I was claustrophobic about the fact there were no restaurants open! That’s an odd feeling for a food critic.
Not much can put you at ease in that situation. Sure, I cooked up a storm at home, but with the grocery stores closed for an entire day I had to make one recipe without garlic. Garlic! The humanity! The following morning I was out of milk. Was I supposed to drink my decaf black like some pilgrim? I’ll bet they even had a cow on the Mayflower. What I would have given for an udderful. So in a city so ill prepared for ice, I vote for no more freezing temps.
Like magic, I awoke to an azure sky of deepest summer. As the thermometer crept skyward, the frozen thoroughfare was exposed for what it was intended to be. Traffic began to pick up, and a few calls later I was riding shotgun on the way to my first post-snowpocalypse restaurant. This is an important one, so I had to bring in the big guns. The big’un. This was a job for Mr. Bubble.
Our choices were limited, to say the least. But a slight cold after a 3.6-mile foot trek on the day before had me feeling a bit congested. I needed soup, and, more importantly, something comfortingly Asian. Lucky for us, I have never reviewed Yen.
Sure, Yen is a Mobile favorite for those in the know. For those of you who don’t know about it, let me say in the Vietnamese arena it is hard to beat. Most of us don’t drive by this Holcombe Avenue hotspot very often, so it remains out of sight and out of mind. It is time I give you my take on one of our best kept “almost secrets.”
I love Vietnamese cuisine and certainly can appreciate the French influence. Yen has its share of unpronounceable dishes, some I am familiar with by description, and other dishes I know not. Today was a great chance for me and Mr. Bubble to try both.
I’m not going to a Vietnamese restaurant without an order of summer rolls ($3.75). The ones here may be my most favorite ever. The shrimp are many, the pork is perfect, the cilantro and mint are not overpowering and they add bean sprouts to the mix. If that isn’t enough to get you going, the peanut sauce is exactly as it should be. Some versions around here are a bit thick. We split the pair between us, and I warned Bubble as I double dipped.
I eat mussels almost every chance I get. Yen’s version is different from any I’ve had. There must have been a dozen spicy mussels ($7.75) on this plate smothered in a rich brown oyster sauce. It’s like gravy that would be at home over mashed potatoes. The whole thing was topped with a generous portion of cilantro, which the Vietnamese use more than the Mexicans.
Bubble had a keen eye on the hot appetizer section of Yen’s expansive menu. He chose wisely. Chicken Xao Lan ($7.95) translates to one of the best dishes of the day. Stir fry chicken with curry, coconut milk, bean threads and black mushrooms were served in a family-style dish with a side of those round things I call Vietnamese chips. A scoop gets the chips crackling like a Rice Krispy. I doubt I’ll ever miss this appetizer again. I may go back just for this.
Nursing that beginning of a cold, I was about to order some pho when another soup caught my eye. Egg drop crabmeat soup with snow mushroom ($4.50) was enough for me to change my mind. Picture a high quality egg drop soup, way better than any buffet. Now add real crabmeat. The kicker is the snow mushrooms, of which I never had the pleasure before today. Translucent to white, these things are beautiful. The texture blends in with the egg whites.
Bubble’s main entrée was the shrimp and pork crêpe ($7.95). A giant crêpe made from rice flour was filled and folded over to contain, of course, shrimp and pork, bean sprouts, onions and a coconut cream sauce to sweeten the pot. Served with a side of fish sauce in a small bowl, the highlight of my day was when Bubble took a spoonful straight from the sauce bowl to his lips. “You are not supposed to do that!” I shouted when I realized what he was doing. Too late. His eyes bugged out and his calm retort was, “You’re right. That is definitely not soup.” No, Bubble. It is not soup. Once he got the hang of it things were pretty good.
My old standby entrée is combination vermicelli ($9.95). This is a fine example of the classic. The shrimp are butterflied and seasoned well, and the pork is served in two strips for a very pretty presentation. This is also served with a side of fish sauce, and I usually pour the whole bowl of faux soup into my bowl. Shredded carrots, cucumber and sprigs of cilantro make this as habitual as the summer rolls for me. The only thing that makes it better is the Sriracha. Tread lightly.
If you think we ate all of this, then you are giving us more credit than we deserve. We each took home the lion’s share of our entrées. But the appetizer plates and soup bowls looked like they could go right back on the shelf, save the mussel shells. No room for dessert.
Yen. It just doesn’t disappoint. I’ve never heard any complaints. Of course, Bubble wasn’t thrilled about his soup, but that’s not fair. There is good reason for its success, and the menu is so large that I will keep one or two familiar items and try something new for years to come. You should too.
Yen Vietnamese Restaurant
763 Holcombe Ave.