Great Chinese

Review by Lucy Robbins

We love houseguests who say they want to take us out to dinner, especially when two out of three of them are vegetarians and would be a pain to cook for in our carnivorous household. And we love Vietnamese food, so it was a happy confluence that Crystal’s Authentic Vietnamese had just opened and could accommodate both herbivores and carnivores.
    We were seated at a table for seven on a Saturday night and were glad to see a good crowd there, but not one so large that we had to wait. The interior is an elegant beige, perhaps courtesy of an earlier resident such as the short-lived La Rue de Chine.   
The menu was not extensive, but it seemed to have something for everyone, both kids and adults— except for not having its ABC license the night we were there. Mai tais and other tropical drinks were featured, and especially exotic was the non-alcolohic jackfruit shake— but we couldn’t talk the children into trying one.
While we waited for our first round of appetizers, the talk somehow turned to the Vietnamese war and the draft, which seem so far away in light of more recent wars and the volunteer Army. Perhaps it was the cuisine, perhaps it was that both Michael and Armando had been of draft age during that conflict. Both liked to think they’d had close brushes with the draft, but as they were college boys at the time, it seems unlikely.
The first appetizer to appear was fried tofu with that Chinese-y red sauce, a veggie choice. The shrimp dumplings were elegant in their translucent dough and quickly disappeared. And Crystal’s served our favorite Vietnamese appetizer, goi cuon— although on the menu they were anglicized into “wrappers.” At $3.95 for two, they were quite a bargain (especially after we had just seen them in a chi-chi new market for $6).
Armando got one of the best entrees— the catfish in a clay pot in a black bean sauce. My second favorite was the scallops with black bean sauce for $11.95.  The only troubling touch in those dishes was the carrots and peas, vegetables I’d never seen in the Vietnamese joints we’ve patronized in San Francisco, San Jose, and Charlotte, unless it was shaved carrots in the nuoc cham dipping sauce. For that matter, we didn’t recall a preponderance of black bean sauce in those places, either.
I’d been tempted by the tamarind shrimp ($13.95) but was quite relieved that our host, Michael, ordered it instead. We agreed it tasted like sweet and sour shrimp; the tamarind flavor was elusive.
As for the vegetarians’ choices, well, Sarah liked her vegetable noodles, but she’s only 13. Michelle liked her tofu and vegetables, too, and noted that the vegetables weren’t overcooked. She also said it was a lot like what she gets at Chinese restaurants.
Both dishes tasted a little bland to me, and perhaps some sriracha— the ubiquitous red, hot sauce that’s like Vietnamese ketchup— would have livened them up. Every Vietnamese place I’ve ever been always has had basic condiments like sriracha and nuoc mam (fish sauce) on the table, but maybe Crystal’s is too upscale for that. We asked anyway, and they willingly provided a bottle.
It was Stella and Ralph who picked the real winners from Crystal’s offerings. They went for the pho ($8.95), the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup that’s a favorite at our house. “Is it as good as mine?” asked Armando, who prides himself on taking two days to make his pho broth. “Better,” replied both children, deflating their father. Indeed, the rich broth was fragrant with star anise. Certainly that’s what I’ll order the next time I’m there.
We decided not to linger over Vietnamese coffee, which you really should order at the beginning of the meal to give it time to drip into the cup. Stella and Sarah were talking about candies they’d inhaled— Pixie Stix— in that way 13-year-olds do to show how cool they are, and Ralph was blowing bubbles into his root beer the way 10-year-olds do to be obnoxious. It was definitely time to go.
And yet, as full as we were (me especially after sampling everyone’s food), when we got out into the parking lot and saw the “Hot and Fresh” sign on over at Krispy Kreme, we knew there was room for dessert.

Crystal’s Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine and Bar
1817 Emmet Street
11am to 10pm Monday-Thursday
11am to 11pm Friday-Saturday
Noon to 10pm Sunday
Smoking permitted in bar