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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fair
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Kim's Noodles has hot pot, banh mi and...avocado smoothies
Spicy, crispy, fresh
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Credit:Chris Collins

The banh mi, a glorious product of French colonial Vietnam, was the perfect candidate to become a cult food obsession. The sandwich has an exotic pedigree; its ingredients brilliantly complement each other; it's cheap; and it is open to creative variation. Such conditions make otherwise indigenous street foods ripe for international stardom in our food-crazed era.

The parts of the banh mi are: baguette, spicy mayo or butter, pickled daikon and carrot, hot peppers, cucumber, cilantro, anchovy or fish sauce, and a protein such as sliced beef or ham pate. When done well, the experience is simultaneously crunchy, moist, salty, spicy, crispy, earthy, sour, bright and, above all, fresh. In short, it is a contender for one of the best sandwiches on Earth.

Five or six years ago this Vietnamese sensation began taking the U.S. by storm, and started appearing everywhere - except in Madison, really.

Here, Saigon Noodle has offered them at lunch, Asian Midway Foods sporadically sold a passable example brought in from Milwaukee, Haze sold one during its brief existence, and there are versions at Graze and Mermaid Cafe on Atwood. But while Mermaid's and Graze's versions are good, at $8 and $11 respectively, they aren't exactly the same cheap street eats that made this South Asian sub a cult staple.

Kim's Noodles, a new Vietnamese restaurant in the old Lee Asian Bistro on Monona Drive, is turning out five varieties, each for $4. The large sandwiches come packaged tightly in white paper, as they should, and when you tear open the wrapping and take that first bite you will be pleasantly surprised. In fact, if you order #15, the grilled marinated pork, you will have a moment of nirvana. Even the slightly lame supermarket hoagie-like bun cannot detract from what is essentially a well-made banh mi. And the spicy, slightly charred pork is exceptional.

As the name implies, Kim's Noodles also serves a variety of egg and rice noodle dishes, including the much beloved pho. Pho here is good, and it is a relief to finally have a bowl of the traditional rice noodle soup offered on the far east side. The broth is a bit sweet for my taste, but after a good hit of chili sauce, it balances out nicely.

The remainder of the menu is pleasantly straightforward at this relaxed but efficient restaurant.

For starters, both the spring rolls and the goi tom, or shrimp salad, are excellent. The salad is lushly vegetal: minty and crisp with a strong sauce. Flavors aren't rendered shyly for an American palate.

Bun, or brothless bowl of vermicelli noodles, is delicious with "grilled meat" and egg roll (#34). It arrives as a decently sized serving of noodles topped with fresh cilantro, pickled daikon and carrot, crushed peanuts, cabbage, pork and two tasty egg roll halves. Stirred and doctored-up with some of the many choices at each table - Sriracha, sambal (garlic and chili), soy sauce, teriyaki sauce - it becomes a spicy umami frenzy.

The stir-fried sizzling flat noodles arrive wok-hot and are texturally engaging. The noodles fry slightly stuck together, creating toothy bits of crunchy exterior with softly giving noodle interior. It comes beautifully mounded with vegetables and whatever protein you choose, but be warned that it's ultimately a bit heavy.

The same is true of the pork and shrimp egg pancake, which is in the House Specialties section. Hot and crisp at first, it settles into a dense and overly greasy mass. You are meant to eat the omelet-like eggs with the accompanying lettuce leaves - just ask the attentive and very friendly staff if you run out. It's a good dish if you've never tried it, or you're craving it, but I've had lighter, better versions. Our server explained that her grandmother made this dish when it rained, and indeed it is fortifying.

Also notable in the house specials are Kim's Hot Pot and Beef Stir-fried with Lemongrass and Chili. The first of these is a bubbling clay pot filled with beef, chicken, shrimp, bokchoy, snow peas, yellow peppers and more. While the sauce is a touch bland, the rice underneath is cooked to crispy perfection and is a crunchy delight. Pair this dish with a spicier offering, or add some heat on your own if you need it.

The beef, served with long green onions, broccoli and bird's eye chilis, is a delicious surprise. The meat is marinated in a thick lemongrass chili rub, and is moist, richly flavorful and very tender.

Drinks are a highlight here and include bubble tea and coffee with condensed milk, as well as wilder offerings such as an avocado smoothie (fantastic) and a club soda with condensed milk and egg yolk. This is frothy and lemony much like a non-alcoholic gin fizz, and it is stellar. Less palatable is a salted lemon drink that the waitress tried to warn me away from, presumably because it tastes exactly like rehydration salts. Unless you've been mountaineering or are ill, pass.

Kim's Noodles is just off the bike path loop if you're heading around Lake Monona, and conveniently next to one of, if not the, best Asian markets in Madison, Viet Hoa. Kim's would be a minor sensation just for the banh mi's, but add good, healthy noodle dishes as well as fun beverages, and the far east side now hosts a new low-cost favorite.

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