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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 20.0° F  Fog/Mist
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At Viet House, the broken rice is extra nice
Beyond the status pho

Credit:Linda Falkenstein

There are large swaths of the population who will studiously avoid the very latest dining venue where waiting for a table is de rigueur. These people are more likely to call in a takeout order somewhere, then eat it in the air-conditioned comfort of their living room while watching the Ed Schultz show, and then not tweet about it. You know who you are.

This admittedly is my preference, and that, plus the long heat wave, brought me frequently to Viet House, a new Vietnamese restaurant in the East Madison shopping center in a space that's recently housed several short-lived Asian eateries. In Madison, Viet cuisine has often centered on the noodle soup pho, but there is more to Vietnamese food than pho - which is a good thing since the last thing I want when temps reach 100 degrees is a steaming-hot bowl of beef soup.

Viet House serves com tam, or broken rice, a Vietnamese standard. Originally a cheaper form of rice (the grains are actually broken), it's sometimes preferred because it's more flavorful, a little nuttier tasting, than the standard rice. It's also preferable to the clumpy, almost bleached white rice often served at American Chinese restaurants. Broken rice's smaller, distinct grains remain separated. It's an excellent host for the house sauce, a sweetish fish sauce, and the typical garnish of cucumber and shredded carrot.

The com tam dishes come with a choice of grilled marinated meats (pork, chicken or beef), or with a whole smorgasbord of Viet proteins - grilled pork chop, shredded pork with pork skin, steamed meat loaf with egg, and fried shrimp paste. This dish, suon bi cha chao tom, features enough flavors so that if one turns you off, just move on. The pork chop was good enough; the meat/egg loaf was more eggy than meaty, not unlike a frittata; the shrimp paste was like a briny version of fried tofu; and the shredded pork/pork skin had a bland, greasy, yet dusty flavor. As for the other versions, the grilled marinated beef (sweet-soy-infused shredded meat like a tender jerky and almost black) would be my pick over the chicken (a bit rubbery) or the pork (gristly). The fried fish filet option for the com tam has, sadly, already disappeared from the menu.

In mixing various elements of ordered entrees, I found that the deep-fried tofu appetizer paired with the lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, shredded pickled carrots, peanuts and cilantro garnish from the noodles, served over the broken rice with the house sauce, was my favorite dish here - although not, strictly speaking, a dish here. An easier way of doing this would be to order the bun dau hu chay, vermicelli with fried tofu, though you'd miss the broken rice. A nice light summer entree either way.

Another hit direct from the menu is the ca man, fried rice with salted fish, chicken and egg - the salted fish lending dimension not usually found in fried rice.

Viet House also serves six versions of banh mi, the Vietnamese sub: the traditional ham, paté and mayo; grilled pork; grilled beef; shredded pork with pork skin; barbecued pork; or tofu. I'd go for the traditional version, in part because it's the only one that comes with the paté and the mayo - which, with the pickled veggies and the lacerating heat of jalapeños, drive the sandwich. It's not the best banh mi I've ever had, but for $4.25, it's pretty good.

And it finally cooled off enough to try the pho. The clear beef broth with brisket, with garnishes of basil, bean sprouts, cilantro, lime and jalapeños, was a nice clean bowl of soup, though the broth lacked depth - no trace of spices there.

Ultimately, Viet House probably won't become a destination restaurant. But for east- and north-siders, it's a cool, pleasant space to dine in and a reliable spot to pick up takeout. The staff is friendly, and even from the recently downsized menu, there's plenty to try and like.

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