Oct. 3 2014 06:00 PM

Deep, bold flavor marks this City Heights Vietnamese restaurant

Tu Thanh’s banh canh tom cua
Photo by Mina Riazi

While traveling through Istanbul a few summers ago, I noticed something peculiar: tea drinkers everywhere—at all hours—despite the city's three-digit temperatures. Tulip-shaped glasses of black tea dotted the landscape, served on little saucers with a lone sugar cube. Then, one especially warm afternoon, I knocked back a glass of the hot brew and realized that it magically cooled me down. 

The scientific explanation behind this phenomenon can be condensed to this: Hot drinks trigger sweating, which cools the body down. Guided by this lesson, I recently visited the Vietnamese eatery Tu Thanh on a balmy weekday night, pursuing a steaming bowl of its much-acclaimed bun mang vit. 

Tu Thanh is a family-run restaurant in City Heights, and, like many mom-and-pop establishments, it serves up rich, authentic fare in an unremarkable setting (4804 University Ave.). When I first entered the place, a young woman was busily scrubbing the tabletops, and the air smelled vaguely of chemicals. This, combined with the distracting flash and noise of two television screens, made for a flat first impression. But I rarely linger on ambience. Instead, I searched for the menu: a collection of scribbles on a whiteboard. Unsurprisingly, the bun mang vit crowned the trim list of Vietnamese specialties. 

Mrs. Tu Thanh runs the restaurant. Focused and light-footed, she rarely leaves the kitchen, tending to a cluster of heavy-duty, steam-breathing pots. Established in the early '90s, Tu Thanh started as a home-based, take-out joint. A Chinese-and-Vietnamese mash-up called Chinese Kitchen, or Chi Tu Thanh Nha Hang, sprung into existence in the late í90s. The new Tu Thanh flaunts a simpler menu and a clearer identity.

The bun mang vit is the restaurant's most popular dish. Vermicelli noodles swim in a hot, fragrant broth of lemongrass, ginger and chewy bamboo shoots. Add spoonfuls of nuoc mam cham—a sweet-and-salty dipping sauce flecked with ginger—to the broth to tighten its flavors and give it a punch of zest. 

Soft medallions of duck can be swirled into the soup or eaten with mouthfuls of a refreshing salad made from shredded greens and herbs. It's a sumptuous meal that relies on the harmonization of many different elements: the rich, deep broth, the vermicelli noodles, the texturally pleasing ribbons of bamboo. At $7, it's an inexpensive dish, too. 

Mrs. Tu Thanh recommended that I also order the bánh canh tôm cua, featuring thick and slippery udon noodles that are frustratingly hard to eat. Shrimp, fish cakes and lumps of crab add texture to the filling soup, which—despite being less flavorful than the multifaceted bun mang vit—is definitely satisfying. Just as I'd hoped, the scalding brews cooled me down, providing a brief respite from the muggy outdoor heat. 

Turning away from soup, I ended my dinner on a crunchy note. Plump and golden, the restaurant's fried chicken is surprisingly good for a place that specializes in soupy noodles. A crackling, non-greasy coating hugs tender, juicy meat. It almost makes you forget all about the bun mang vit—almost.

Write to minar@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com.


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