It's not the popular local-music, cheap-drink, loud-, late-night downtown venue it used to be. But if you want a good Vietnamese alternative to pho, TT's familiar facade is still the place to go.
Located at the site of the former TT Reynolds, an upscale Vietnamese restaurant, East Wind, opened one month ago and is an exciting new addition to the downtown Main Street corridor.
East Wind is not just another "Pho" restaurant. It offers a large selection of appetizers and salads, plus dazzling noodle and "clay pot" creations. Lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, coriander, basil and star anise float through these dishes.
Order their Papaya Salad with Grilled Shrimp as a first course (large enough to share for two people). It is a heady blend of fragrant aromas of fresh cilantro and basil, with sweet/sour spices, served over a bed of shredded fresh green papaya, with grilled shrimp perched on top. The dish has a light vinaigrette mixed in, making it both refreshing and crunchy as a first course. We paired this with garden rolls with grilled beef, an impressive match (especially when dipped in peanut sauce). The garden rolls are stuffed with lettuce and mint leaves, and wrapped in fresh, delicate and transparent rice paper.
Even after the first courses there is some serious creativity going on back in the kitchen, with the chef's deft use of fish sauce, soy sauce, fresh herbs and fruits. East Wind chef, Luc, is the husband of Linh Hoang, one of the owners of the restaurant. The other owner is Dong Dang. Linh frequently oversees the house, checking in with customers. The interior of the building looks nothing like the popular college hangout. It has been completely renovated, with attractive sage green walls, new windows, and crisp white linen table cloths.
The restaurant is directly across from the Royal gas station, and parking can be a challenge during weeknights, but worth it. The service is helpful and engaging, but not overbearing. When the server realized we had never been to the restaurant (and we were definitely not native Vietnamese) he went into a lengthy description of the menu items and even suggested some of their signature dishes.
Crispy Rice Noodle Seafood ($12.95) is my top pick for entrees. It is a riot of fresh vegetables: Asian mushrooms, snow peas, miniature corns, peppers, onions, baby fennel, and bok choy atop a crispy noodle base, with generous amounts of shrimp, scallops and squid. A very light, but intensely-flavored sauce made everyone else at our table wish they had ordered this dish after tasting it.
Another entree to try, Shaky Beef, is mixed with black pepper vinaigrette. It is served on a bed of fresh watercress and cilantro, with chopped onion and red and green pepper pieces. The tender slices of beef have a smoky flavor. Even the deep-fried slices of sweet potato on the side are delicious.
"Pho" dishes ($8.75) sate, but are not as remarkable as the other menu items. They serve Sriracha and Hoisin sauce in tiny square dishes so you can mix a sauce for dipping.
East Wind no longer serves breakfast. "We just did not generate enough customers to continue," said Linh Hoang. While their lunchtime crowd is picking up, evening is by far their most popular time to visit.
For beverages, the pot of tea is delightful ($3) and they offer nine varieties of Asian beer. We tried the "33" South Vietnamese beer, and found it to be quite good for a medium-body beer. A large selection of red and white wines is available by the glass ($5 to $7.50) or by the bottle.
Save room for dessert. Yes, Vietnamese cuisine is not "big" on sweets, but their bananas wrapped in phyllo, gently browned, served with ice cream and drizzled with honey and crushed peanuts are melt-in-your-mouth good, and can be split between two to three people. The Mango sticky rice will make you wonder where they get such ripe, perfect fruit.
I can't wait to dine here again.