Most local Vietnamese menus tend to be cookie-cutter copies of each other.
Neither are they as extensive in scope as they at first seem to be. They may be several pages long, but -- as anyone who reads them carefully comes to realize -- so many of the listings are just variations on a theme, or combinations of individual dishes.
T.H. Dang's menu is no exception, listing 200 items that are part Vietnamese, part Chinese. With most appetizers ranging from $8 to $14, and main courses from $10.50 to $14, prices are a little higher than the general run of similar menus -- the iced Vietnamese coffee is a whopping $5. However many south-enders (possibly including the predominantly Asian clientele of my visits) may prefer to spend the few extra dollars on the fresh-flavoured and expertly-prepared food than on the gas to take them to one of the ever-increasing number of Vietnamese restaurants in the West End.
There was one house specialty that I hadn't found on other Vietnamese menus, although, come to think of it, it was probably more Chinese than Vietnamese, reminiscent of Harvest In Snow. Whatever its origin, it was scrumptious, and the name -- simply Chicken Lettuce Wrap -- doesn't prepare you for this flavourful and textural delight of diced chicken with bits of crunchy veggies, fried rice noodles and peanuts, to be enfolded in lettuce leaves.
One of my long-time favourites, banh xeo (a.k.a Vietnamese crepe) does appear on many menus. This one was not only gorgeous to look at but was also one of the biggest, best versions ever -- a plate-size crisp crepe of rice flour that is moistened with coconut milk and pale yellow with turmeric, folded around a sprightly filling of shrimp and bean sprouts. To eat it, poke off a piece of the crepe with your chopsticks, wrap it in a lettuce leaf, and dip it in the tangy nuoc cham sauce.
A third knockout appetizer was cole slaw with shrimp, pork and jellyfish in a light nuoc nam-based dressing. Two other standard appetizers were also good -- salad rolls that were plump, moist and fresh, and skinny spring rolls that were crunchy and tasty. Both are relatively pricey at four for $8 and six for $8 respectively, but both are available in half orders at $4.50 each.
There's the usual endless list of phos but I can never pass up two other favourites. Hu tieu rice noodle soup, for one -- a rich pork broth teeming with shrimp, squid, crab (imitation, alas), pork and tiny pork balls.
Although the menu doesn't say so it comes topped with a miraculous puff of crunchy crepe that is pierced by a single grilled shrimp -- the best of its kind I have found. The other is labelled sweet and sour, a chicken broth that is tangy-sweet with tamarind sauce and pineapple juice, and thick with celery, chunks of tomato and pineapple, bean sprouts and slices of bac ha, i.e. taro stem, with a fascinating texture that is simultaneously spongy and crisp. We had ours with shrimp, but chicken, fish or tofu are alternatives.
One must among the entrées is the fried chicken. But there are two kinds, so make a note of the number, G118, Ca Roti, legs that have been flattened, marinated and deep-fried -- batterless, crumbless, sauceless and totally addictive. Grilled super-thin, scarlet slices of pork chop with a hint of smoke in the flavour are also delicious. We had ours with broken rice -- the rice that's left over from the gleaning, with an interesting, almost crunchy texture in each broken grain. Barbecued shrimp are also worth trying -- perched on squares of fine rice noodles, with sprigs of mint, slices of pickled carrots, to be bundled in lettuce and then in near-translucent rice flour crepes.
Unlike the wonderful chicken lettuce wrap, another house specialty was a letdown. Dang's Deluxe Vermicelli (V62) wasn't bad, just boring -- basically just a thick bed of plain rice vermicelli topped by an assortment of grilled meats and shrimp, and spring rolls. Most of the toppings were good (notably the pork patties), but if I were to do it again I'd order them separately.
Another dish that comes with a caveat is the shrimp with lemongrass, which is stir-fried with red and green peppers and sliced onions. Not that there was anything wrong with it; in fact it was delicious, but I made the mistake of not qualifying how spicy I wanted it, and this one was blazing with chili -- spicy dishes are denoted by a tiny red pepper on the menu, and note that those red peppers can mean really, really hot. Crispy Ginger Beef -- little strips of delicious (if occasionally chewy) meat -- didn't have a red pepper symbol but, although nowhere near as incendiary as those dishes that do, did deliver a tantalizing tingle.
T.H. Dang occupies a tiny free-standing building with its own parking lot. The interior is spare but cheerful, with lots of windows, walls painted a cool lime green and black tables and chairs.
There are a few decent wines by the glass, and a larger than usual selection of beers. The service is charming and friendly, and there's no problem at all with communication.
To see the location of this restaurant as well as others reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press, please see the map below.