Best of Columbus: Vietnamese Food
Every time I drive down Bethel Road, it seems a new eatery is added to the bevy of existing cafes, sushi-bars, korean BBQs, etc. Bethel has slowly become Columbus’ own ‘Restaurant Row’. There are still shitty chains like KFC, Wendy’s, Popeyes – but among these ubiquitous houses of blech stand some of the best cuisine spots in Columbus. One of these fine establishments, nestled in the back of Bethel Shopping Center, is Lac Viet (located here).
The menu at Lac Viet is concise and delicious. Appetizers include the yummy Goi Cuon – paper-thin spring rolls with skinny strips of carrots, refreshing cilantro, crisp bean sprouts with tasty shrimp, or pork. If you’re going for lunch or dinner there’s the fresh, and tasty Banh Mi Ga/Bo – what owner Thang Nguyen calls ‘dip and sip’ – chicken/beef (or lamb) in a toasted french bread (baguette) sandwich with a bowl for dipping, a direct influence on Vietnamese cuisine from years of French occupation. On special occasions Thang whips up creamy, mouth-watering (cholesterol wrecking) duck pâté and offers to spread on the Banh Mi sandwiches, or just plain toasted bread.
But where are the pictures of this food? I’ll be honest, my objectivity gets chucked out the window in regards to Lac Viet’s Pho (pronounced fuh), the reason I’m writing this piece. Pho (specifically Thang’s) is a soul replenishing, hot-brothed, ambrosiac noodle and meat soup good for any season, or time of day. Thang refers to it as the ‘hangover-buster’ and plans on using this as a selling point when opening a food truck mid-April ($5 for a large container of Pho, tentative location: West 3rd and Gay St.). If you are hung over, slough over to Lac Viet sporting dark, arc welder sunglasses, get some Pho, add in a lot of Sriracha or the house chili sauce, drink some Vietnamese coffee, and you’ll be set straight even if you’re having a very John McClane sort of day.
Even if you’re not suffering from lack of moderation, be warned: Lac Viet’s Pho varieties are hearty, healthy and highly, highly addictive. I’m talking 2 a.m. cravings here. I tell Thang about the addictive powers of the brothy goodness, asking him what magical, pharmaceutical-grade narcotic is in the broth, and he just laughs – saying very matter-of-fact, with deserved pride – it’s just the best in Columbus, and the most nutritious. I’ve had Pho across the US, even tried some in the UK and Europe; in my opinion he’s being extremely modest with merely ‘best in Columbus’.
I stopped in Lac Viet to curb my PCDTs (Pho Craving Delerium Tremens), and to take a couple of photos for the blog. A group of eight women were waiting patiently outside before opening time, so I started chatting it up with their ‘leader’ – poet, chef, and local Clintonville staple, Bashka Jacobs. She tells me their ladies lunch group travels around Columbus each week in search of new and exciting foods. Having lived in India for thirty plus years, Bashka’s attuned to great Asian/South Asian cuisine, intuitively gravitating towards the best local spots. I mention this ladies group because I wish more people formed food-adventure clubs like Bashka’s in Columbus, and mostly because I kind of want to join in on their weekly fun. Perhaps I could pull off a Mrs. Doubtfire sort of persona to encroach the club, but how do I explain the beard…? Cue proper Aerosmith song.
The ladies love the food, and Thang loves the ladies (not in that way). He greets the group with the same openness he does for every customer, asking each new patron what kind of food they like/don’t like to narrow down choices to their tastes. Thang loves being the host; loves Columbus; loves making and talking about food in general – always suggesting the best hidden spots in the area for lunch (outside Lac Viet, of course) or dinner. His care for the customers goes beyond amiability to the ‘behind the scenes’ as Thang refuses to use MSG at his establishment, and makes a coordinated effort to use recyclable ‘to-go’ containers. Bellies and the environment are mutually satisfied.
Meals are cheap, the most expensive Pho is the lamb at $8, but you get a giant bowl like the one Bashka’s eating out of in the picture above, and you can take the rest home for when the cravings hit you later that night; guaranteed they will. Thang’s my (Pho) dealer, make him yours too. C’mon, you know you want to try some. – Mike