Hoang Thien Y Deli: Tastes of Vietnam

Drive down Eat Street – Nicollet Avenue – and you can see
the whole drama of restaurant existence in a block or two – life, death, and
sometimes renewal.

Last night, we headed out for dinner at one of my favorite
Chinese restaurants, Relax (a really unfortunate choice of name), and
discovered that Relax wasn’t relaxing, it was dead. (Sometimes, with the fish
and crabs in the restaurant’s live seafood tanks, it wasn’t easy to tell.)

The Relax signage was gone, replaced by signs for Pho Hoa
Vietnamese Noodle House, and a note in the door promising that the new
Vietnamese restaurant would be opening soon. Relax may be gone, but I will
treasure my memories of their Peking duck.

Just down the block,
empty storefronts house the mortal remains of two more favorite eateries –
Sinbad’s
Market and Café, and the Saigon Express, which used to serve terrific banh mi
sandwiches, steamed pork puns and assorted Vietnamese snacks and sweets. Rumor
had it that the building would be torn down to make way for a hotel, but I
haven’t noticed any progress on that front.

Across the street,
Vinh Loi, a Vietnamese BBQ and deli has a sign in its window saying that it is
"closed for remodeling" from August 17-31. "Closed for remodeling" is sometimes
a euphemism, but I am keeping my fingers crossed – Vinh Loi offers great banh
mi sandwiches (the roast pork is especially good), plus a nice assortment of
noodle soups and vegetarian fare.

Hoang Thien Y

But the best news from my recent tours of Eat Street is the
opening of another terrific little Vietnamese eatery – Hoang Thien Y Deli,
hidden away in the little strip mall at 2738 Nicollet – across the parking lot
from El Mariachi and Marissa’s Bakery.
The counter-top looked very familiar – the same rainbow display of
snacks and sweets that Saigon express used to offer: steamed rice and pork
wrapped in banana leaf, bright purple and neon green desserts of sticky rice,
slender egg rolls and packets of coconut rice, and all the ingredients for
making sandwiches, smoothies and che desserts. The face behind the counter
looked familiar, too – it was Chee, one of the women who had worked behind the
counter at the Saigon Express.

But Hoang Thien Y has some added features that Saigon
Express lacked, including half a dozen tables, and a much bigger menu, with a
big variety of rice plates, noodle soups, salads and more. Chee recommended a
durian smoothie – made from the notoriously stinky/ pungent/ sexy tropical
fruit ($3.50), and the Hanoi style pork, a plate piled high with rice noodles,
topped with succulent rolls of grilled marinated pork stuffed with onion,
accompanied by fresh herbs and marinated carrots, cucumber and radish, and a
pungent nuoc mam (fermented fish) dipping sauce – very light, and yet filling –
perfect summer fare. I can also recommend the bun rieu, a savory soup of rice
noodles, minced crab, tofu and tomatoes ($6.50).

And speaking of delis, I noticed as I was leaving the strip
mall that Marissa’s, across the street has added a cafeteria, offering a big
selection of authentic Mexican fare – I haven’t had a chance to check it out
yet, so if you get there before I do, drop me a line (iggers@rakemag.com) or post a comment below to let me how you
liked it.