Few foods, or cuisines for that matter, sing more of springtime than the foods of Vietnam. Whether the dish is a pho from the north, or a curry from the south, Vietnamese cuisine is dependent on newly grown herbs to take the palate to another plane. Some herbs, such as holy and Queen of Siam basil, are easy to get in Charlotte. Others -- Ngò ôm (rice paddy herb) in fish soup, tía tô (shiso) in bún, and giap cá (heartleaf) a garnish with a fishy mint taste -- are rare.
Truc Vietnamese Cuisine has an advantage of being situated in the Asian Corners Mall, which has two large Asian grocery stores that carry an abundance of vegetables and herbs (but not necessarily those hard to find herbs). David Nguyen, son of Truc's co-owner Guoi Bo and manager, concurs that being part of the mall has given the eatery a leg up, noting that they buy much of their produce in those markets.
Proprietors and Vietnamese ex-pats Bo and her partner Lien Ngo bought Truc Vietnamese Cuisine, an existing restaurant, in February 2008. Before moving to Charlotte, Bo had a Cajun-styled deli in New Orleans. Although her business was not in an area directly affected by Katrina, the aftermath of Katrina was widespread. Thus when the Charlotte opportunity appeared, the family -- who have lived in Hawaii, California, Texas and Louisiana -- jumped on it.
Since the beginning of the Vietnamese diaspora in the 1970s, some regions of the United States have become home to large numbers of ex-pats. Southern California, Texas, and Virginia are known within the Vietnamese community for having Vietnamese restaurants of quality. The first large group of Vietnamese immigrants brought with them the spicier, herbaceous foods of southern Vietnam and the more Westernized flavor palate of central Vietnam. Later, the simple and inexpensive soups from the colder north became omnipresent in Vietnamese restaurants. The menu at Truc is a mix of these regions with a few Thai-styled and Chinese dishes as well.
Much of the staff, including head Chef Tai, remained after the sale. Though the menu has not changed, the recipes have been enhanced. Nguyen says, "My aunt has a restaurant in Houston and helped us add more flavor to the dishes. One thing we did was change to a more expensive brand and better quality of noodle," he says. Truc's vast menu, with 143 items -- which can be ordered by the number if tonal languages are daunting -- is stratified by main ingredients, from chicken to frog legs with brief descriptive notes in English. The menu includes salads, family dinners, rice porridges, stir-fries, noodle dishes and hot pots.
The food comes out quickly even with only one server. Patrons come in, eat, and leave: There is no lingering here. Yet, neither menu description nor plating gives any indication of the fresh simplicity of Truc's dishes. In 12 combinations and three sizes, the pho with its seductive perfume and densely rich beef broth is one of the best I've had.
In addition to the glorious pho is the meltingly sweet crispy quail appetizer and the inviting thin strips of char-grilled pork nestled on vermicelli noodles with slices of ice cold cucumbers, strips of lettuce, bits of holy basil and a splash of nuoc mam. The hot pot imbues its chicken with a deep, smoky flavor. The only misses are a clumsy summer roll and a stingily portioned shrimp dish with scallions heaped so high they occlude the ginger.
While Truc does not offer sandwiches (there's a bahn mi shop around the corner), they do have a roster of smoothies, juices, bubble teas, Vietnamese coffees and beer. The Vietnamese import "33" is best paired with the stir-fried chopped sea snails with onions and basil served tortilla style on sesame rice paper.
Truc's threadbare rustic interior, however, does not do justice to the Chef Tai's crisp, almost sparkling, traditional Vietnamese dishes. The 80-seat dining room is devoid of, well, warmth and charm. An unremarkable bar area is located in the back of the room while a singular flat screen TV plays a Vietnamese DVD on a side wall. A wall of windows fronts the sidewalk; beyond that, diners can view the parking lot glistening with pebbles of car glass, an annoying fact that for years has caused me to exercise caution.
Truc is an inspired oasis of traditional Vietnamese food, which has such a varied menu of regional dishes that veering off the ubiquitous pho, bún, and spring roll route should provide a delicious seasonal diversion.
Eaters' Digest is back on a bi-monthly basis. Do you know of a restaurant that has opened, closed, or should be reviewed? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine events? To contact Tricia, send information via e-mail (no attachments, please)