First, the background: tonight I was going to check out New Peking, a Chinese restaurant in Westport I had heard was pretty good. The menu was not encouraging. It looked like a somewhat-overpriced American Chinese restaurant I could get back home, or probably anywhere for that matter. Instead, I decided to go to Mimi's Vietnamese Cafe, a restaurant I'd passed last time I was on 39th St. While I was there, I realized that it was the third Vietnamese place I'd been to in KC, and to emulate one of my favorite blogs, Eating Asia, decided to review them all!
First, Mimi's. While at the other two places I'd had pho, here I decided to try bun rieu ($8.15, but including the 10% tax) instead. The menu claimed it was a soup with chicken broth, chicken/crab/shrimp fritters, stewed tomatoes, rice noodles, and garnishes. Well, the noodles were overdone or precooked; the fritters were more or less chicken meatloaf; there was no plate of herbs to accompany; and it wasn't spicy even though I'd asked for it as such. It was more of a generically Asian chicken soup - tasty enough (except for the noodles), but not particularly Vietnamese. I'm beginning to think that most of the ethnic restaurants in the more popular areas here are not good. Clearly digging into corners is required - like the next place on my list!
I've been searching for Korean food in KC since I moved here. It was everywhere in Ann Arbor, so it's hard for me to adjust to a town that doesn't really have any. I thought I'd found my answer in Kim Son, up near the City Market. However, I arrived there and discovered that it was actually Vietnamese. I tried it anyway!
Kim Son's pho ($6-something, I think) was a pretty immense portion of flavorful beef broth, served over thinly-sliced steak, onions, and rice noodles, with a good big plate of herbs and bean sprouts on the side. Just the way it should be. The meat was excellent - it was obviously raw before the hot broth was poured over, as it came out very pink and quickly darkened. The rice noodles were chewy and the right width for pho. A delicious added bonus was a bowl of smoky chopped chilies in oil with garlic. I don't know if it was lajiao you or something else, but it added a fantastic earthy spiciness to the dish and definitely set it apart from the other bowls of pho I've had before. And of course, Kim Son is a bit off the beaten path - it's at 3rd and Cherry, right by the bridge that carries MO-9 over the Missouri.
Last (but the first I tried here) is Hien Vuong. It's inside the City Market complex, next to a bunch of other restaurants. It's also the smallest of the three, but they have some pretty quick turnover so it's always easy to get a table. And it's the cheapest! Just $4.50 for a bowl of pho, if memory serves me right. They have all the goodies - meat, noodles, herbs, sprouts, sriracha, hoisin, and some other kind of delicious chili sauce - but the real star here is the broth. It's just slightly sweet, but doesn't throw off the other flavors of the dish, and has an amazingly complex flavor that's hard to describe. It's beefy, well-spiced, and pretty addictive, to be honest. The portion is the smallest of the three, but that says more about the other two restaurants - this is still plenty of pho for one meal.
Mimi's Vietnamese Cafe/Saigon 39 - 1806 1/2 W. 39th St. (between Bell and State Line)
Kim Son - 315 Cherry (Cherry and 4th St., actually)
Hien Vuong - nominally 417 Main St., but it's really on the west wall of the City Market)