Soup & sandwiches
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Drivers sometimes do a double take when they turn onto D Street behind the mound in South Charleston and come across not one, but two, Vietnamese restaurants.
Pho Vinh Long and Yen's Sandwiches stand across the street from each other, where they are somewhat unexpected presences in a county where inhabitants tend to favor biscuits and burgers.
"People are surprised when they come here. They don't know what this food is," said Pho Vinh Long owner Tung Luu. "After they try it, they like it and come back again."
City rules dictate that the two restaurants feature menus that are not identical. Yen's emphasizes sandwiches and Pho Vinh Long specializes in Vietnamese soups, or "pho."
Pho means noodle soup in Vietnamese. It's usually made of thinly sliced beef, chicken or shrimp and rice vermicelli simmered in a fragrant broth
Yen's specializes in sandwiches called banh mi, which is Vietnamese for the bread or baguette that holds the sandwiches. The baguette became popular in Vietnam when the country was a French colony. The French influence also shows in the mayonnaise served on the sandwiches.
At Yen's, the baguettes and buns are baked in house.
Banh mi are filled with seasoned pork, beef, chicken, meatballs or Vietnamese ham and topped with fresh cucumber slices, cilantro, julienned carrots and radishes and mayonnaise.
The six sandwiches, priced at $3.50, are joined by eight other items on the menu, including a hearty beef stew, curry chicken and shredded pork entrees that are $8 and egg rolls, spring rolls and fried rice cakes.
Doug Damron works in Kanawha City, but said he travels to South Charleston for lunch when he's in the mood for something different. He eats at both Pho Vinh Long and Yen's.
"I like ethnic foods. I try to eat healthy and the soups and sandwiches are all fresh. There's no grease," Damron said recently as he sat down to a steaming bowl of Co'm Cari Ga, or curry chicken served with rice at Yen's. Sweet potatoes, lemon grass, onion, and sugar snap peas joined the mix.
At Pho, Luu recently added 23 items to his pho menu, including Vietnamese stir-fried, roasted and shredded beef chicken, pork, seafood, and vegetable entrees priced between $9 and $11.
But it's the pho that holds center stage. The heart and soul of the pho is the broth. Luu begins simmering his broth at 5 a.m. and continues for 18 hours to produce a soup delicately flavored with fresh ginger, onion and a hint of cinnamon.
The misleadingly labeled small bowls of pho, $7, contain a generous portion of noodles, meats and broth. It's served with a plate of fresh bean sprouts, jalapeno slices, lime and fresh cilantro and Vietnamese basil for patrons to add according to personal preference.
Bottles of hoisin sauce and potent chili sauce and paste also sit on each table. Warning to first-time diners: a drop or two of chili sauce goes a long way.
The larger version of pho, $8, would stymie a normal appetite, but Luu said a local strong man eats six bowls when he comes. A mother and her young son shared a bowl of pho during a recent lunch. She portioned out his serving before adding chili paste to her bowl.
Some patrons used chopsticks to pull the noodles and fillings out of the deep bowls, while others used soup spoons. Nearly every diner found it difficult to avoid slurping the long noodles. They just leaned into the bowl and hoped to avoid spotting the fronts of their shirts.
Luu's family is Vietnamese, but he was raised in Singapore. He moved to California when he was 18 to attend college. He graduated in nursing, but decided he didn't like the work. He left his position in a nursing home and went to work in a restaurant.
He spent a few years washing dishes and cleaning before he was promoted to cook. He joined his family in Atlanta, where he opened a restaurant with partners.
When he wanted to open a restaurant on his own, he chose West Virginia after visiting friends who live here. He purchased Pho Vinh Long from the previous owner two and a half years ago.
Yen's owner was out of town and unavailable for comment when this article was written. Yen's opened in October, employees said.
The restaurants also offer bubble teas, which are fruit and smoothie concoctions in which large tapioca "bubbles" float, providing an interesting texture when sipped through the extra-wide straws.
Pink shrimp show through the translucent rice wrappers surrounding springs rolls, which also contain shredded lettuce, thinly sliced pork loin and rice noodles. A dunk in thick peanut sauce kicks up the rolls' flavor at Pho Vinh Long.
Both Pho Vinh Long and Yen's do a brisk lunch business, getting patrons served and on their way quickly to accommodate tight work schedules. In the evening, larger groups of families and friends stop by Pho Vinh Long for a more leisurely experience.
Pho Vinh Long, 601 D St., is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. Call 304-720-7333. Yen's Sandwiches, 606 D St., is open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. Call 681-205-8442.
Reach Julie Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1230.