January 2007: 100 Very Best Restaurants

Bright Vietnamese flavors hide in a Clarendon office building.

No. 45: Minh’s

If you tend to equate front-of-the-house refinement in Asian restaurants with back-of-the-house mediocrity, you might be cautious of this Vietnamese dining room. The setting has shades of maroon and plum setting off gleaming white tablecloths and elegant hanging lanterns. And the cooking at times can seem calculated to satisfy a Western diner’s pleasure centers, as the kitchen turns up the sweet in its dishes, maximizes opportunities to send out something big and fried, and mutes its fish sauces.

But few restaurants at any price are as consistently delicious as Minh’s. The 100-plus-item menu covers a lot of ground, from pho to rice crepes to bun to broken rice dishes to caramel pots to mixed grills to daily fresh seafood specials, recently including a plate of big fried soft-shells draped with slivers of ginger and fried lettuce. It even brings northern and southern preparations together memorably in a dish called dong xuan, a grilled-pork vermicelli. The southern style threads the cubes of pork on a skewer and leaves the fish sauce on the side; the northern dunks the cubes in the fish sauce. Both are powerhouses of flavor, the pork as luscious and full of smoky char as great barbecue, and even better when tossed with the bowl of vermicelli noodles and topped off with pickled radish and fresh sprigs of mint.

A marvelous caramel pot of pork—thick slices of meat submerged in a bubbling, sticky, lightly peppery caramel sauce—is nearly as memorable. Pho, a relatively weak link because the versatile kitchen doesn’t concentrate on cooking soup all day, benefits from a sharply seasoned broth and better cuts of meats than you find at the pho parlors. Even a tame-sounding chicken salad, a starter, proves irresistible, all brightness and crunch.

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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 Logan Circle.