We've all played the game. Some of us couch it in terms of the desert island: What food would you want with you while stranded, Castaway-style? Others take it in a grimmer direction with the Death Row Meal. Craft your final repast.
I just recently had to amend mine. The new addition is not foie gras, nor lobster or prime steak. It's Thinh An's house-made lemongrass tofu, although the che dau hu, or soybean custard with ginger honey syrup, is a close second.
You're thinking, how good can tofu be? It's just a white cube of texture. Which is why you need to get educated at Thomas and Emily Mang's enormously ambitious new Vietnamese restaurant way out on W Waters Avenue.
This is part attractive sit-down restaurant, part grab-and-go of traditional Vietnamese ingredients (sua dau nanh, a fresh soy milk; cha bo and cha lua, the Vietnamese patelike sausages you find in banh mi sandwiches) and part order-at-the-counter boba teas, milk slushes and novelty drinks that the average 14-year-old girl would swoon over while playing Pokémon Go. You know, those drinks with the wide straws and neon crystal pearl jellies and popping boba lurking at the bottom.
There are a number of things that set Thinh An Kitchen & Tofu apart from its competitors. The sheer scope of it is impressive — peek in the kitchen and several dozen people are bustling among industrial-sized gleaming stainless steel stock pots and chopping mountains of cilantro and basil. And the refrigerators and steam trays are full of banh bau (pork buns with tiny quail eggs at their center), French-Vietnamese sausage-filled pastries called banh pate so, hotel racks of still-hot French baguettes and seven different kinds of tofu. Tofu they make themselves every day.
There are some quirks to work through. Most of the food in the steam trays that take up half of the restaurant is not on the menu. You have to go and serve yourself in to-go containers, even if you want to sit down and eat it on site. I'm hoping that an additional sheet listing those items might accompany the enormous printed menu so you can order things like the tofu or the banh gio (steamed minced pork rice dumpling wrapped in a banana leaf) and have them delivered to your table.
The food at Thinh An is almost disorientingly inexpensive. You want to try everything — you're battling culture a little bit, though, because so many things like pho or vermicelli bowls are really hold-your-own dishes and cumbersome to share. I still suggest it. The pho broth, the traditional beef version and even the veggie broth are stunningly good, diligence and good ingredients doing the work that MSG so often does in other restaurants.
There are 105 items on the printed food menu and 111 on the beverage and dessert menu. Now add about 50 items on the grab-and-go market side. How to decide is going to be a problem. The musts include fried tofu (green onion/chile, mushroom and the subtle-but-detectable lemongrass), the fresh summer rolls with peanut sauce (shrimp, tofu, pork, chicken and other options), the Thinh An special vermicelli bowl (a kitchen-sink approach, the noodles are topped with grilled pork, ground pork, grilled shrimp and crisp egg rolls, plus a side plate of herbs and a tiny bowl of nuoc cham) and definitely a soup.
No matter what, dessert is imperative. We went both ways. Ridiculous excess: Belgian waffles topped with ice cream, whipped cream and a Christmas-tree-worth of neon-colored mochi, boba and beans. And then there was the subtle sophistication of the aforementioned warm che dau hu. Imagine a creme brulee without the dairy fattiness or overt sweetness. It has the same velvety plushness, but is clean and wholesome seeming, a little pool of thin, faintly sweet, subtly gingery syrup putting it in the category of dessert. As a street food in Saigon it is often topped with coconut milk or condensed milk. That seems too heavy. Thinh An's version has a restraint that makes it memorable.
The Mangs, gracious hosts, have enlisted dozens of other family members since the restaurant's opening. (Thomas is a chiropractor by day, his siblings all doctors, lawyers and such.) Although it's stylish and the staff is welcoming, there's a hustle and buzz to the place that makes it less suitable for a desultory meal. On an average weekend day they are serving upwards of 500 people, split fairly evenly between those dining in and those zipping by to pick up dishes and ingredients to take home. Either way, I'm telling you, it would be a snafu to eschew the tofu.
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter. She dines anonymously and unannounced; the Times pays all expenses.