I am partaking in a journey where I will appraise every non-franchise restaurant in town and review their food as well as their service. It is an attempt to expand my mind and appetite. Simultaneously, I will also be taking what I learn from these establishments and attempting to remake them with my extremely limited skill.
The low point of driving to Thanh Vu is passing by the packed parking lot of the Great Wall Restaurant, observing the morbidly obese patrons parade their smocks and track pants through the double doors. The minivans and pickups pack the parking lot like MSG packs veins, overflowing onto the street like the curb is a leather belt clasping solely through its strong nuclear force the bloating gut of our increasingly fat culture. Thankfully, enough people have some modicum of taste as Thanh Vu is filled as well, thought mostly with people older and wider than me, something I can say with confidence despite my hairline.
I hate sitting at tables. I feel so exposed compared to a booth. And yet, despite an inviting stall not ten feet from me, I was plopped on a table meant for four in clear view of an entire geriatric bowling team. It was odd seeing such a wide divide of customers between Thanh Vu and U&Me. Both are Vietnamese restaurants with identical cuisine less than a mile apart from one another. Why does U&Me get mostly young people along with “apparently” the entire Asian population of Prince George? Maybe because U&Me is more comfortable while Thanh Vu feels more like an ethnic restaurant franticly covering its cuisine under the umbrella of a family restaurant. And yet, it doesn’t go that far down that sinful path. For one, the menu is listed with all the regional verminclature intact. Mi Xao bo, Cha gio, Goi cuon, I felt like I was learning something. Granted their English translation flanks the foreign, but it’s a nice touch. The menu is massive, with twice the options of U&Me, though I wouldn’t call that praise. Too many options is an attribute of many Chinese restaurants, leading customers into “choice-glaze”, the same problem with many big-box grocery stores. You have thirty seconds to pick a bag of potato chips; there’s far too many, so you always end up with the same bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos. Small menus offer intimacy, allowing you to study each item offered, encouraging experimentation. It’s what prompted me to try virtually every item on Shiraz’s menu (which I’ve almost completed).
The Cha gio is described as the same shrimp salad roll offered at U&Me. Mi Xao bo is their famous pork-packed spring roll, so I ended up getting two appetizers. Yes, I know I was planning on inviting some people, but this was a spur of the moment and I had no one to blame but myself. I didn’t even bring my cell phone with me.
I can appreciate the ethnic touches Thanh almost conceals, like the paintings way too high for the casual observer to even notice or the subdued ethnic music barely audible over nearby table chatter. The two appetizers arrived together and despite already knowing the pork roll would arrive with a surface temperature more akin to a summer morning on the surface of Venus, I still dove in, burning my mouth in quick seconds before scrounging around maidenly for the water like I’m Nicholas Cage reaching for vodka in Leaving Las Vegas. It was good as always, though I swear these things are getting smaller each time I order them. The shrimp salad roll was a disappointment. Firstly, this oversized doobie (yes, that’s right) wasn’t even cut, so I felt quite…inadequate grasping this flaccid lump of tough shrimp and limp lettuce. To compound it, the peanut dip was runny and light in flavor, a big point in favor of U&Me. Perhaps what U&Me specializes in Thanh Vu lacks.
Onto the main, and given the level of steam rising from it, I gave it a minute to cool. When I did finally dive into it, it was initially a little underwhelming but eventually I got into it. I usually prefer ordering dishes with strong flavors but the Mi Xao bo was more subtle. Its primary flavor kick came from lime leaves rather than from curry. It wasn’t at all spicy, something I usually brace for when eating Vietnamese or Thai.
Thanh Vu hasn’t changed much from my last review; it still remains a great place to eat. It doesn’t gain or lose much from its dinner appraisal. However, one thing this review crystallizes is how inferior Thanh Vu is to U&Me, though that still makes Thanh better than many of the restaurants in town, way better than its neighbors. In fact, Thanh Vu is virtually alone when it comes to quality in the region. It does lack that evening romantic appeal U&Me manages to tap, an amazing feat when considering the pho bowls separating conversation are larger than the reservoir behind the WAC Bennett Dam. Thanh Vu is going for the same crowd as those wanting something more than Boston Pizza but not enough to risk a purely unfiltered ethnic experience like Shiraz. It takes a middle of the road approach, which works for some, but when superior Vietnamese cuisine sits three minutes away, I’ll opt for that.
OVERALL: 7.5 out of 10