Fit for a Cave Man: Indochine’s Vietnamese delicacies satisfy the Neanderthal in us all 

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The food here taste [sic] so great, even a cave man likes it.” That was the message stuffed inside the fortune cookie that came with my bill at lunch the other day. Subliminal advertising? Wishful thinking? Self-aggrandizement? I’m not sure. But it seems like someone’s setting his or her sights a little low. So great that even a cave man likes it?

The restaurant in question is Indochine Vietnamese Bistro, a restaurant that has been open since early August in the space near the University of Utah and which, for many years, housed Geppetto’s. The layout is essentially the same: There’s the alluring patio out front, well-spaced tables and booths inside and a small dining room in the rear. But Indochine also sports classy looking red lacquered chairs, simple but attractive tableware and grainy Blow Up-style black-and-white photos of Vietnamese street scenes that function as interesting wall frescoes. It’s a very attractive spot, this Indochine.

That is, if you’re not sitting in that rear dining room. That’s where I landed when I met a friend for lunch recently. The front dining room was full, so I was sent to the cheap seats—which would have been fine but for a crazy-making constant beeping from a smoke alarm, security system or something, which annoyed us thoroughly throughout lunch. When we asked our server if he could turn it off he said, “Believe me, I’d like to shoot it.” So, try to avoid that aft dining room. You’ll thank me for this advice.

On the other hand, the rest of Indochine is an absolute delight. There’s a happy vibe that permeates the eatery: Satisfied customers bathing in “look what we found” contentment. It’s that kind of place. Friends of mine—some of whom are in the restaurant biz themselves—just can’t say enough nice things about Indochine.

It’s owned by Diem (who runs the front of the restaurant) and her husband Tuan (who oversees the kitchen). Oh, if only Indochine served carp so I could treat you to a pun about “carp Diem!” You won’t meet nicer people. But, more on that later (see Food Matters). For now, you wanna know about the food.

I’ve mostly found it extremely satisfying and economical. During the first big snowstorm of the year a couple Saturdays ago, I found myself aching for a comforting bowl of hot soup after a white-knuckle drive down an unplowed Millcreek Canyon. And I remembered that Indochine opens for lunch.

Well, I couldn’t have been happier after my snowy slog than to sit down with Indochine’s steaming version of pho. “This is important,” I’d said to my server. “Cilantro makes me wince. Please ask the chef to leave the cilantro out of my soup.” Hey, it actually happened! After years of usually getting extra cilantro when I ask to opt out, my server and cook finally got it right.

Tuan’s family operates popular noodle shops in Vietnam, and his Ha Noi beef noodle soup ($7.99) was marvelous, albeit a tad smaller portion than you get in most noodle shops. Ultra-thin slices of beef are added to Tuan’s superior beef stock, redolent of ginger and teaming with rice noodles, then topped with scallions and—if you must—fresh cilantro, with Thai basil and bean sprouts on the side.

Speaking of soup, my stepson’s lips have almost returned to normal after digging into chef Tuan’s incendiary Hue hot & spicy noodle soup ($8.99). A dish originally from Hue, the ancient imperial capital in central Vietnam, this red chili and beef-based soup is scrumptious but best left to professional heat-seekers and other masochists. Considerably mellower is an Indochine specialty of curried beef stew ($9.99), which comes with a crispy Avenues Bakery mini-baguette alongside. Fork-tender chunks of marinated and slow-cooked beef (about a pound, it seemed to me) are served along with tender carrot pieces and potatoes in a lovely, creamy, mild curry sauce made from coconut cream, white wine, onions and spices. Frankly, I don’t think I could’ve made this delicious dish at home for $10.

Equally enjoyable is Indochine’s catfish filet ($11.99), which is simmered in a clay pot until oh-so-tender and delivered hot (really hot) and steaming to table in the same pot it was cooked in. Although scrumptious, it’s a little funky smelling when it comes to the table. Diem counsels eating the catfish along with one of Indochine’s savory homemade broths: dill and tomato, tamarind or hot and sour with lime leaf.

The fried calamari ($7.99) appetizer served with an outrageously yummy home-style Sriracha sauce (sort of a Vietnamese fry sauce) was loved by everyone, so tender and tasty were the lightly battered and deep-fried squid rings and tentacles. And another thumbs-up for Indochine’s barbecued short ribs ($9.99), served with smoky-tasting “broken” rice and a garlic-lime dipping sauce.

Not that there aren’t Indochine miscues. Before I could get the words out of my mouth to comment, Tuan apologized for the poulet roti ($10.99) I’d ordered at lunch one day. It’s half a roasted game hen served on a plentiful bed of tomato rice and buttered peas. Too bad the dried-out bird seemed to have been left roasting in the oven for far too long. And I’d pass also on the coconut curried mussels ($7.99) appetizer again. The skimpy handful of mussels was served in a lovely lemongrass, lime leaf and coconut-cream curry, but about half of the mussel morsels seemed to have escaped while steaming in the kitchen, thus leaving us with too many empty mussel shells to shell out $8 again for that dish.

Despite a few hiccups, Indochine seems to get better daily. And under the watchful eyes of Diem and Tuan, I’d expect nothing less. By springtime there’ll be hour-long lines out front.

INDOCHINE VIETNAMESE BISTRO 230 S. 1300 East, 582-0896. Lunch & Dinner: Monday-Saturday, Dinner from 4:00 on Sundays

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More by Ted Scheffler

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