Bright Vietnamese flavors hide in a Clarendon office building.

From June 2006 Cheap Eats

Devotees of Vietnamese cooking are inclined to head to the Eden Center, where strength lies in numbers. In an apparent declaration of independence, or defiance, Anh Nguyen chose Clarendon and set up shop in the ground floor of a bank; it's easy to miss the place when you're driving on Wilson Boulevard.

The going hasn't been easy, and Nguyen has flirted with returning home to San Jose, where he worked as an engineer before 9/11 and where his family operates three restaurants. But Minh's has succeeded, in part because it provides a more comfortable setting–white tablecloths, plush carpeting, cloth napkins–than most of its competitors, and in part because its cooking is bright, vivid, and consistent.

The frying is careful, which lifts the spring rolls (greaseless and crunchy) above the ordinary and elevates the shrimpcake, a big concoction of fried yam and shrimp, into something memorable.

The 100-plus-item menu can be daunting, so it helps to know that the kitchen's strength is its grill–grilled pork to be exact. The kitchen threads thin filets of pork on long skewers and gives them a quick but proper char, resulting in meat with a smoky succulence. Sizzling catfish comes on a piping-hot skillet ringed by loops of onion and fronds of dill and trailing a cloud of steam. It tastes as good as it looks. All the grill dishes are flanked by heaping platters of mint, lettuce, and basil, as green and fragrant as if they'd been picked from a nearby garden. The idea is to fold a bit of protein, a spoonful of rice, and a mound of greens into a leaf of lettuce and convert your meat-intensive dishes into fragrant bundles.

There are pitfalls. Vegetarian dishes lack finesse, the curries occasionally miss, and the pho is not worth the trouble–leave that to the parlors that devote time and attention to coaxing depths of richness from the meat-based broth. Still, few Vietnamese restaurants do so many things so well. Open daily for lunch and dinner.

Ann Limpert
Executive Food Editor/Critic

Ann Limpert joined Washingtonian in late 2003. She was previously an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a cook in New York restaurant kitchens, and she is a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education. She lives in Petworth.