Better late than never: that’s how I feel about how I feel about Mary Nguyen.
Since moving here in 2007, I’d been reading breathless reports of this angelic creature: beautiful, kind, smart, talented, ambitious…skinny…In short, she appeared on paper to be everything I didn’t want to think about while acting like a wino & stuffing my face. So I avoided Parallel Seventeen altogether; there were, I figured, plenty of downhome Vietnamese joints in town where I could do my grubby thing in ignorant bliss.
But with the opening of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, curiosity finally got the better of me—& the experience was eye-openingly encouraging. Given my lovely virgin visit there, & in light of the spate of contemporary Asian (pan-continental, East-West, etc.) joints springing up all over town—following the lead of Bones & TAG, we’ve seen ChoLon, Se7en, Japoix, Den Deli-cum-OTOTO Den (or OTOTO Food & Wine, or whatever its official name is), the brand-new i-Fish (as reported by Westword this week), & so on, & so on—I decided it was past time to give good old P17 a fighting chance.
The verdict, based on 2 lunch entrées & 2 sandwiches to go: it’s still a winner.
In the classy corner space—like Nguyen herself, petite, light, streamlined, with just a few scattered hanging sculptures in organic shapes to serve as tellingly Eastern accents—I hunkered over a half-portion of short rib that, I’m sorry to say, appears to have been struck from the menu in the space of a few short days, but nevertheless offers a bright, clear picture of the kitchen’s sensibilities.
Rubbed with coffee, the fork-tender chunk was suffused with a dark, smoky aroma & a bittersweet savor that lingered along with the coconut breath of the rice, balanced by earthy-green, quickly sauteed gailan & a scoop of spicy mixed pickle. I had the delightful feeling that I was eating with my nose as much as my mouth.
A few bites of the Director’s grilled pork loin were likewise thoroughly redolent, in this case of ginger & pickled plum. The meat was ever-so-slightly overcooked, but jasmine rice lightly fried in duck fat came out just right, a proper rejoinder to the mound of brown grease that passes for fried rice at many a take-out joint.
By contrast, the sliced roast pork on the “Saigon sandwich”—essentially bánh mì—was perfect: just touched with pink, smooth as pâté, spread with spicy aioli & covered in crisp, fresh shredded lettuce, pickled daikon & carrots, & a cilantro leaf or 2 along with sliced tomato & jalapeño. Plusher than most, the baguette kept chewiness in check. And the juicy slab of grilled chicken on the other version was equally fine.
We didn’t try our companion’s tofu sliders, but they sure were cute—too bad they, too, are no longer on the menu.
That said, the sudden switcheroo has yielded a slew of new lunch-menu temptations, including a charcuterie platter featuring, among other things, head cheese & Sapporo beer mustard as well as an awesome-sounding Asian take on a salade Niçoise with raw cured tuna, salt-roasted beets, poached quail eggs, wasabi greens, olive tapenade & miso vinaigrette. I take it all as a good sign that Nguyen is committed to keeping her flagship as fresh & fun as her junior venture. Good on her—the skinny bitch. (Oh! That’s just a jealous joke.)